Private cut of classic film rescued via series of 'Watergate-esque heists' set for release

Renowned director Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 personal version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is considered to be a masterpiece

Bob Dylan has an acting role in the 1973 Western film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Photo: Getty
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Film director Sam Peckinpah's personal cut of his 1973 Western classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, previously unknown to the public, is set to be released this summer.

More than 50 years old, the movie which marked the renowned filmmaker's return to Westerns is being restored by the Criterion Collection ready for a July release.

The original theatrical release was a turbulent one due to disagreements between the MGM studio and the director. Studio executives were unhappy with the original cut, which had been edited by Peckinpah himself in three weeks and ran for 124 minutes.

Peckinpah’s version was reportedly screened once to critics and colleagues, with director Martin Scorsese among those in attendance. Scorsese said at the time that it was Peckinpah’s greatest film since his seminal work, The Wild Bunch, in 1969.

However, much to the chagrin of the cast and crew, MGM decided to re-edit before releasing a shortened version that ran for 106 minutes. It quickly became a critical and commercial flop and was disowned by Peckinpah and much of the cast.

Peckinpah died in 1984 at the age of 59. An early preview version of his original cut, known to fans as the Turner Preview Version, was released on home video in 1988 and led to a widespread re-evaluation of the film, with many declaring it a Peckinpah masterpiece.

The director's original version, now set to come out in July, is said to have been retrieved from MGM in 1973. When Peckinpah feared that the studio was intent on erasing his final cut from history, friends reportedly orchestrated several rescue “heists”.

A post shared by editor and Peckinpah historian Paul Seydor on the director’s Facebook fan page reveals that “Watergate-esque break-ins” took place to retrieve the original.

The post adds: “A 'heist' was engineered to get Peckinpah's final preview print out of the projection room where it was screened for MGM execs. Unfortunately, the clean-up crew didn't realise that it was an interlock print. Sound and picture were separate, so they grabbed the picture and left the sound behind [and its] retrieval required a second heist.”

The post states that that both retrieval operations were successful and that Peckinpah stored his own final copy in his personal archives, changing the name on the film canister to “The Racquet Club” in case MGM found out and came after him.

The social media post concludes by saying that the release by the Criterion Collection will include valuable archival material as well as a documentary on the making of the film.

Pat Garret and Billy the Kid stars James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Jason Robards. Bob Dylan provides music and also features in an acting role.

Film critic Pauline Kael described the studio's version of the film in 1973 as “peculiarly unrealised”, adding that “probably nobody involved was very happy about the results”. In another review, legendary critic Roger Ebert mentioned that Peckinpah “attempted to have his name removed”, adding: “I sympathised with him.”

The new distributor, the Criterion Collection, is one of the most respected and beloved boutique physical media companies. Its library includes films from around the world since the dawn of the medium, from silent comedies to Soviet epics.

Peckinpah fans have wondered for years whether the director’s vision would ever be made available. News of this summer's release means another critical reappraisal can be expected, while fans can enjoy the film the way its director always wanted it to be seen.

Updated: April 18, 2024, 11:02 AM