Brando, Peckinpah and Billy The Kid

An obsessive tale of two Westerns
by Gordon Campbell

One Eyed Jacks was the only film Marlon Brando ever directed, and by the time of its release in 1961, it had consumed nearly two and a half years of Brando’s life. Initially, One-Eyed Jacks was supposed to have been directed by Stanley Kubrick from a script by Sam Peckinpah – yet it quickly became Brando’s baby, with a couple of hired hands later brought on board to retool the script to satisfy the star’s changing needs. (Much of the jailhouse dialogue was tweaked by Brando himself.) In a restored version, One Eyed Jacks has been screening at this year’s New Zealand international film festival.

Peckinpah returned to the same subject matter in the early 1970s, in the film we know today as Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. For different reasons, Brando and Peckinpah both seem to have been fascinated by the last few days on earth of the outlaw William Bonney. Rio, the Billy figure that Brando plays in One Eyed Jacks, is a wronged person on a revenge mission, in a world where official authority is racist and rotten to the core. Not co-incidentally, power in this film is exclusively American, white, male, and patriarchal. It makes for an especially harsh world for the poor, Mexican and female characters, who are depicted as the film’s only genuine representatives of virtue.

Brando dealt with this theme again and again over the course of his career. He played the rebel against a corrupt social order as :
(a) the motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One (Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against? Whattaya got?)
(b) the honest dockworker in On The Waterfont
(c) the noble mutineer in Mutiny On The Bounty, and as
(d) the sheriff facing down a lynch mob in The Chase. Ironically, Brando’s personal favourite among his own films was the 1969 film Burn! in which he embodied imperialism, playing the agent of the colonial sugar barons who subverts a slave rebellion by selling out its black leaders. Similarly, the satanic Dad Longworth in One Eyed Jacks is an authority figure who has been corrupted by the absolute power he wields in his public life, and within his family. “You may be a one-eyed jack around here,” Rio says to Dad, “but I’ve seen the other side of your face…” The Oedipal struggle between Dad and Rio has led some biographers to seek parallels in Brando’s own life, given the star’s troubled relationship with his father, Marlon Snr.

By contrast….Billy the rebel may have been the early attraction for Peckinpah when he wrote his early film script about the story, yet by the early 1970s, Peckinpah was seeing more of himself in the cynically burned out figure of Garrett, Billy’s former friend and mentor. Historically, Garrett had hired himself out in 1881 to kill the 21 year old outlaw in order to make the territory safe for its new commercial interests, and to put himself in their good graces. It didn’t happen. The real Garrett failed to find any lasting peace or security after killing someone who was arguably the better part of himself. (In Peckinpah’s film, Garrett not so subtly shoots his own image in a mirror, in the process of killing Billy.)

On the film set in 1973, life came to mirror art in other ways as well. While making a film about the amoral compromises we think are necessary for the sake of survival, Peckinpah then locked himself into a destructive battle with MGM over the creative control of his work. Entire books have been written about the struggle waged over Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid between Peckinpah and the MGM studio boss, James Aubrey. Ultimately, the fallout sent the careers of both men into terminal decline.

Not surprisingly, the two Billy films share a lot else in common. Both One-Eyed Jacks and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were based on the same book – a 1956 novel called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones written by the eminent Mark Twain scholar Charles Neider, whose book was itself a vivid re-imagining of Pat Garrett’s own 19th century memoir, The Authentic Death of Billy The Kid. (Like all of Garrett’s post-Billy efforts, the memoir was a critical and commercial failure.) As mentioned, Peckinpah had written his script from Neider’s novel in 1957, and you can read it here.

Like Neider’s book, Peckinpah’s original script was told largely through the eyes of Doc, a laconic member of the Hendry Jones gang. Neider says explicitly in his novel that Hendry is not Billy and he sets the story in 1885, four years after the real Billy’s death. In every other respect, Hendry and Billy are virtually identical. Thus, in One-Eyed Jacks, Dad always helpfully refers to the young outlaw simply as “The Kid”. As in the Neider novel, One-Eyed Jacks shifts the story from New Mexico to the Mexican fishing villages and coastal towns of old California, and the unusual seaside setting does add a good deal of atmosphere to the proceedings.

One Eyed Jacks also features another classic example of Brando’s penchant for masochism. In On The Waterfront, his Terry Malloy character gets brutally beaten. In One Eyed Jacks, Brando’s Rio is tied to a hitching post and flogged with a bullwhip by Dad, who also uses his rifle butt to smash Rio’s gunhand into impotence. This is the same hand that Dad has sought repeatedly for a handshake, as a sign that his treachery will go unpunished. Trivia point: the flogging scene in One-Eyed Jacks was written for Brando by Guy Trosper, the same guy responsible for writing the scene where Elvis Presley was (gratuitously) flogged in Jailhouse Rock. (Not many people can say they had both Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando flogged.) Whenever a masochism scene occurred in a Brando film, a sympathetic female character would be on hand to clean him up. Here’s how Brando’s character looked after being beaten to a pulp in his 1966 film The Chase.

Though made ten years apart, the two Billy films share a fair amount of casting cross-fertilization. Slim Pickens, who played the villainous deputy Lon Dedrick in Brando’s film, was cast to play the heroic old sheriff in Pat Garrett – a man who goes down to the river for a sunset death scene, with Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ playing on the soundtrack. (The TV series Breaking Bad paid its own homage to this scene, by providing an elegiac riverbank farewell to the mortally wounded Mike Ehrmentraut.) Katy Jurado, who played Pickens’ wife in Pat Garrett, played Karl Malden’s respectable wife in One Eyed Jacks and – further trivia note – she’d also appeared in a 1959 episode of The Rifleman TV series, written by Peckinpah. Elisha Cook, a regular in Peckinpah’s roster of supporting actors, appeared in both films.

Any further One Eyed Jacks/Pat Garrett comparisons are hampered by the fact that no definitive version of Peckinpah’s film actually exists. At least three significantly different cuts exist of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Notable differences already existed between Peckinpah’s 1957 script and the film’s official script – written by Rudi Wurlitzer at a time when Wurlitzer thought his script would be directed by Monte Hellman. Both of these scripts differ from Neider’s novel, even before you get to the multiple versions of the final film.

To try and sort some of this out (in my own head at least) I wrote to Charles Neider in 1977, and bailed up Kris Kristofferson band member Donnie Fritts (who had been an extra in the Peckinpah film) for about four hours one night in Wellington, during a music tour by Kristofferson and his then-wife Rita Coolidge. Fritts and I succeeded only in adding a lot more detail to each other’s confusion as to which missing details should be considered essential, and which scraps of dialogue and bits of business came closest to old Sam’s real intentions. Neider never answered my questions, but he did send back a hardcover edition of his novel.

As mentioned, there are at least three versions out there of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. There is the Workprint Version that Peckinpah delivered to MGM. (This is much the same version he screened to friends in the late 1970s.) MGM cut the Workprint to shreds, and the resulting abomination is known as the Theatrical Version. Finally in 2005, a supposedly definitive version was released, as edited by Peckinpah historian Paul Seydor. We can call this the 2005 Authorised Version. Unfortunately, Seydor – who came under a fresh round of studio pressure over the restoration work – seems to have imposed his own fan boy impressions on the footage. Instead of restoring (and colour timing) the Workprint along lines closest to Peckinpah’s preferences, Seydor chose to create a third version – by cutting out (and censoring) some dialogue and footage where he thought Peckinpah had gone OTT, by altering the film titles, by inexplicably tightening up other scenes and by re-arranging the narrative in line with his own sense of the proper flow to proceedings.

Still, at least this 2005 Authorised Version does contain (most of) the deeply ironic prologue that Peckinpah had originally envisioned. The prologue signified that old Garrett was finally treated as an irritating anachronism and disposed of by the same corporate vultures who had treated Billy The Kid in exactly the same way. But…Peckinpah had actually bookended the story with Garrett’s death scene 30 years later, as both a prologue and as an epilogue – to re-inforce the sense that all the 1881 events were the flashback of a dying man, who had been both a betrayer and betrayed. Peckinpah fought MGM in vain to keep both these bookend sequences. As this website points out, Seydor chose to abbreviate the prologue, created some clunky juxtapositions of his own, omitted the epilogue entirely, and altered the typeface of the credits …thereby creating a different opening and ending for Garrett than the one Peckinpah had planned, and futilely fought for. Even in death, Peckinpah shares more in common with Garrett than he would have wished.

The 2005 Version does have some virtues, but obviously… it can’t be truly said to be Peckinpah’s film anymore. Yes, there is more coherence to the narrative but that’s a problem as much as it is a blessing. As originally conceived, this film was inherently episodic, and those meandering digressions were there for a purpose. For example, one of its most magical, mysterious sequences comes when two strangers – one on the riverbank, one on a raft midstream – face off wordlessly with rifles, and then lower them as the current bears them apart. MGM hated that sequence. Peckinpah had to fight to the death to retain it. Seydor included it, but shifted the point at which it appears in the film. All up, Seydor’s Hollywood competence may not really have been the best servant of Peckinpah’s vision.

Bless them, but in 2006 someone took on the herculean job of trying to coherently align all of this, by tabulating what’s included and what’s missing from each of the three major versions of the film. You can also track your way through the various responses to Paul Seydor’s 2005 Authorised cut, by following this link here.

Good luck.

Why has the Pat Garrett & Billy story retained such emotional resonance down the years, even for hardboiled types like Brando and Peckinpah? Personally, it strikes me as the 19th century American equivalent of a Greek tragedy: the stern father who kills his wayward son, and is cursed forever after etc. It has had resonance elsewhere, too. (Townes Van Zandt’s great song “Poncho and Lefty” is a variant of the Garrett/Billy saga of betrayal.) Even Brando had originally wanted a tragic ending for One-Eyed Jacks, and he had envisaged a finale in which everyone concerned – Dad, Dad’s pregnant stepdaughter Louisa who is by then bearing Rio’s child, and Rio himself – all end up dead. Reportedly, here’s how the ending to One-Eyed Jacks was supposed to go down:

…..”Rio and Louisa escape on horseback while the dying Dad gets off one last shot, hitting his stepdaughter in the back. Rio sees Louisa bleeding, and, broken, decides to stop running…. [S]he dies in his arms” As Karl Malden, who played Longworth, put it, “in the original ending all three of us are finished. When he takes her back into the town in his arms, the townspeople come out and presumably it’s the end for him, too.” This dark and tragic finale acknowledges Luisa’s crucial place in the Rio-Dad dynamic and the impossibility of realizing a future for Luisa and Rio based on the values they stand for.

Paramount studios felt otherwise about their investment. Burned out by then, Brando handed in a three, four or six hour cut (the accounts vary) and left Paramount to choose the footage they preferred. A disgruntled Brando even trashed the film’s title metaphor, in the dialogue he wrote for Rio’s parting scene with Louisa. Watch out for me in the spring, Rio says to her: “One of them dark nights you’re gonna see a jackass at the window, and that’s gonna be me.” From jack to jackass…? While the female characters in this movie may be admirable, there’s no salvation on offer in this world for them.

Poetic licence, Greek tragedy and Oedipal issues aside… ultimately, the socio-economic backdrop to the events does add a final, useful layer to the story. Briefly, Billy The Kid ran afoul with the law by being on the losing side of the 1878 Lincoln County War. This conflict was waged between the entrenched commercial interests (the widely hated Murphy/Dolan faction) and a bunch of new arrivals, led by the English cattleman John Tunstall [pictured below] and the lawyer Alexander McSween, both of whom enjoyed the shadowy backing of the wealthy cattle baron John Chisum. Both sides brought along their own law enforcement officers to the fighting. Tunstall was, briefly, yet another father figure for the teenaged Billy – who had been born in New York City and orphaned at 15, after Billy’s mother Catherine died of TB.

It was Tunstall’s murder in February 1878 that set off the Lincoln County War. Billy and his Regulators fought (and eventually lost) to the Murphy-Dolan crew of hired guns, who also killed Alex McSween at the climax of a siege of his burning house in July of 1878. The winners didn’t get to enjoy the spoils for long. Lawrence Murphy died only three months later, and James Dolan died in his 40s. In that respect, McSween’s widow Susan had the last laugh. She became the head of a cattle empire, and died 50 years later, in 1930.

In an effort to create a peace deal between the Lincoln County factions, Chisum had arranged for a meeting between Billy and the New Mexico governor Lew Wallace – a figure now better known to history as the best selling author of the quasi-Biblical novel Ben Hur, and played in Peckinpah’s film by Jason Robards. Unfortunately, the amnesty offered to the Regulators excluded Billy, who had killed the Murphy/Dolan faction’s tame sheriff, William Brady. When Chisum failed to honour a $500 debt, Billy stole the equivalent in cattle from him. This was not a particularly smart move. Chisum and other businessmen reached the conclusion that Billy and his remaining friends were obstacles to progress, and they hired Garrett to arrest or kill them. Garrett promptly killed Billy’s last friends from the Regulator days (Charley Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard) and took Billy into custody, preparatory to hanging him for the killing of Sheriff Brady. Billy’s daring escape from jail and eventual death at the hands of Garrett became the centerpiece of Neider’s novel, and of both films.

With the wisdom of hindsight Billy’s death was romantic, fatalistic; but Garrett’s doomed choices were the stuff of tragedy. His subsequent life was marked by failure and controversy despite a brief period of patronage by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was something of a fanboy when it came to the myths of the Old West. In the end, the defence attorney who won a quick acquittal for Garrett’s accused murderers was one Albert Fall, later a key figure in the Teapot Dome corruption scandal that blighted the Harding presidency of the 1920s. To some Peckinpah fans, you could – if you felt so inclined – draw a straight line from the killing of Billy the Kid in 1881 to Garrett’s murder in 1909 to the Teapot Dome affair in 1924 to the Watergate scandal then hitting the headlines just as Peckinpah’s film was being released in 1973. In its wisdom, MGM cut out the very prologue/epilogue scenes that made such connections possible.

Corruption, and the impulse to take the more secure option when faced with superior forces… Sam Peckinpah may have understood all too well why Pat Garrett sold his soul. But when it mattered, he went down like Billy The Kid.

1 Comment on Brando, Peckinpah and Billy The Kid

  1. Excellent essay! I remember enjoying that Peckinpah movie in ’72. Didn’t realise how good Dylan’s soundtrack was till I finally picked up the cd 20 years later. Those moody acoustic guitar instrumentals & the several hauntingly sung Billy themes are still remarkably moving. The Eagles captured the outlaw mythos via exceptionally strong tunes too (Desperado)…

Comments are closed.