Tag Archives: Billy the Kid

Young Guns II

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 12, 2015

Young Guns II—Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, William Petersen, Christian Slater, James Coburn, Viggo Mortensen, Alan Ruck, Jenny Wright, Scott Wilson (1990; Dir: Geoff Murphy)

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Poster art for the Gang 2.0, with the addition this time of Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty) and Hendry French (Alan Ruck) on the left, and Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) on the right.

Young Guns was a surprise hit in 1988, striking a chord with the youthful end of the movie-going public. It gave rise to a new idea at movie studios:  Perhaps there was a market for youth-oriented westerns, a genre whose principal audience had been considered to be among the aging population that still remembered, and harbored a fondness for, John Wayne.  The new idea resulted in such westerns with young actors as American Outlaws (2001) and Texas Rangers (2001), neither of which did much at the box office because they were not good movies.  And, of course, it led inevitably to a sequel to Young Guns.  As with the first movie, the sequel consists of several facts mixed with a lot of fiction.

When last seen in the first movie, Billy (Emilio Estevez) and several of his compatriots were escaping from the burning McSween house in Lincoln, New Mexico, after an extended battle in 1877.  Alexander McSween himself and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko) were killed, but Billy got out; Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) returned to the East and José Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) headed west to California.  As Young Guns II opens a year later in 1878, Billy is now riding with a couple of new comrades:  Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater), who envies Billy his notoriety, and Pat Garrett (played briefly by Patrick Wayne in the first movie, here by William Peterson with luxurious sidewhiskers in a more significant role).

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Pat Garrett (William Petersen) during his days of riding with Billy.

The initial scenes show Doc Scurlock, now teaching children in a school in New York, being abducted and thrown into a pit-jail in Lincoln, where he is reunited with Chavez.  Billy meets with Gov. Lew Wallace (Scott Wilson), and they negotiate a deal:  Billy testifies against the Murphy-Dolan faction in court after a brief token imprisonment, and in return he is to receive a full pardon.  But the Lincoln County prosecutor is a member of the Murphy-Dolan ring, and he intends to hang Billy.  Billy manages to escape, along with Scurlock and Chavez.  Pat Garrett leaves the gang for a more respectable life, but they are joined by Hendry William French (Alan Ruck), a farmer who has lost his family and farm, and Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty), a 14-year-old who looks younger.

Billy tells the other members of the gang they’re heading south to Mexico along a trail he calls the Mexican Blackbird.  They stop by the ranch of John Chisum, an ally of Billy’s murdered former boss John Tunstall.  Chisum (James Coburn, who had played Pat Garrett almost twenty years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1973]) resists financing Billy’s expedition south, and they shoot two of his men.  When they leave, Chisum decides to “set a thief to catch a thief,” and he recruits Garrett as the new sheriff of Lincoln County to hunt Billy down.

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Billy (Emilio Estevez) is captured more than once, but never intimidated.

Garrett’s posse includes a newspaperman and John W. Poe (Viggo Mortensen in a small role), a representative of the cattlemen’s association who is there to see that Garrett takes his responsibilities seriously.  At White Oaks, Billy and his men are enjoying themselves at Jane Greathouse’s sporting place when accosted by a local mob wearing hoods.  Billy negotiates an exchange of Chavez for the mob to hang, but sends Deputy Carlyle out in Chavez’ clothing and hat, and the mob shoots him to pieces.  Garret burns down Jane’s establishment in retaliation (despite their past history), and she leaves town in Lady Godiva fashion for unknown reasons.

Finally the gang is cornered in a remote cabin at Stinking Springs.  O’Folliard and Scurlock are killed; Chavez is badly wounded, and Hendry and Rudabaugh barely escape.  Billy surrenders and is jailed in Lincoln.  Jane Greathouse is not allowed to talk with him privately but plants a gun in the outhouse, and Billy pulls off his famous jailbreak, killing Bob Ollinger with his own shotgun, as well as Deputy James Bell.  Billy heads for Fort Sumner, where he sees a dying Chavez and encounters Pat Garret waiting for him in the dark.  We see Billy’s funeral in Fort Sumner.  But we also have a framing story from 1950, claiming that Billy’s friend Pat Garret did not kill him, and that Billy lived until 1950 as Brushy Bill Roberts.

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Emilio Estevez in heavy makeup as the aged Brushy Bill Roberts, ca. 1950.

The director here is not the same as the first movie; this may be the best-known movie directed by New Zealander Geoff Murphy.  But the writer, John Fusco, is the same, and the feel of the movie is quite similar, although the story here is more episodic.  There are bits of anachronistic dialogue, as in the first movie.  A feeling of doom pervades this film, since we all know that Billy didn’t live long.  Billy (Emilio Estevez) is his usual immature self, slick with guns, heedless and utterly self-confident.  Jenny Wright is memorable in a brief role as sensual madam Jane Greathouse.  The Tom O’Folliard and Hendry William French characters feel unnecessary, although Alan Ruck is good as Hendry.  This may have been one of Christian Slater’s best roles; Slater has a limited range as an actor, and Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh seems perfectly suited to him.  William Peterson is one of the better versions of Pat Garrett on film, although he is still somewhat enigmatic.  If you liked Young Guns, you’ll want to see Young Guns II.  Together, they constitute their generation’s glossy cinematic version of the Billy the Kid story.  In color, at 104 minutes.

What about historical inaccuracies?  There was no Jane Greathouse; Billy and his compatriots were besieged at the house of James Greathouse in White Oaks.  Scurlock was not killed at Stinking Springs or elsewhere; he returned east, but only as far as Texas, where he lived out his life until 1929 as a respected citizen.  His death in the movie was based on the actual death of Charlie Bowdre, apparently written that way in the movie to accommodate Kiefer Sutherland’s schedule on other projects.  Chavez became a gunfighter and policeman in New Mexico, and apparently died of natural causes in 1924.  Tom O’Folliard was Billy’s best friend in the gang, and he was not 14 but was about 22 (near Billy’s own age) when he was killed by Garrett’s posse.  Pat Garrett and Billy were not close friends and did not ride together; they were at best casual acquaintances.  Garrett did hire a writer to get out his side of the story, since Billy was popular in some quarters in New Mexico.  Dave Rudabaugh was sometimes known as Dirty Dave, a particularly unpleasant New Mexico outlaw with an aversion to water like the Dirty Steve character played by Dermot Mulroney in the first movie.  Rudabaugh never used the name “Arkansas Dave.”  He was captured at Stinking Springs, not fleeing south to Mexico.  After escaping from jail in New Mexico, he joined the Clanton gang around Tombstone, Arizona Territory, fighting the Earps.  The events of the last three years or so of Billy’s life are compressed to make them seem more like two or three months.  That’s for starters.

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Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) and Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) at Stinking Springs.

With famous outlaws (Jesse James, Butch Cassidy) there appears to be an irresistible temptation to come up with some reason they did not die as history records but lived on to a healthy old age under another name.  The same impulse is there with Billy the Kid.  But the best information indicates that he was really killed by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in July 1881, about the age of 21.

Dave Rudabaugh shows up in The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959), but his role there is completely fictional.  Wyatt Earp first meets Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin, Texas, when hunting Dave Rudabaugh in Wyatt Earp (1994).

Some music for the film is provided by rock musician Jon Bon Jovi, who also has a cameo as one of the prisoners in the jail-pit in Lincoln. He gets killed early in the movie.

Trivia and obvious question:  At one point in the movie, Doc Scurlock quotes the Edgar Allan Poe poem “El Dorado.”  For no extra points at all, name the other western in which the same poem is quoted.  For the answer, click here.  Kick yourself if you didn’t get this one.

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Young Guns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 22, 2014

Young Guns—Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, Terence Stamp, Jack Palance, Terry O’Quinn, Patrick Wayne (1988; Dir: Christopher Cain)

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This was an attempt to combine the youth movies of the 1980s (e.g., The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) with the western genre and the story of Billy the Kid.  The result was surprisingly successful at the box office.  Many historical elements of The Kid’s story are here:  the murder of John Tunstall (Terence Stamp), the background of the Lincoln County War, the siege at the house of Alexander McSween (Terry O’Quinn), and the role of L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance) and the Santa Fe Ring in New Mexico Territory of the time.  But the details are not particularly accurate and the story is not complete, leading to the eventual sequel Young Guns II (1990).

In 1878 transplanted Englishman John Tunstall owns a ranch outside of Lincoln.  He collects ne’er-do-well young men, not for immoral purposes (despite an accusation by the obnoxious Murphy) but to give them jobs and civilize them, teaching them basic manners and to read and write.  His most recent acquisition is wild young William Bonney (Emilio Estevez).  As tensions rise between Tunstall and the Murphy-Dolan ring that runs Lincoln County, Murphy’s men, including the Lincoln County sheriff, blatantly murder Tunstall on the road to his ranch.  In reaction to the killing, his young men become “regulators”—a traditional word used by vigilantes in range wars to give themselves an air of real authority.  Led by Tunstall’s foreman Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), who tries to keep them respectable, they include:  Billy, who is wild, good with guns, bad with authority and erratic; Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), who is more educated than the others. writes bad poetry and is infatuated with Murphy’s young Chinese captive; José Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), half Navajo and half Mexican, good with knives; Charley Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko), whose skills are pugilistic and who would like to get married; Dirty Steve Stephens (Dermot Mulroney), the least interesting and articulate (and filthiest) member of the group; and J. McCloskey (Geoffrey Blake), who may be a spy for Murphy.

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Billy (Emilio Estevez) shows off his gun skills to an unimpressed Tunstall (Terence Stamp).

Billy [after shooting a Texan in a bar who was boasting that he would kill Billy the Kid]:  “How many does that make, Doc?  25?”

Doc Scurlock:  “Five.”

Billy [self-satisfied]:  “We’ll call it ten.”

After Billy kills Henry Hill and starts a gun battle that results in other deaths, the gang loses any vestige of respectability.  Billy kills McCloskey.  Bounty hunter Buckshot Roberts (Brian Keith) comes after them.  Dick is killed by Roberts, and several others are wounded in a wild shootout.  Historically Roberts was killed by Billy and his friends, but it’s not clear that happens here.  Billy becomes the de facto leader of the group and kills the corrupt Sheriff Brady, telling him, “Reap the whirlwind, Brady!  Reap it!”–a Biblical reference.  Pat Garrett (Patrick Wayne) warns the Kid about a plot to kill Tunstall’s partner and lawyer Alex McSween (Terry O’Quinn) in Lincoln.  Garrett says he’s the Kid’s friend (historically, he may have been), but it’s not clear whether he’s giving a real warning or setting up the Kid and his gang for an ambush.

They take the bait, though, and go to Lincoln to warn McSween.  They’re barely inside McSween house when it is surrounded by Murphy’s men, bounty hunter John Kinney and his men and eventually a cavalry unit.  The siege carries on into the next day (historically the siege lasted five days), and the besiegers set fire to the house.  The gang tries to break out, and they are all at least wounded.  Billy is shot a couple of times but kills several, including Murphy (not historical) and gets away.  Scurlock escapes with a young Chinese woman who had been held captive by Murphy.  Chavez y Chavez makes his getaway and heads west.  Stephens dies, as does the newly-married Bowdrie, but not before killing Kinney.  (Historically, Bowdre did not die at the siege.)  McSween tries to surrender but is cut down by a gatling gun.  The seige ended the Lincoln County War, but not the Kid’s career, which had another three colorful years to go.  Although there is narration telling what became of the three who lived, matters are now set up for a sequel with another director.

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The Regulators:  Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), Billy (Emilio Estevez), Charley Bowdrie (Casey Siemaszko), Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

Alex McSween:  “I’m not leaving my house.”

Billy:  “Alex, if you stay they’re gonna kill you.  And then I’m gonna have to to go around and kill all the guys who killed you.  That’s a lot of killing.”

Billy and his friends (real historical characters) are depicted as juvenile delinquents with a grievance, and Billy as played by Emilio Estevez has a wild, psychotic edge to him (with a bowler hat).  As Dirty Steve puts it, “He ain’t all there, is he?”  Estevez’ Billy is more literate than the historical Billy probably was.  Doc Scurlock and Chavez y Chavez are the most notable of the gang.  Dermot Mulroney’s character is not very interesting, but he can do much better; see him in Bad Girls, for example.  Casey Siemaszko is good as Charley Bowdre.  Terence Stamp is excellent as Tunstall, and Palance plays bad-guy Murphy broadly.  The cameos with Brian Keith (as Buckshot Roberts) and Patrick Wayne (soon-to-be-sheriff Pat Garrett) are fun, but Wayne would be replaced by William Peterson in the sequel.

If you look quickly, you can catch an uncredited cameo by Tom Cruise, who was visiting the set and put on a mustache and costume.  He’s the first man shot by Charlie Bowdre during the siege at the McSween house.  This was probably the peak of the career of director Christopher Cain (born Bruce Doggett in South Dakota), who also directed The Next Karate Kid and the execrable western September Dawn (a version of the Mountain Meadows massacre).  Filmed in New Mexico, in color, at 107 minutes. Rated R for violence and lots of killing.

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Emilio Estevez is somewhat glitzier than the real historical Kid, as is usually the case in movies about Billy.  He joins a black-leather clad Robert Taylor and blue-eyed Paul Newman as cinematic Billys.  For historical Billy, you might start with Robert Utley’s Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1991) and High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier (1990).  For readability, try Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, by Michael Wallis (2007).  He was said to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, but the best count is around eight, more or less.

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Billy the Kid on Film

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 22, 2014

Billy the Kid on Film

It is hard to explain the continuing notoriety and charisma, even popularity, of youthful New Mexico outlaw William Bonney—Billy the Kid.  Young, wild and illiterate, he was only 21 when he was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in a darkened room; he was said to have killed a man for each year of his life, although the real total seems likely to be less than that.  Jesse James had an extended period of successful outlawry and a genius for public relations in his letters to Kansas City and other Missouri newspapers.  Butch Cassidy had a magnetic personality and a modern-day Robin Hood streak, and was never known actually to shoot anyone before heading for South America.  Billy, caught up in New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, was a killer.  One sees various photographs on the internet said to be of Billy, but there is only one that is known to be an authentic image.

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The authentic scruffy-looking William Bonney (Billy the Kid); and a much smoother (and older) leather-clad cinematic Billy–Robert Taylor in 1941.

The Kid showed up in movies a little later than Jesse James did, beginning around 1930, when he had been dead almost 50 years.  He was especially prominent in the early 1940s, in a series of B movies with Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe.  Billy has been played by such cowboy stars as Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Bob Steele and Audie Murphy, as well as bigger mainstream stars like Robert Taylor and Paul Newman.  Like many prominent western figures, Billy has been subjected to revisionist treatment (see Dirty Little Billy, 1972) in the movies.  The most notorious movie about Billy may have been Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, in which the most prominent character was not Billy, but fictitious romantic interest Rio, played by Jane Russell.  Certainly Russell figured more prominently on the posters. Billy had a cinematic resurgence about 25 years ago, in the two Young Guns movies, in which he was played by Emilio Estevez.

There are a number of biographies and other works on the historical Billy. For historical reliability, you might start with Robert Utley’s Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1991) and High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier (1990).  For readability, try Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, by Michael Wallis (2007).

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Billy the Kid—Johnny Mack Brown, Wallace Beery (1930; Dir: King Vidor)
Billy the Kid Returns—Roy Rogers (1938)
Billy the Kid Outlawed—Bob Steele (1940)
Billy the Kid in Texas—Bob Steele (1940)
Billy the Kid’s Gun Justice—Bob Steele (1940)
Billy the Kid’s Range War—Bob Steele (1941)
Billy the Kid’s Fighting Pals—Bob Steele (1941)
Billy the Kid in Santa Fe—Bob Steele (1941)
Billy the Kid Wanted—Buster Crabbe (1941)
Billy the Kid’s Round-Up—Buster Crabbe (1941)
Billy the Kid—Robert Taylor (1941)
Law and Order—Buster Crabbe (1942)
Sheriff of Sage Valley—Buster Crabbe (1942)
The Mysterious Rider—Buster Crabbe (1942)
Billy the Kid’s Smoking Guns—Buster Crabbe (1942)
Billy the Kid Trapped—Buster Crabbe (1942)
The Outlaw—Jack Beutel, Jane Russell (1943)
The Kid Rides Again—Buster Crabbe (1943)
Fugitive of the Plain—Buster Crabbe (1943)
Western Cyclone—Buster Crabbe (1943)
Cattle Stampede—Buster Crabbe (1943)
The Renegade—Buster Crabbe (1943)
Blazing Frontier—Buster Crabbe (1943)
The Kid from Texas—Audie Murphy, Storm (1950; Dir: Neumann)
I Shot Billy the Kid (1950)
The Law vs. Billy the Kid (1954)
The Left-Handed Gun—Paul Newman (1957; Dir: Penn)
The Parson and the Outlaw (1957)
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966; Dir: Beaudine)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—Kris Kristofferson (1972; Dir: Peckinpah)
Dirty Little Billy—Michael J. Pollard (1972; Dir: Dragoti)
Chisum—Geoffrey Deuel, John Wayne (1970; Dir: McLaglen)
Young Guns—Emilio Estevez (1988)
Young Guns II—Emilio Estevez (1990)
Billy the Kid—Val Kilmer (Made for TV, 1989; written by G. Vidal)
Billy the Kid—Christopher Bowman (2013; Dir: Christopher Forbes)

 

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Billy the Kid for a new generation:  Young Guns, 1988; and Emilio Estevez as Billy.

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The Left-Handed Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 19, 2014

The Left-Handed Gun—Paul Newman, John Dehner, Lita Milan (1958; Dir:  Arthur Penn)

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This anguished retelling of the Billy the Kid story, with overwrought psychological overtones, was the directing debut of Arthur Penn and the first film for producer Fred Coe.  It depicts the usual events (e.g., the killing of John Tunstall, Billy’s English employer, and Billy’s escape from jail and killing of deputy Bob Ollinger [Denver Pyle]) without sticking very closely to the historical details.  . 

Paul Newman conveys Billy’s immaturity and poor impulse control, although at 33 he was not as young as Billy was and certainly doesn’t look much like him.  James Dean was originally signed for this role but didn’t live to play Billy.  The script emphasizes Billy’s illiteracy and certainly doesn’t make him a hero.  John Dehner’s Pat Garrett might be the best portrayal here, although he, too, seems overwrought at times.  And there are pacing problems, too.  The final scene, Garrett’s killing of Billy, takes place at night but otherwise doesn’t much resemble the actual events. Here, the anti-heroic Billy is unarmed but maneuvers Garrett into shooting him in the half light; he then falls on his back across wooden rails in a position that suggests crucifixion.  There’s also the strange character of Moultrie (Hurd Hatfield), who seems driven to mythologize Billy and then betray him when he feels himself betrayed. 

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Newman as The Kid (using his left hand, of course), and The Real Kid.

The screenplay is based on a play by Gore Vidal, and maybe that accounts for some of the anguish.  In some ways it foreshadows Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde ten years later, with the alienation of the undereducated outcast.  Peckinpah’s later (1973) version of the story is more historically accurate, although it has its own problems.  In black and white.

This is an early western by Arthur Penn, who was not known for making westerns.  Indeed, it was his first film of any kind.  He is best remembered for 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the revisionist western Little Big Man in 1970.  This was a flop at the box office in the U.S., but was praised by French film critics.

Historical note:  The title of this film comes from the only known photographic image of Billy, a scratched-up thing that shows him holding a rifle and wearing his pistol on the left.  (Somehow the left-handedness seems to be another detail that suggests Billy was off kilter.)  More recently, research suggests that the image was flipped in development, and that Billy was really right handed.  He was still kind of squirelly and unduly given to violence, but he didn’t particularly use his gun with his left hand.

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The Outlaw

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 18, 2014

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

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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.

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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.

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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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Billy the Kid (1941)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 10, 2014

Billy the Kid—Robert Taylor, Brian Donlevy, Ian Hunter, Mary Howard, Gene Lockhart, Lon Chaney, Jr., Guinn Williams (1941; Dir:  David Miller)

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  Uli Edel)

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Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest.  Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process.  Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town.  They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse.  Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.

The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels.  Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters.  The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid.  And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town.  They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church. 

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Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.

[Spoilers follow.]  Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up.  Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose.  Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with.  He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years.  [Note:  Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.]  She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge:  they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives.  If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course.  In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge.  But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned.  And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.

Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like.  Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation.  Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can.  There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.  

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The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).

This is about choices, and not easy ones.  Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie.  He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had:  somebody to stick up for her.  For the four, it’s different.  They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term.  Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.

Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward.  Even Blackjack recognizes that.  Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand.  Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption.  In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well). 

Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends.  Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer.  It isn’t even close.  Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.

The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell.  As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up.  It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in.  Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay.  Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.

purgatory4 Taking on the bad guys.

This is better done than we have any right to expect.  The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things.  The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran.  The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic.  We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999. 

The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok.  Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch.  Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him.  Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works.  Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly.  Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James.  Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well.  It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind.  Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving.  One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck.  This deserves to be better known.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country.  There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.”  And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religous figure in his last western.

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