Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of those movies where you need to begin by saying which version you have seen. Briefly, the original (which I saw in a theater in 1973) was butchered by MGM (Peckinpah's movies were often cut by the studios, of course). Peckinpah had put together a preview version, which he showed at least once (Scorsese claims to have seen it). The studio cut it from 124 to 106 minutes. There is a story that at the preview showing, friends of Peckinpah stole the reels and gave them to Sam. In 1988, Ted Turner took over the MGM library and had the film done to match the preview version. This wasn't a perfect product ... the preview version had some technical problems that needed fixing, if nothing else. That version, called the "Turner Preview Version", ran 122 minutes. Peckinpah had died by 1984, so he had nothing to do with this or other versions, although everyone who worked on those versions claimed to be restoring Sam's vision. (It can be argued that there is no complete "Sam's Version", since the last time he worked on it, he only produced the first cut he showed at the preview.) Finally, in 2005, a "Special Edition" was released on DVD that used the Preview Version as a starting point, improved the technical problems, added a long-lost scene and cut or changed a few others. This version runs 115 minutes, and it's the one I watched yesterday.
So, I saw the original butcher job once, 44 years ago, never saw the Preview Version, and now I've seen the Special Edition but for the most part, my memories aren't going to let me truly compare the two versions I've seen.
Blah blah blah ... is the movie any good? I'd say it's a must for Peckinpah fans. Am I one of those people? Hard to say. I hated Straw Dogs, thought most of the other Peckinpah movies I've seen were worth watching, and named The Wild Bunch my 8th favorite movie of all time a few years ago. Given that, I can't help but see Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in the context of The Wild Bunch, partly because I can't see any Western since 1969 without thinking of The Wild Bunch. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid deserves to be considered on its own merits (or lack of same), but for me, it is as much a commentary on The Wild Bunch as that earlier film was a commentary on the Western genre.
The Wild Bunch was a nostalgic look at a time that was passing rapidly into the past. The Bunch were romanticized as the last of their kind, and the infamous violence, culminating in that amazing ending, was orgasmic in how it said goodbye to Westerns. But there is precious little romanticizing going on in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and pretty much nothing I'd call orgasmic.
Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is tired, but he doesn't even get the camaraderie The Bunch share. He's all alone ... Billy was his friend but now he's a target, and one scene (left out of the original) where Pat stops by his house and gets told off by his wife shows that Garrett's life has alienated even the woman who loves him. Essentially, he has no home to return to, and no purpose other than to capture Billy the Kid for the landowning bigshots who hire him.
Billy has a lot of charisma, at least as Kris Kristofferson plays him (and this is one of his better performances), but an early scene shows how much that charisma actually means. He pulls a gun on an old friend who is trying to keep The Kid in jail, saying he doesn't want to kill the guy. The guy says Billy wouldn't shoot a man in the back and turns to walk away. Billy shoots him dead. (There's a "funny" scene where The Kid and Jack Elam walk ten paces and then try to kill each other. But once Elam starts walking, Billy turns around so he can see, and when Elam gets to "8" and turns around to get the jump on The Kid, Billy shoots him dead. "I never could count" says Elam.) There is no attempt to make Billy the Kid out to be better than he is ... he's not a good-bad guy like The Wild Bunch, he's just a killer.
But Pat Garrett isn't any better, he's just older and more tired. And so, for two hours, Pat Garrett searches for Billy the Kid, with Billy not seeming all that interested in escaping, and Garrett not seeming all that interested in capturing his former friend. It's a languid film, without even dazzling shootouts to break the calm. (There are shootouts, but there's not much to them, as if Peckinpah got it out of his system in his earlier Western.)
Peckinpah pays homage to the Western by hiring a tremendous supporting cast, some of whom only have one scene. (A couple of them have no scenes, apparently ending up on the cutting room floor through three separate versions ... it would have been fun to see Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor.) So there's Chill Wills, and Jason Robards as the guy who wrote Ben-Hur, and Jack Elam and Emilio "Mapache" Fernandez and Harry Dean Stanton, even Peckinpah himself as a guy who makes coffins. And lots of people less tied to the Western: Richard Jaeckel, Richard "Al Neri" Bright, Charles Martin Smith. And, to keep Kristofferson company, Rita Coolidge and Bob Dylan as "Alias" (Dylan, of course, also did the soundtrack). Best of all are Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado as old friends of Garrett's who have only one scene but make the most of it ... it's the best scene in the movie:
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is long and slow and erratic, and who knows at this point what Sam intended. But it works as an elegy. #537 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.