A Book Review by Tony Williams.
It is very rare to encounter a critical work written by someone who combines the expertise of university professor, film historian, and film editor. Yet such is the position of Paul Seydor who is not only an Oscar nominated film editor with many credits to his name but also acclaimed author of one of the best critical studies on Sam Peckinpah – Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration (1997), a key text for those engaged in studying the challenging work of this very complex director. In that earlier work, Seydor revealed himself as knowledgeable in American literature and film analysis, fine-tuned by his other occupation as film editor. His latest work – whose title relates to Charles Neider’s 1956 novel, The Authentic Death of Hendy Jones, a fictional recreation of the last days of Billy the Kid – informs this project. It not only analyzes the different versions of Peckinpah’s 1973 film but also the very relevant context that informed it as well as revealing the different source material indispensable to understanding its creation.
As expected from Seydor, his book is an exemplary study meticulous in its examination of source material, aware of the many problems surrounding the film’s production as only a film editor could be, and alert to diverse contradictions affecting its creation. Peckinpah bears responsibility for its lack of completion but it is still a remarkable film, even though flawed. Seydor makes absolutely clear that no definitive version of the film exists, not even a “director’s cut,” since Peckinpah left the project before its final appearance. Instead, like Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958), we have several versions but not one informed by any detailed memo the director left concerning completion. Instead, we are left with a flawed masterpiece containing more clues and echoes of what a final Peckinpah version could have been.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote an article outlining seven possible versions of Mr. Arkadin. With Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, we have at least three – the theatrical release bereft of several important scenes due to cuts insisted on by the MGM bureaucracy but edited in such a manner by Peckinpah associates to contain key echoes of what the director aimed at; the so-called “Director’s Cut,” which is the Preview version run for executives in a form that still required further editing; and the 2005 Special Edition, based on suggestions made by Seydor himself, who was not allowed access to the material (268). This version combines the theatrical version edited by Roger Spottiswoode, Garth Craven, and Robert L. Wolfe with a better edited opening prologue and Fort Sumner scene, the restoration of the Ida Garrett sequence to complement the Ruthie Lee encounter with Garrett at Roberta’s hotel, the elimination of the scene between Poe and the two miners that Seydor plausibly argues is not Peckinpah at his best and something he would have eliminated, and a new credit sequence freezing as Garrett rides away from Fort Sumner into the distance rather than the awful still used at the end of the theatrical version and the epilogue in the preview version. As he states concerning his involvement on the 2005 version, Seydor did not recut or re-edit but used the finished fine cut of the theatrical version “as the platform” for the special edition (257). It is not his version, since “I most emphatically did not want to reedit a film I thought was already superbly edited by editors I held in the highest esteem” (256).
Unfortunately, the film did not benefit from Peckinpah’s involvement in the final stages of editing as was the case with The Wild Bunch. As a compliment to the audio commentaries of both versions included on the 2006 Warner Home Video DVD, Seydor’s arguments here, concerning the film itself as an “unfinished masterpiece,” are compelling and plausible. Much as we would like as many scenes preserved as possible, the Poe and miners sequence does not add much to the film and Peckinpah would possibly have eliminated it as he probably would have done to the crudely shot scene of the death of Paco (Emilio Fernandez) and the rape of his daughter leading Billy to make his decision to return to Fort Sumner. The elimination of the scene in the television version caused no problems for viewer comprehension as to why Billy returned. Yet the restoration of the Ida Garrett sequence, missing from both the theatrical and preview versions but available on the television edition to compensate for the eliminated sex and violence episodes, is crucial for any understanding of the film’s complexities.
The value of this book not only lies in returning one to a film that was never completed properly but also for crucial background information relevant to understanding its genesis. Seydor divides his book into three major parts. “Authentic Lives, Authentic Deaths” forms the first with chapters and documents Brando’s interest in a film version of Neider’s novel with Peckinpah’s involvement on the initial screenplay, historical narratives concerning Billy the Kid including Garrett’s own, Neider’s novel, Peckinpah’s masterly screenplay adaptation, the Rudolph Wurlitzer screenplay that Seydor now looks on more positively than before, and the changes Peckinpah made to that material to make it more cinematic. Part One is the longest in the book, but its length is necessary both in terms of the meticulous research Seydor supplies as well as his scrupulously documented footnotes listing an abundance of material and the discrepancies found in all versions. Part Two investigates the different versions of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid detailing the variations between the various previews of the film, its incorporation in a DVD set containing Peckinpah’s Westerns and the very nature of the 2005 Special Edition, all of which Seydor documents with impressive care and detail.
The final Part is the most compelling and fascinating: “Ten Ways of Looking at an Unfinished Masterpiece and its Director.” It contains excellent research and exemplary critical commentary, the latter seen in the following sentence that could only have been written by someone who both respects and understands the nature of Peckinpah’s style. “Unlike, for maximum contrast, the rather static painterly compositions of John Ford or David Lean, Peckinpah’s are labile, fluid, and fleeting, rarely held for very long, constantly morphing into new perspectives, rather like modulations through keys in a piece of music” (275).
This is a fascinating and detailed scholarly analysis of a much misunderstood film and an even more misunderstood director whose personal flaws were many but whose artistic mastery, free from internal and external constraints, is undeniable. Seydor’s book will long remain a standard reference on this film as well as an indispensable text for anyone interested in Peckinpah’s films. Yet some problems occur. One involves Seydor’s animus against Kubrick who fired Peckinpah when he temporarily took over directing One Eyed Jacks. However both directors depict violence in artistically different ways and it is doubtful if one has borrowed “shamelessly” (344.n.35) from the other. The same charge could be leveled at Peckinpah’s appropriation of the slow-motion scenes in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). Sources may be identical but transformations (unless one is Quentin Tarantino) are often entirely different in the hands of accomplished directors. Directors often demand new writers when assigned to a project, so Peckinpah’s removal should not be blamed on Kubrick in this area (357). These two talents were different, each having a particular type of vision. Seydor leaves us with evocative prose describing not just Peckinpah’s visual artistry involving a particular type of lyric expansiveness depending on “a fairly strict control of tempo in combination with a certain elasticity of line or rhythm” (269) that unites form and feeling, artistry and vision, but also images of “two deeply flawed protagonists, appealing in some ways, very much not so much in others, trapped in circumstances far from their own choosing, who make a series of decisions that eventually wind up destroying them both” (295). Such is the stylistic and thematic nature of a film that nearly becomes the masterpiece its director attempted in a trajectory Seydor admirably describes. This is a fine and indispensable work of scholarship deserving wide readership.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is currently reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott and enjoying the films of Wheeler and Woolsey.
One thought on “The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film, by Paul Seydor (2015)”
Thanks for bringing this book to our attention, Tony. I have always fantasized about a Brando-Peckinpah collaboration.