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Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events (Read 19774 times)
david lambert
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Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events
11/12/14 at 12:27pm
 
Right off the bat let me say that Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid might be my favorite Western of all time, so none of what follows is a critique of the film. I'd simply like to point out where the film stayed true to the historical record and where it diverged from history for dramatic reasons.

Potentially surprising things the movie gets right:

The friendship between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett: While some historians go out of their way to debunk the idea that Garrett and the Kid were friends, Paulita Maxwell (likely one of the Kid's many lovers) said otherwise:

"Pat Garrett was as close a friend as [Billy] had in Fort Sumner and was on friendly terms with every member of [Billy's] gang. When we saw Pat and Billy together we used to call them 'the long and short of it.'...He ate and drank and played cards with [Billy], went to dances with him and gallivanted around with the same Mexican girls. I have seen them both on their knees around a horse blanket stretched on the ground in the main street gambling their heads off against a monte game. If Pat went broke, he borrowed from Billy, and if Billy went broke, he borrowed from Pat...Oh, yes, Garrett and [Billy] were as thick as two peas in a pod."

Would Garrett have actually gone and warned the Kid that he was coming for him if he didn't leave the territory? Perhaps not (the origin for that scene comes from the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, which Peckinpah adapted into a screenplay that, after many changes, became One-Eyed Jacks) but the historians who say that Garrett and the Kid weren't friends seem to be taking Garrett's word for it (the fact that Garrett kept going out of his way to mention that he wasn't friends with the Kid suggests to me that those accusations were flying around at the time). We'll never know how close Garrett and the Kid were, but their relationship in the film definitely aligns with Maxwell's account.

The escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse/Jail: Billy's escape from the Lincoln County Jail in the film is almost exactly from the historical eyewitness accounts. The film presents the theory that someone hid a gun in the outhouse for Billy, and while we don't know that for sure, many historians still hold to it. The rest of the events aren't up for debate: the fact that Garrett left to collect taxes during the Kid's escape, the shooting of Bell on the stairway of the courthouse, and the shooting of Ollinger with his own shotgun in the street (before smashing it and throwing the pieces at Ollinger's body). Some of the more outlandish parts of this sequence are straight from the historical record. For example, Bob Ollinger's final words (when someone shouted, "The Kid's killed Bell!" Bob Ollinger did reply, "He's killed me too."), the Kid's slow, unmolested escape after killing two deputies (the Kid did sing for a crowd of onlookers as he slowly gathered guns and cartridges and no one made any attempt to stop him), and the Kid did take a man's horse after the one he was given bucked him off (and in fact, the Kid sent the "stolen" horse back and it returned to Lincoln and its owner a few days later...which was too unbelievable for the movie even though it's true!). I'll touch upon a few of the minor things that are historically inaccurate about this scene later.

The chicken shooting: The controversial chicken shooting scene isn't just pointless animal cruelty on Peckinpah's part, it comes straight from Garrett's account wherein the Kid shoots a bunch of chickens while talking about wiping out his enemies.

A gang member named Alias: In Garrett's book, Billy is said to have rode into Lincoln with a guy calling himself Alias. There's not much more said about the character, but the wacky name is not an invention by Peckinpah or Rudy Wurlitzer.

One of Billy's friends did get killed while Billy chased wild turkeys: In the film, while the Kid and Alias ride off to chase wild turkeys their Mexican friend Silva is killed by some of Chisum's cowboys. His body is then propped up onto his dead horse's rear to make it look like he's having sex with it. While this particular scene never really happened, it does mirror a real incident in the Kid's life. Three years before the events of the film, John Tunstall, a friend of the Kid's, was shot to death by Dolan/Murphy gunmen while the Kid and a friend chased wild turkeys. John Tunstall's skull was then crushed by a rock and his body was placed next to his horse (which they also killed) in order to make it look like they were two lovers lying next to each other in bed. This event kicked off the Lincoln County War and sealed the Kid's fate as an outlaw as he swore to kill everyone involved in Tunstall's slaying. The Silva scene is clearly a nod to this event.

Garrett's shooting of the Kid: The scenes involving Garrett's shooting of the Kid come straight from Garrett's account. It's very likely that the Kid was making love to one of his senoritas right before he died (possibly Paulita Maxwell). Garrett did come with Deputies John Poe and Kip McKinney to Pete Maxwell's house in Fort Sumner and while Poe and McKinney were outside, Garrett did hide in the darkness of Pete's bedroom. The Kid entered with a knife (and possibly a pistol) and sensing someone there he asked "Quien es?" before Garrett shot him in the chest. Garrett fired a second shot that hit the mantle (not a mirror).

Now the inaccuracies:

Character Ages: The biggest complaint lobbed at Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is the fact that Kris Kristofferson was about 15 years too old to be playing the Kid. I don't think that's a particularly fair complaint for a number of reasons. First off, while it's widely accepted that the Kid was 21 when Pat Garrett shot him, there's no hard evidence for that. Some say the Kid was closer to 18, and according to the Kid's own word (given to a census taker) he would have been 26 when he died. Beyond that, there are big storytelling reasons for moving the Kid's age up in years. In the film, it's necessary to show the Kid as something of a burnout. This aligns with The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (a huge influence on the film) wherein the Kid is a tired 26 yr old gunfighter who knows his time is up and waits around for the Pat Garrett surrogate to come kill him. It also underscores why Garrett "sells out" because he doesn't want to wind up an aimless old man sitting around, drinking and shooting the heads off chickens. None of this would be palpable if the Kid was portrayed as a 21 yr old.

Likewise, Garrett is portrayed older in the film than he was during the events in real life. The real Garrett was only 31 when he killed the Kid. His age was moved up not only to align with the Kid's but to show that he's getting too old for the life the Kid leads. A 31 yr old in the part wouldn't get that across.

Some of the minor characters are portrayed older than they were when the events of the film transpired. Tom O'Folliard was 22 when he died. In the film he was played by then 36 yr old screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. For some reason Wurlitzer didn't portray Charlie Bowdre, who was 32 when he died. Instead Bowdre was portrayed by 20 yr old Charles Martin Smith (It seems to me that the roles should have been switched, but it's a minor part of the film). Pete Maxwell was in his 30s when the Kid was killed in his house. The character in the film is portrayed as an elderly man in his 70s.

Garrett's Death: The first obvious inaccuracy in the film is the date of Pat Garrett's death. Garrett was killed in 1908 but the title card in the Preview Cut lists the year as 1909. Peckinpah was aware of the error, and he left a note to his editors to change the date for the finalized cut. Of course, Peckinpah was never able to do a finalized cut, and the theatrical version omitted this scene completely. While Garrett was killed over a quarrel about sheep on his land, he was not shot while going for a rifle, and Poe had nothing to do with his murder. Officially, Garrett was killed by Wayne Brazel (who was acquitted of the crime) who shot him in the back while he was urinating. The film makes these changes in order to underscore how the killing of the Kid was a symbolic act of Garrett actually killing himself. In the film there are references to Garrett buying land on a loan from Chisum, who was a primary force behind the ordering of the Kid's death. So it's thematically consistent (and quite brilliant, I think) that the land would result in his own death (it also nicely parallels the potter's field that Judas purchases with the 30 pieces of silver he sold out Jesus for).

The Shootout at Stinking Springs: In the film, the Kid, Charlie Bowdre and Tom O'Folliard are ambushed by Pat Garrett and his posse while hiding out in a small cabin. Bowdre is shot in the doorway while going to feed the horses and the Kid sends him out as a decoy while he tries to make an escape with O'Folliard. A few of Garrett's posse is killed and O'Folliard takes a bullet to the neck, killing him instantly. The Kid then surrenders while Garrett has to stop his deputy Bob Ollinger from killing the Kid outright.

In reality, O'Folliard had been killed 4 days earlier by Garrett and his posse during an ambush in Fort Sumner. At the cabin in Stinking Springs (which was snowy at this time), the Kid was hiding out with Charlie Bowdre, Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, Billy Wilson and Tom Pickett. Bowdre was shot by Garrett's posse in the doorway of the cabin as he walked to feed the horses (he was wearing the Kid's hat so Garrett thought he was shooting the Kid). The Kid then sent Bowdre out with a gun and told him to kill some of the posse before he died. Bowdre stumbled outside and collapsed in Garrett's arms (Garrett regretted the killing because Bowdre had secretly met with Garrett a few days before, expressing his desire to quit his life of crime). There was a standoff that lasted all day, with the Kid trying to pull his horse inside and Garrett shooting his horse so that the doorway would be blocked by its corpse. He then shot the reigns of the rest of the gang's horses, scattering them. The Kid and his men finally gave up when they smelled Garrett's posse cooking breakfast. Garrett had to restrain a posse member named Barney Mason from killing the Kid outright. Clearly this was all compressed to save time and maintain clarity (no point in introducing Rudabaugh, Wilson and Pickett to the story since they have no further impact on the Kid's life and having Ollinger take the place of trigger happy Mason makes for a good introduction to the character).

This is all by memory, so let me know if any of my information is incorrect. Also, feel free to add any historical details that I missed, or any insight as to why you think certain historical facts were changed to fit the narrative.
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Gashade
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Re: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events
Reply #1 - 11/12/14 at 6:21pm
 
Pretty interesting. Thanks!!
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« Last Edit: 11/12/14 at 6:21pm by Gashade »  
 
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david lambert
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Re: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events
Reply #2 - 11/12/14 at 7:51pm
 
You're welcome. Thanks for reading! I think it's interesting to see how Wurlitzer and Peckinpah molded the facts into a great tragedy. It's also important to see how some of the biggest criticisms about the film's accuracy are of very deliberate choices that make the film work dramatically. Everyone criticizes Kristofferson for being too old, but Peckinpah was more than aware of that...that's the crux of the whole film! (no one ever seems to criticize Coburn for being too old, but that's probably just because Pat Garrett never had "The Kid" as a moniker).

What's funny is that Wurlitzer's original script is actually pretty accurate to the historical record. He adds some of his own characters in, but less so than the finished film. His biggest error is claiming Dirty Dave Rudabaugh had been killed during the events of the film. I always found that strange because Dave lived a few more years (he got his head cut off in Mexico...there are a couple pictures of Mexicans holding it and propping it on a large pole).
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Novecento
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Re: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events
Reply #3 - 11/13/14 at 11:38am
 
Yes thanks a lot. A very interesting read.

Where did you get the info that Peckinpah left an editing memo to correct the date of Garrett's death?
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david lambert
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Re: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events
Reply #4 - 11/14/14 at 5:49pm
 
Novecento, this information came from Paul Seydor. I don't recall if it was in his defense of his 2005 cut of Pat Garrett, or on one of the film's two commentary tracks, though (I think the former). I do know he mentioned it somewhere because I always wondered why such an obvious blunder slipped by until I heard about the memo. Apparently the memo also said that the opening credit font and color should be changed.


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david lambert
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Re: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: The Film vs. The Historical Events
Reply #5 - 11/14/14 at 6:10pm
 
OK, I looked it up and Peckinpah didn't leave a memo to change the date, but has the date of Garrett's death correct in the historical note that preceded the end credit crawls he did for one of his many cuts of the film (which didn't make it into the Turner or theatrical cuts). He does mention that he was unsure of the font and color of the opening titles so the assumption here is that the opening titles in the rough cut were placeholders. The date of Garrett's death is not specified in the shooting script.
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