The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


Pat Garrett

Dir Sam Peckinpah (Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, Bob Dylan)

Mama, put my guns in the ground

By 1973, the western had come full circle, from tool of the establishment during the Wayne-Ford years to a countercultural playground populated by disaffected loners, social dropouts, anti-violence activists and rock ’n’ roll rebels. And there was nothing on Earth cooler than an outlaw: the real William Bonney may have been a jumped-up teen murderer (and former cheesemaker, fact fans) who barely knew the real Garrett, himself a foul-tempered saloon owner-turned-lawman who shot the Kid in cold blood and without warning. But in Peckinpah’s hands, and with the weathered faces of Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn, these men became beautiful icons, scruffy saints for a self-consciously screwed-up generation. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ is a film with few pretensions to realism: the world it creates is authentically shabby, dusty and wild, but the poetic antiheroes who populate it are knowingly grandiose, gloriously flawed and elegantly doomed. Billy even throws his arms open, Christ-like, when he’s first arrested: Jesus with a six-gun.

And yet, pretentious though it may occasionally be, there’s simply nothing like Peckinpah’s film anywhere else in the western genre, and perhaps in cinema as a whole. It’s a film where image, music and meaning fuse inextricably to create unexpected and unprecedented moments of high emotion: that shot of Billy, arms akimbo, would be nothing without Dylan’s music, or Kristofferson’s beatific half-smile, or Peckinpah’s glorious early-morning lighting, or the knowledge that Billy’s surrender is inevitable, and so is his escape, and so is his death. These moments recur throughout the film: the death of Slim Pickens’s Sheriff, as the heavenly choirs of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ come drifting along the riverbank; the giddy ‘turkey shoot’; the climactic march of doom; the framing scenes of Garrett’s murder by the very men who sent him after Billy. The result is perhaps the strangest and richest of all westerns, the point where old-school mythologising and countercultural revisionism join forces to create something new: the existentialist outlaw, a cowboy Christ, a Bible myth for modern America. TH