New Mexico Territory, 1881: Pat Garrett (Coburn) rides into the town of Fort Sumter to find his old friend, legendary outlaw Billy the Kid (Kristofferson). After a friendly greeting where they reminisce about old times for a little bit, Garrett delivers some news: he has been appointed county sheriff, he has been ordered to chase Billy out of Lincoln County if Billy doesn't leave in the next six days, and he intends to do it.
Billy doesn't leave, so six days later Garrett and his posse surround Billy's hideout and take him prisoner. Billy, however, escapes from the Lincoln County Jail, killing two deputies in the process. Garrett, offered a bounty of $1000, then goes hunting after Billy.
A famous Troubled Production. Peckinpah re-wrote the script, and argued with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer throughout about cost overruns. Peckinpah's alcoholism was also a big problem on the set. MGM took the film from Peckinpah in post-production and cut 18 minutes off the 124-minute run time. A Director's Cut of 122 minutes was finally issued in 1988. A slightly shorter version of 115 minutes was reedited for the DVD release in 2005.
The All-Star Cast includes Richard Jaeckel, Chill Wills, Barry Sullivan, Jason Robards, Katy Jurado (who 20 years prior had starred in another Western classic, High Noon), Slim Pickens, Charles Martin Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, Elisha Cook Jr., and none other than Bob Dylan, who plays a hoodlum named Alias. Dylan also composed the soundtrack, which includes one of the biggest hits of his career, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door".
- Abnormal Ammo: Billy kills Sheriff Olinger with his own shotgun filled with sixteen dimes used as slugs. Olinger had been taunting Billy about it leading up to it.
- Anti-Hero: Pat Garrett is an ex-outlaw pressured by political and business interests to turn against his old friend Billy. Billy himself, though, is a borderline sociopath who seems to enjoy killing people.
- Artistic License History: Like most fictional works about Billy the Kid, it exaggerates the closeness of his friendship with Pat Garrett. Billy and Garrett certainly knew each other, but their relationship probably wasn't closer than occasionally drinking and gambling together at the same saloons in Lincoln. Certainly there's no evidence that they were close enough that Garrett felt he was "betraying" Billy by tracking him down. Historians believe that Garrett exaggerated his closeness to Billy to make his memoirs more compelling, which fictional treatments like Peckinpah's further embellish.
- Attempted Rape: Chisum's mooks are whipping a Mexican man to death and are about to rape his wife when Billy swoops in and shoots them. He saves the wife but the husband dies.
- Bond One-Liner: Having shot Sheriff Olinger with a gun loaded with dimes, Billy quips, "Keep the change, Bob".
- Bring My Brown Pants: After Garrett kills an outlaw in an inn, the innkeeper says "You just made me have a bowel movement in my pants, Garrett. I ain't ever gonna forgive you for this."
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: At one point a group of gunmen try to take on Billy's gang, led by one in particular who keeps insinuating that he knows Billy, but won't reveal how he knows The Kid. The ensuing shootout is a Curb-Stomp Battle in favor of Billy's gang, and afterward Billy wonders who the men were. He concludes that it's far too soon since his latest escape from prison for bounty hunters to be after him, and says, "I guess it really must have been something personal." He thinks about it for another few seconds before he gives up trying to figure out who the guy was and goes back to eating lunch.
- Creator Cameo: Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer appears as Tom O'Folliard, one of Billy's gang members.
- The Dying Walk: Sheriff Baker does this at the end of a gunfight where Garrett, Sheriff Baker, and Baker's wife/deputy raided the hideout of some outlaws with links to Billy the Kid. After being shot several times in the fight, Baker (who had earlier told about how he was going to sail away on a boat he was building once he retired) walks away from the fight and staggers over to a tiny creek, where he watches the sunset until he dies. Easily the most famous scene from the movie, helped by the fact that Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (which was composed for the movie) plays in the background.
- Face Death with Dignity: The mortally wounded Sheriff Baker staggers away from a gunfight and dies watching the sunset by the river.
- Fingore: Poe attempts to cut off Billy's trigger finger as a keepsake. Pat violently prevents him from doing so.
- How We Got Here: Starts with Pat Garrett being murdered on his ranch in 1909.note Then the story picks up in 1881.
- I'm Cold... So Cold...: In Spanish! Billy rescues a Mexican husband and wife from Chisum's goons, but it's too late for the husband, who says "Siento mucho frio", then says "Como te sientes tu, Billy" ("How do you feel?") right before he dies.
- In the Back: Billy shoots Deputy Sheriff J.W. Bell in the back while escaping. He begs him not to have to do it, but the man runs, forcing Billy to shoot him.
- The Ken Burns Effect: Panning and zooming over stills from the film as the credits roll.
- Morality Pet: Paco, whose scenes give Billy a more sympathetic side and motivation for his revenge against the Santa Fe Ring.
- Name and Name: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
- Never Bring A Knife To A Gunfight: Garett shoots Holly when he attacks him with a knife.
- No Animals Were Harmed: Actually, animals were harmed. Those were real chickens really getting killed in the opening scene where Billy is shooting at them.
- Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Death: Sheriff Baker somewhat reluctantly accompanies Pat Garrett to raid a bandit's safehouse in an attempt to learn where Billy is holed up, and gets wounded multiple times in the ensuing gunfight. He walks away from the fight to sit beside a small stream and wordlessly look out at the sunset while Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (which was written specifically for that scene) plays in the background.
- Pop-Star Composer: Bob Dylan!
- Price on Their Head: Garrett is offered a thousand dollars for the capture of Billy the Kid, with five hundred dollars upfront. Garrett rejects the money saying they can pay him in full when Billy is brought in.
- Pyrrhic Villainy: By the end of the film, it's clear that Garrett realizes that he will lead a conflicted, unhappy life and will be chiefly remembered for killing his friend. Billy, meanwhile, will have most of his bits of sociopathy forgotten by an adoring public (to an extent, this extends to other portrayals of the two, including Young Guns II).
- Rage Against the Reflection: Garrett shoots at his reflection right after shooting Billy.
- Rash Equilibrium: Billy and a deputized ex-crook get into a Ten Paces and Turn kind of duel. When they start taking steps, Billy immediately turns, draws his gun, and waits. When the deputy tries to turn and shoot a couple of steps before reaching ten, Billy's ready for him.
- Re-Cut: The film was a particularly infamous case of Executive Meddling, culminating in MGM actually taking the film away from Peckinpah and releasing a considerably shorter version that nearly the entire cast panned and refused to be associated with. A director's cut version was shown once, but didn't make it to the general public until 15 years after the film's initial release. And just to make things more confusing, the DVD has 3 different versions.
- Retirony: Shefiff Baker was planning on building a boat and sailing away upon retiring. He doesn't get that chance, but he does at least die near water.
- Riding into the Sunset: Played With, as Garrett rides off into the sunrise. It doesn't symbolise a new beginning: Garrett's life is completely ruined, nothing left except remorse and loneliness. It symbolizes the death of the Old West and also the whole genre.
- Robbing the Dead: Garrett angrily hits Poe for attempting to cut off Billy's trigger finger.
- Shirtless Scene: Billy is shirtless in his final moments.
- Ten Paces and Turn: Billy gets in a duel and when they start counting, he simply turns, draws his gun and waits. When his opponent doesn't wait till ten before turning, Billy calmly shoots him.
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where Mrs. Baker keeps her bullets. She plucks several out of the Compartment during the shootout with Black Harris.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Although it's the kind of movie where there's no real heroes or villains, Billy is largely presented as a sociopathic murderer and bandit who is nevertheless widely admired by the populace as a folk hero and rebel outlaw.
- Would Hit a Girl: Garrett roughs up a prostitute named Ruthie Lee to gain Billy's whereabouts.
- You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Billy has retrieved a hidden gun and gotten the drop on Bell the deputy. Bell says "You wouldn't shoot me In the Back, Billy," and turns to flee. Billy shoots him in the back.