A touchstone, I’ve just learned after using the word for many years without ever managing to investigate its derivation, is a piece of dark siliceous rock that one can use to check the quality of gold or silver. Rub the precious metal on your touchstone and see what kind of mark it leaves; if you know your stuff, you'll be able to tell from the mark the quality of the metal.
I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about the way in which many of us have works of art that function as touchstones in our lives. We do not simply revisit them again and again, returning to immerse ourselves in the pleasure they offer or to find new meanings and inspirations. We also, I think, use them as angles of comparison, Archimedean points in a turbulent universe.
Like the rock that tests the worth of precious metals, we use these works of art – movies, songs, paintings, novels, poems and the rest – to help us measure our ideas of beauty, empathy, pain, right and wrong, what it all means and why it’s so difficult and so wonderful.
A lofty notion indeed. And one that’s easier to understand in emotional terms – the song to which we return to feel a certain way, the novel that sends us to a beloved place – than in terms of shaping our worldview. But shape our worldviews these things do. And not just on the personal level. One of the most important functions of art is that it can serve as a societal touchstone as well, something with which a culture tries to measure the worth of its beliefs and actions.
To the end of exploring this, I thought I’d put down some ideas about a film that has long functioned in this way for me (and one to which I’ll probably return in this journal before too long). It’s also a film, I think, that reveals an extraordinary amount about American society itself: Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The plot of the movie is as follows. The titular characters (Garrett is played by James Coburn and Billy by Kris Kristofferson) were once outlaw partners and are still friends. Garrett is somewhat older, and we get the idea that Billy looks up to him in some way. The problem is that Garrett has thrown in with the large landowners who dominate the New Mexico Territory and agreed to become the sheriff of Lincoln County, contingent on his ability to rid the territory of its outlaws.
In so many words, what this means is that he's been hired either to kill his old friend Billy or drive him to Mexico. In the opening encounter between the two in the film, Garrett explains that all of this will commence in three days, when he's due to take office. Billy tells him not to push his luck.
Under a great deal of political pressure, Garrett begins his quest. He arrests Billy but gives him a way to escape, hoping he'll take off to Mexico. But there's something in Billy that won't do this. He stays in the area, continues to maraud. Their friendship is caught between their mutual refusal to surrender: Garrett can't let Billy continue his ways, and Billy can't let Garrett (or anyone) tell him what to do. Eventually, at the end of the film, Garrett kills Billy by ambushing him. He does not chance a fair fight. We're also shown (as I'll explain in a moment) that this killing leads, many years later, to Garrett's own death at the hands of the big landowners.
In the words of Gordon Carroll, one of the film's producers, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie about "a man who doesn't want to run…being pursued by a man who doesn't want to catch him." This is a pithy summary, and a clever one, but it's only half right; it's also a movie about why these men don't want to do these things, and about the ways history and society have pinned them in this tragic position.
Such is Peckinpah's skill as a filmmaker that nearly the entirety of film is present in its first sequence. (I should note that there are, in fact, several different versions of the film. It was released in 1973 in a truncated edition that Peckinpah disowned; in 1988, Turner released Peckinpah's preview version; a third version, similar to the 1988 one, was released by Warner Brothers in 2005. The 1988 and 2005 versions are similar, and include the opening to which I'm referring here.) This sequence, which runs for approximately two and a half minutes, features a signature Peckinpah structural move: crosscutting between two separate narratives.
The first piece of narrative in the crosscutting – the first image we see in the movie – takes place in 1909. An aging Pat Garrett is riding in a buckboard alongside two other men. We find out from dialogue that Garrett killed Billy thirty years before, and that Garrett himself is about to be assassinated at the request of the same landowners who hired him to clean up the county all those years ago. At this point, one of the assassins crawls out from behind a cactus and raises his rifle;– and we cut to the second piece of narrative.
This shows Billy the Kid and his gang at Fort Sumner in 1881. They're amusing themselves by shooting the heads off of roosting chickens. Billy raises his pistol and takes aim at a chicken; we cut back to the shot of the assassin about to fire at Garrett in 1909.
Garrett sees the assassin and reaches for his gun; we cut back to Billy, who fires at the chicken; we cut back and see the assassin's first bullet striking Garrett's chest. We see the assassin fire his gun again; we cut back to 1881 and see a chicken decapitated by a bullet. This rhythm repeats for several more shots. Garrett takes more bullets and falls off the buckboard; chicken after chicken is blown to pieces by a laughing Billy and his gang.
Then a new element is introduced. Pat Garrett, in 1881, rides up on his horse behind the men shooting the chickens. He takes out his rifle and we see, from Garrett's point of view, the back of Billy's head. Garrett raises the rifle and fires, not at Billy, but at the chickens; the rest of the gang ducks but and Billy turns around, hand to his pistol. He recognizes Garrett and laughs. Garrett continues to fire, killing chickens, and we cut back to Garrett's body, thirty years later, collapsing to the ground after one final attempt to rise. Then we cut back to 1881, Garrett and Billy greet each other, and we're into the film.
Extraordinarily, this sequence condenses the entire narrative of the movie into a brief, mostly dialogue-free block. We see Billy and his gang enjoying their freedom, and we see that Garrett will kill Billy (indicated by the POV shot in which Garrett looks at the back of Billy's head and raises his gun), ending that freedom. In doing so, however, it will not just be Billy's life that Garrett snuffs out. He will also precipitate his own death, both literal and spiritual, which is here indicated by the crosscutting between Billy and Garrett shooting chickens and Garret being shot out of the seat of the buckboard. Billy and Garrett in 1881, that is, are both shooting at Garrett in 1909. So in chasing and killing his old friend, Pat Garrett is chasing and killing himself.
Importantly, the scene reveals that both men are locked into this course from the very first: by showing us the ending of the story at the very beginning, the film insists that there is no escaping it. This sense of predestination is furthered by the geographical circularity that the scene establishes. The town of Fort Sumner, the location of the 1881 sequence, is also the place where at the end of the film, after a long circuitous chase through the New Mexico Territory, Garrett will shoot Billy. Here the story begins, and here it will end.
It's clear that an extremely dense series of meanings has been created in this sequence, which the rest of the film will work through. Like many Westerns, it explores the connections between wilderness and civilization, freedom and modernity (Billy's freedom versus the big landowners' attempt to rule the state) and presents itself as engaging with some version of the "American Story." But what makes it particularly intriguing is that the failures it's interested in are not limited to the interactions between man and society, or between different societies. Unlike other re-tellings of the Billy the Kid tale, this is not primarily the story of an outlaw who needs to be brought to heel, or the story of a clash between big landowners and small freeholders.
Instead, the heart of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid lies in the way it articulates something more subtle: the alienation brought about by the accelerating failure of our rituals and symbols to keep pace with our world. There is a deep sense of unmooring in the film, a feeling that these men have no way to grapple with the modernity that is upon them. The things they do and the things they believe, the way they have been taught to live – all of this is failing, toppling down around them.
To work out this idea fully would take much more space than I have here, but I'll note briefly that the topic Peckinpah uses to try to explore these things – as he did in so many of his films – is violence. In Western movies, nearly all of the thematic elements I listed above are tied to, or resolved by, violence. Death and destruction are always present, either as a threat against innocence ("Protect the women and children!") or as the mode through which values are established and bad guys defeated. Beyond this, violence is intimately tied to the masculine nature of so many of these films. More often than not, the capacity to inflict violence is the signet of manhood, potency, and character, as well as the thing that pushes forward the resolution of the plot, determining the victory of good over evil.
In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, all of this is challenged. The rituals of violence are questioned. The meanings traditionally assigned to it in American society are pulled into doubt, their meanings hollowed out. In other words, the film takes a world – that of the Western movie, and the Western myth – rulebound by violence, and tries to understand what happens when the codes of that world disintegrate.
Like so much in the film, this meditation begins in the opening minutes. As I've noted, the initial crosscutting sequence contains an obvious plot foreshadowing: we're told through both dialogue and image that Garrett is going to kill Billy. (It's worth pointing out that the audience may also carry the historical knowledge of this event into the movie with them, which intensifies the foreshadowing and strengthens the cultural ties: the historical Pat Garrett killed the historical Billy the Kid in a darkened room in Fort Sumner, and the Kid's last words were reputedly "Quien es?" Peckinpah is faithful to this in the closing moments of the film.) In one way, this foreshadowing "ruins" the plot. But in another, it brings to our awareness an important fact: at stake here is not what is going to happen, but the way in which we're going to arrive at what happens.
After the men greet each other at the end of the crosscutting sequence, Garrett buys Billy a drink. He explains that he's going to become the sheriff and tells Billy to go to Mexico. That is to say, Garrett warns Billy. He reveals for him the future (I will kill you) and shows him a way out. It's a gesture of friendship, and also of fair play. Garrett does not simply shoot Billy in the back of the head; there is a certain code that prohibits this. That is to say, the act of killing is not simply untethered here at the start: it's bounded by rules, ritualized. We are familiar with this from other Westerns: honorable men do not shoot one another in the back, they give the other man a fair chance in the gunfight ("Draw!"), and they don't harm women and children.
Garrett, in this moment, is adhering to that code. But he's also trying to keep up with the changing world around him, in the form of the big landowners who are buying up acreage and imposing their will on the territory. For Garrett, this means breaking from what he believes in, throwing away the old rules that have shaped him until now. The film shows him going through this change, from the honorable man who will give his friend a warning to the dishonorable one who will kill his friend in cold blood.
The irony, of course, is that this attempt to keep pace with history is bound to fail. Because in this new world there are no rules, nothing but power. Garrett sells his soul (gives up his codes) to participate in this power, and it betrays him in the end. He is killed by the very people he works for exactly because of the fact that power – and here is the signal fact of the modernity that we and Garrett occupy – knows no rules at all.
If Garrett gives in bitterly and reluctantly, Billy is doomed by his inability to adapt to the changing world. He cannot give up the freedom to commit violence, to live by it and profit from it. It has shaped him too deeply. He's a less "honorable" man than Garrett, and the film shows us that he's willing to kill in ignoble ways, if need be. But he does so to protect his own freedom. He has no other way of doing that, can conceive of no other world than one in which he can ride where he wants and do what he wants. Violence has shaped him. It’s his avocation as well as his method of maintaining his position. The forms and rituals of that violence are the forms and rituals of his life; while Garrett tries to turn these to his own end, Billy finds them impossible to escape. In the end, they provide neither man a way to continue forward in the modern world.
All of which is to say that both men are trapped. They are forced to do what they do not want to do and the reason for this is tied to, and symbolized by, the guns they carry, the violence they commit.
It's not so hard, I think, to see how this translates to our world – specifically the male world – outside of the film. The Western (among other genres) had by 1973 long inured viewers to the notion of righteous violence. Good guys killed bad guys, and justice was done. And there's a long tradition in America of the idolization of (particularly male) competition that has a certain violence at its core. One thinks of things like football and hockey, of course, but also of the way that men have long been encouraged in our society to be stoic doers-of-what's-necessary, or of the long-lived and rather cultish notion that we need to raise our boys to be "warriors." Beyond this, one thinks of the take-no-prisoners vision of economic life that has such a hold on so many elements of our society, in which success depends on all-out war on the competition.
These are the rituals by which many Americans, men in particular, have been shaped. And what happens, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid seems to want to ask, when we discover that these rituals are not up to the task of the world? What happens when our formation by these things comes to define us? When the structures around which we have organized our lives are revealed to be a cage from which we cannot escape?
I opened by speaking of touchstones. What's hopefully clear now is the way in which this film in 1973, in the context of the Vietnam War and the violence – assassinations, lynchings, riots, protests – consuming the country, could serve as a touchstone on which our society could measure itself. The questions at the end of the previous paragraph are the questions a society in turmoil should be asking itself, and they are most certainly the questions that Sam Peckinpah wanted to force on his audience.
But the reach of the film extends, I think, past men and violence. Their particulars of the men in this movie are far different than ours, but I think they stand in for us in important ways. All of us – men or not, violent or not – are shaped by rituals and beliefs, codes of action. And we all live in a world changing with incredible rapidity. Like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, our habits of being in the world and the shorthand we use to understand things increasingly cannot keep up with these ever-accelerating changes. We’re all stranded, helpless before what’s coming, and before what already is.
Enjoy this piece? Subscribe for free to receive a new essay on film in your inbox every Friday. And for you Dylan fans, here’s one of his most beautiful seldomly-heard melodies from the movie (he wrote and performed the soundtrack, and has a substantial role as a character named "Alias"):