In honor of the recently released dual DVD set of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid I offer the introduction to the screenplay by author shamelessly reprinted from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Signet film series – New American Library, 1973
Pat Garrett and Billy the kid was written over three years ago. It was written relatively fast- in six or seven weeks- and the writer was paid what was for him a huge sum of money by MGM, enough for him to buy land in nova Scotia, over five thousand miles from Hollywood. The writer felt strangely pleased about the first draft, believing that it was lean and subtly paced with even a few autonomous moments of humor and grace. he had managed, he thought, to sublimate language to image, an obsession that had brought him to the task in the first place.
The original idea, as advance by the producer, who initiated the project made it real in terms of money and studio commitments, was to dramatize the contemporary terms the perennial story of Billy the Kid, a purely America myth that has been the subject of over thirty Hollywood films, it was an appealing idea, to be number thirty one or two in the list. Not only did Billy the Kid appeal to the writer as romantic myth signifying the sacrifice of youth and freedom. but at one time in his youth he had been convinced that he was direct reincarnation of the Billy the Kid. The shadowy figure of Pat Garrett, at first illusive and alien, became more and more luminous and dominating, even threatening to take over the dramatic form and change title to one name. Garrett’s decision to sell out in order to survive, to live rather then die, to abandon obsolete descriptions of courage and freedom for a more complicated if more corrupt sense of order, began to resonate more and more with the writer, not only because he found himself in Hollywood faced with the usual compromises of being used and courted like a nineteenth-century woman and then inevitably discarded from the hierarchy of power, but Garrett was actually more interesting the the Kid. The killer of freedom is often the true subject of freedom. If the writer had been Billy as a youth, he was Garrett as as a man. So the echo of Garrett’s shooting of the Kid became the echo of the film, or to be exact, of the script, the two men becoming entwined like lovers even beyond the last bullet which ended the breath of the younger.
On a more abstract level, the writer, holed up in a Sunset Blvd hotel, suspended in a weird floating world of his own, became consumed with philosophical questions about the phenomenology of Western space, of establishing a continuity outside of cultural time, and of trying to work the dialectics of interior and exterior space. In other words: of experiencing the present outside of language; of being alone without historical direction. The way it probably was in the West- action without exposition- a rider riding, a man dying- all these considerations the writer kept to himself, of course, such peripheral indulgences being anathema to the Industry, death to the project. It was easier and much more real to deal with the actual appeal of American heroes, of how they are attracted to and finally consumed by their own death- how that growing erotic embrace becomes their style, and and how that style relates to the collective. The frontier with its pockets of anarchy and violence, set under an immense and impartial sky that demolished boundaries, is an epic arena to play in. The hero is closer to the bone, simpler and more extreme, so that each act stands unrelieved by lesser distractions. The writer chose the last three months of Billy’s life, from his escape from the Lincoln jail to his final confrontation with Garrett at Fort Sumner. It was a free arena. No one seemed to know what the Kid did then, only that he had been warned by the Governor and the society at large that to stay in New Mexico meant his inevitable extinction. He was an anachronism that could not be tolerated. What became interesting was Billy’s decision not to flee, to accept the consequences of his own myth, no matter how unreal, even though it meant his death. . . those are some of the thoughts that surrounded the first draft. What actually happened is another.