Assassination and Warlords in the Land of Enchantment Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

james-cobern-sam-pekinpah-movie-setOne sun-filtered afternoon in Malibu, California, about the age of 12, I sat with my sister and parents in Sam Peckinpah’s trailer in Paradise Cove, politely listening to the adult conversation, fixated on the antlered head of a mule deer mounted on the wall. The glass eyes stared back at me as ice and whiskey were stirred and laughter echoed off the wood paneling. I wondered if Peckinpah had killed it.

I was too young to have seen any of his movies, except the one he made with my father, Junior Bonner, but I knew he had killed it. I had to ask. His answer was simple: “Yes.” He looked directly at me and added: “Only hunt for necessity. Don’t kill for sport.”

That was it, a simple code of honor between the hunter and the hunted. Later, as an adult, I would realize that most of Peckinpah’s films were violent parables of the hunter and the hunted, and that thin line between good and evil, when one man tracks, hunts and kills another man, not for sport, but for power and money. Peckinpah found his last, best story in New Mexico, where the dance of death between “brothers” Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid ended in their assassinations, the ultimate left-handed political execution of power that has been a tradition in New Mexico for centuries.

When the Santa Fe Ring controlled New Mexico during the Lincoln County War, the corrupt power brokers ruled the rugged, Southwestern territory of 12 counties like Scottish warlords. But these newcomers didn’t invent New Mexico’s power structure. The class structure with the Spanish system of encomienda had been followed successfully over the centuries by the Spanish-Mexican patronage system of patron-peon, of haciendas and of backroom deals for land grants of millions of acres. The Americans who took over after the Mexican-American War quickly adopted the peonage system for power and profit found in the isolated Spanish province known as “el fin del mundo” (the end of the world). Partnered with the leading Hispano families of each county, the new American merchants sought control of everything from federal contracts to voter registration and public education. They also adopted the tradition of intimidation, rebellion and violence in the far-flung American territory, including assassination, as conveniently as generations before them. In 1837, New Mexico Gov. Albino Pérez, who had been sent to enforce tax collections, was beheaded and his head used as a football, while Charles Bent, the first territorial governor of New Mexico, was assassinated during the Taos uprising of 1847 because a political rival, Col. Diego Archuleta, had not received the spoils of victory vaguely promised him during the American conquest of New Mexico.

A few years after Peckinpah’s passing in 1984, a director’s cut of the film was released. His edit of the film is the most provocative interpretation of the relationship between the Kid and Garrett. Rather then end the film with the killing of Garrett, the controversial director opens with Garrett’s killing in a symbolic intercut between Garrett’s killers ambushing him with an equally violent scene of the Kid’s gang, joined by the newly minted Sheriff Garrett, shooting off the heads of defenseless buried chickens. Peckinpah’s film, based on Rudolph Wurlitzer’s script, remains the most intuitive interpretation of the lawless warlord culture of patrons and peons that had dictated life in New Mexico since Don Juan de Oñate had taken control of New Mexico as its first governor in 1598.

Was Garrett’s murder random or assassination?  If the last four centuries of New Mexico history reveal anything, its that nothing is random when a man kills another man, not for sport, but for power and money.

What do you think?

Stuart Rosebrook

As senior editor of True West Magazine, Stuart Rosebrook oversees all editorial covering Old West travel, firearms and books. He has a Ph.D in U.S. History from Arizona State University, and he owns a multimedia communications business, Quo Vadis Communications, based in Iowa City, Iowa.