Billy the Kid—Robert Taylor, Brian Donlevy, Ian Hunter, Mary Howard, Gene Lockhart, Lon Chaney, Jr., Guinn Williams (1941; Dir: David Miller)
In color in 1941, so this was a large-budget production. Robert Taylor (at 30 in his second western, already ten years older than Billy ever was) makes a very elegant and smooth Billy, clad all in black and often wearing a leather jacket when he’s in gunfighting mode. Brian Donlevy is in a rare decent-guy role as Billy’s best friend Jim Sherwood, now working for good-guy rancher Eric Keating (Ian Hunter) and his sister Edith (Mary Howard) in New Mexico. Keating undertakes to help Billy reform his life, and Billy even develops an interest in the sister. But things aren’t destined to work out for the Keatings or for Billy.
Keating is on his way to getting an edgy Billy back into a more accepatable legal status when Keating is killed by minions of bad-guy Lincoln County boss Hickey. Billy goes completely off the rails, gets the bad guys and is in turn killed by Sherwood in kind of a “suicide by cop” scenario. Billy uses his right (and supposedly slower) hand so Sherwood can beat him. Some elements of the actual story remain with a number of changed names, but overall this is not very historical. Keating, for example, is a stand-in for Billy’s English employer, rancher John Tunstall, whose murder touched off Billy’s most murderous period. There is no sheriff Pat Garrett, and Billy’s death in the movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to how he was actually killed. Billy is heavily romanticized and much better looking (and better dressed) than in real life. However, this version of the story is worth watching, and is much better than Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie The Outlaw released just a couple of years later.
Robert Taylor as Billy, nattily dressed all in black with his gun on his left. And a cleaned-up version of the only authenticated historical photograph of Billy, with his pistol on his left. It is now thought that the historical image is flipped, and that Billy was in fact right-handed.
Frank Puglia is gratingly stereotypical as Billy’s Mexican friend Pedro Gonzalez, with an obviously dubbed singing voice and heavily swarthy make-up, before he is killed. Lon Chaney, Jr., plays a thug working for Hickey (Gene Lockhart), the sleazily corrupt boss of Lincoln County for whom Billy initially goes to work. As with Paul Newman 15 years later, Billy is played as left-handed with a gun as in the famous photograph, now thought to be reversed. Fairly routine writing. Filmed near Flagstaff, Arizona, although some of the scenery looks like Monument Valley. For versions of Billy with more (but not complete) historicity, see The Left-Handed Gun, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and even Young Guns.
In 1941 aging former western movie star William S. Hart shows Robert Taylor his authenticated pistol once owned by the historical outlaw Billy the Kid. The front sight is filed down for a faster draw.
If you want more information on the historical Billy, see To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark Lee Gardner (2010), Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride by Michael Wallis (2008) or Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life by Robert Utley (1991), among many other possibilities.