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Part Three, Section 5: Dad and Garrett

In 1957, when (Sam) Peckinpah wrote his screen adaptation of “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones,” he was still married to his first wife, Marie Selland, and they lived in Malibu when it was a small, funky, unpretentious beach community with nice housing that was actually affordable. It was a good life: they at first lived in a Quonset hut in the hills high above the beach and later in a place right on the beach, they had three daughters (their son was not born yet), a menagerie of pets, a wonderful circle of friends and family, parties almost every weekend, and Sam’s career was on the rise…

But there were already fissures in the marriage, while his drinking was getting to be serious enough that the usual changes in personality due to alcohol were beginning to appear. He would get by turns verbally abusive or morose, behavior by no means exhibited every time he drank or even all that often at first. But it happened often enough that both friends and family were worried, and by the time the family moved into the house on the beach he was drinking most nights…

On the one hand he seems to have had a genuine desire to be a good father and husband and on the other he was answering the call of his ambitions as both a director and an artist, working furiously hard for long hours days on end churning out scripts for episodic television and soon enough directing and then producing them…

Frustration, rage, lashing out, guilt, apology, aggressiveness, passivity or at least retreat, avoidance, then lashing out again — this was a pattern of behavior that marked his whole life. Little wonder he drank. When he read (Charles) Neider’s novel, he found in the title character a young man the self-destructive trajectory of whose life was so clearly a possibility for his own that he softened him in the adaptation and removed most of the drinking.

But he also found the seeds of another possibility in a different character. In the novel Dad Longworth had been a hell-raiser
in his youth but was now a man who accepted responsibility and had already settled down with a family. In the screenplay Peckinpah retained most of this but completely fleshed it out and dramatized it further by inventing new scenes that showed the strength and depth of Dad’s commitment to his family…

It’s not hard to see that Dad here became for Sam a kind of wish fulfillment, a projection of the man he wanted to be and maybe even believed was still a possibility for him. Thirty-two when he wrote the adaptation, Sam must have noticed that he was suspended about midway between Hendry’s age, which is twenty-five, and Dad’s, which is late thirties. He could see possible futures in both characters and believe the choice was still his to make.

Fifteen years and three wrecked marriages later, it was all different. By then it was clear that despite any wishes to the contrary, as far as drinking and a life of domesticity were concerned, his future had become Hendry’s. In the four to five years leading up to “Pat Garrett” he could still see himself as the relatively youthful Hendry, the Hendry of the escalating reputation and the triumphs — the Kid at the top of his game, before the steep decline and sudden death.

In (screenwriter Rudy) Wurlitzer’s Billy (the Kid), however, Sam saw something much closer to the reality of what his behavior had actually brought him to, someone who couldn’t stop drinking, couldn’t hold it when he did drink, and couldn’t control his temper when he was drunk, becoming irresponsible, nasty, cruel, and abusive with increasing frequency and intensity.

The prevalent view of Peckinpah’s Garrett — I’ve argued it myself — is that he was depicting in the character much of what he worried about, feared, or hated in himself: his abusiveness, his ambitiousness, his personal corruptibility, his spiritual emptiness, his own capacity for violence (notably toward women), his attraction to the sordid, his fear that he had sold himself out, his increasing isolation from family and old friends, and of course his alcoholism.

This is all true and valid so far as it goes. But it doesn’t tell the whole story, because Garrett is a figure who is in many ways also admirable and attractive, with qualities that would answer a real and present need in Sam himself if only he could possess or repossess them, as the case may be. In other words, like Dad Longworth, Pat Garrett too was developed into a kind of wish fulfillment.