The Outlaw

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 18, 2014

The Outlaw—Jane Russell, Jack Beutel, Thomas Mitchell, Walter Huston (1943; Dir:  Howard Hughes)


Strange version of the Billy the Kid story, with Jack Beutel as the Kid.  Finished in 1941 but not exhibited until 1943 because of fights over censorship.  The real star of this was the sultry young Jane Russell in her first movie role, with her Howard Hughes-engineered bra (which she never really wore), as the Kid’s eventual romantic interest Rio.  Thomas Mitchell is a strange choice to play Pat Garrett, and Walter Huston is brought in as a much-too-old Doc Holliday. 

Newly appointed sheriff Pat Garrett (Mitchell) is pleased when his old friend Doc Holliday arrives in Lincoln, New Mexico, on the stage. Doc is trailing his stolen horse, and it is discovered in the possession of Billy the Kid (Beutel).  In a surprising turn of events, Billy and Doc become friends.  This association cools the friendship between Doc and Pat.  The odd relationship between Doc and Billy grows stranger when Doc hides Billy at  the place of his girl Rio after Billy is shot.  She falls for Billy, although he treats her very badly.  Interaction between these four is played out against an Indian attack before a final showdown reduces the group’s number.


Beutel and Russell as Billy the Kid and Rio; Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett.

By the end of the movie, Holliday is dead in a grave marked Billy the Kid, and the Kid is allowed to ride off with Rio, presumably to a happy family life and old age.  None of this makes much sense.  Beutel is not terribly charismatic in the role of Billy.  The script was written by Jules Furthman, who wrote or co-wrote several excellent movies made by Howard Hawks:  To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, for example.  Hawks started as the director here but quit after two weeks.  It had a lot of censorship problems and is more interesting for historical filmmaking reasons than as an actual movie.  For hard-core western fans, it featured the uncredited movie debut of Ben Johnson.  Seventy years later, the dominant image from this film is not the black-clad Billy or Doc Holliday or Pat Garrett, but the voluptuous Jane Russell, reclining provocatively in the hay.

Beutel never amounted to much in the movies (look for him a decade later in Best of the Badmen), but Jane Russell went on to a respectable film career.  Historically, Pat Garrett and Billy were the friends (or at least acquaintances), not Garrett and Doc–at least until Garrett killed the Kid.  Except for the location (Lincoln County, New Mexico) and the names of a few of the characters, this movie never comes close to anything historical.


This film may be more notable for the fights it engendered, between Howard Hughes and the censors and later between Hughes and Howard Hawks, than for anything in the film itself.  An interesting historical footnote is why this delayed the release of the classic Red River for two years.  Red River was shot in 1946; it was Howard Hawks’ first western.  A still-irate and growing-ever-stranger Howard Hughes brought a legal action claiming that Hawks had stolen elements of his trail-drive epic from Hughes’ Billy the Kid story.  The Hughes claims were baseless, but sorting them out meant that Red River wasn’t released until 1948.  Unlike this bomb, Red River remains a classic and one of the greatest westerns to this day.  Take that, Howard Hughes.

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