Durango, Mexico – Fifteen nervous chickens that were buried up to their necks in dirt blinked in the bright Mexican sun and looked as unhappy as it is possible for chickens to look. They were arranged in a line in the parade ground of a crumbling adobe fort at the foot of the dark Sierra Madre near Durango. Chickens aren't given much credit for intelligence, but these chickens knew that something was about to happen. They caught a glimpse of a dapper young gunfighter – Billy the Kid – and his scruffy bandits lounging 60 feet away around a stone fountain.
The outlaws interrupted their whiskey-guzzling to taunt Billy to try his trigger finger on the hapless fowl. He slowly raised his Colt .44 and squeezed off three shots:
Crack! The head of the center chicken suddenly separated from its body in a whirl of blood and feathers. Crack! The head of the next chicken exploded straight upward, spraying technicolor blood across the parched ground. Crack! Another chicken head took off in a slow, lazy arc against the Kodachrome sky before coming to rest 15 feet away. The outlaws laughed and Billy smiled. He was still Top Gun.
But before Billy and his boys could get back to their whiskey, three rifle shots shattered the silence and three more chickens became headless. Feathers were still drifting down as Billy whirled to confront Pat Garrett lowering a Winchester. "Hello, Billy," he rumbled.
"Cut!" snapped the short, gray man in a director's chair inscribed Sam Peckinpah. This was Sam Peckinpah's latest film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It marks the first time he's dealt with the Old West since The Wild Bunch, and he had James Coburn as Garrett, Kris Kristofferson as Billy and Bob Dylan – making his feature film debut – as Billy's mysterious sidekick "Alias."
Peckinpah had added the chickens scene to the script, branding the opening sequence as clearly one of his own. Rudy Wurlitzer, the novelist (Quake, Flats, Nog and the script for Two Lane Blacktop) who wrote the Billy screenplay, sidled up to a visiting writer after the chicken scene and muttered, "That's Sam for you. I only had one chicken head in my script."
There could be no mistaking this set for John Wayne's Batjac location a few dusty miles back down Mex 45 toward Durango. For one thing, the Mexican government posted a nark here who, disguised as a swarthy caballero, wandered through the fort peering nearsightedly at everyone's cigarettes. For another, there was a discernible tension in the air, a sense that something terrible might happen any minute. Peckinpah was pushing and driving his cast and crew, and the strain was evident. The picture was said to be at least two weeks behind schedule and $1 million over budget.
Wurlitzer edged close and spoke sotto voce through his beard, "Hey, something heavy may happen." He turned to see if anyone overheard, and the sun rays sparkled on his gold earring. "The word's come down from the Cobra that if Sam doesn't get a full day of shooting today, he's fired. And he's behind, man. The Cobra – Jim Aubrey himself – is after him. If Sam goes, the cast walks and there goes the movie. Heavy?"
He gave a knowing glance and moved away as Gordon Carroll, the film's producer, walked up. Carroll, who could be perfectly cast as a Hollywood executive (tall, blond, tanned, slightly harried), watched preparations for closeups of another scene. The producer smiled a tight-lipped smile as Peckinpah exploded at a bumbling extra who strayed into camera range. "Goddammit! Get outta there!"
Rita Coolidge, who played a minor role (even more minor after she refused to do a nude scene), walked by and bumped her head on an earthen jug hanging from a tree. Carroll whispered, "The French critics will write that only Peckinpah could make her look stunned and cross-eyed at the first sight of Billy."
Carroll exited and Wurlitzer appeared from somewhere in his place. He continued his role as the Greek chorus of the set: "This scene is the most important. It's got to grab the audience. Sam wants it to be flashy so the audience will be into the picture without realizing how banal it is. Sam's really an old-fashioned director that way. That's Westerns, though, all banality. This scene here, man, wasn't in my script. There's no script left."
Then it's not a Wurlitzer? "It's a Peckinpah. "
The writer, who had found Wurlitzer's original script tight and fast-paced and evocative of the legend (if not the fact) of Billy, had noticed lines and scenes being filmed daily that weren't in the script and inquired about those changes.
"Well," Wurlitzer turned his gaze inward. "Sam does the changes, mostly."
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