(Kris Kristofferson at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky, last week)
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Billy the Kid is fighting a hopeless battle in Sam Peckinpah’s classic 1973 Western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He refuses to concede the freewheeling West that is fading around him to big landowner John Chisum or the Big City moneymen who are coming in Chisum’s wake to divide among themselves the spoils of an emerging new West.
However, Billy’s longtime friend-turned-lawman Pat Garrett has made his peace with Chisum and the moneymen and accepted their offer to hunt down the West’s most notorious gunfighter.
Folks in Lexington, Kentucky, last week got a chance to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid again on the big screen at the downtown Kentucky Theatre, a fundraising event for the upcoming Harry Dean Stanton Festival. Actor-singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who starred as Billy the Kid, spoke at the event and even sported the same pair of boots that he wore in the film.
“Working with Sam Peckinpah was definitely a wild ride, one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Kristofferson told the crowd of 650 at the May 23 showing. “Working on this film was a dream come true. We got to ride horses, shoot guns.”
The film showing was organized by Lucy Jones, creator of the annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington. Stanton was also in the cast of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Your Labor South correspondent attended as part of his research for an upcoming biography of Stanton.
Peckinpah’s film, written by Rudy Wurlitzer with a musical score by Bob Dylan (who also co-stars), tells a different side of the story than the 1970 Western Chisum, which starred John Wayne in the title role. In that film, Chisum teams with Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett to fight the bad guys.
Peckinpah’s film depicts Chisum as the last of a dying breed of uniquely American landowners, larger than life, often self-made, hard-working men of achievement but also rigid in their views, unwilling to relinquish power, judgmental of others less fortunate and removed from their daily struggles. Coming in Chisum’s place are new-fangled city investors and finance men, anonymous and rapacious, interchangeable, early versions of those modern-day venture capitalists who don’t make or create but enrich themselves by skimming off the hard-earned gains of others.
This is a 44-year-old film that still resonates today as Wall Street continues to further separate itself from the rest of America, and its servants in the White House and halls of Congress make that separation ever more profitable, much as they did in the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1920. In that scandal, which inspired Peckinpah in the making of this film, officials in the Harding Administration colluded with wealthy oilmen to help them grab lucrative oil leases in the West that had earlier been under the control of the federal government.
Filmgoers in Lexington applauded loudly at the Kentucky Theatre last week. They watched a great movie with one of its stars sitting among them. They also got a chance to see the importance and value of art well done, how it can remind us that we face many of the same challenges our ancestors faced, that we have yet another chance to overcome those challenges, that the human story goes on, debased at times, sure, but noble and inspiring, too, and ever in need of compassion.