Tag Archives: Outlaw Gangs

The Lone Hand

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 9, 2016

The Lone Hand—Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, James Arness, Jimmy Hunt (1953; Dir: George Sherman)


In 1870, widower Zachary Hallock (Joel McCrea) and his young son Joshua (Jimmy Hunt) come to the town of Timberline, looking for a new start.  They buy a ranch at a good price and set about fixing it up, making friends with the Skaggs family, especially marriageable daughter Sarah Jean (Barbara Hale) and her young brother Daniel.  As their first harvest comes in, they buy a couple of riding horses from amiable horse trader George Hadley (Charles Drake) for a wagon load of grain.  Zachary and Sarah Jean are married, and she moves in.

Timberline is also plagued by a band of outlaws.  As Joshua is delivering the grain to Hadley, shots from ambush spook his horse and the grain is dumped into a creek and lost.  The slippery-seeming Varden brothers (Alex Nicol and James Arness) approach Zachary with an invitation to join them in a robbery.  They refer to a shadowy big boss, who gives them the information on which their robberies are planned.  It works out profitably enough, but Sarah Jean and Joshua wonder about Zachary’s unexplained absences on more jobs.  As Joshua follows Zachary, he is spotted by one of the Vardens (James Arness), who traps Joshua by the river until Varden slips, falls in and is drowned.


Sarah Jean (Barbara Hale) thinks new husband Zachary (Joel McCrea) has been less than forthcoming.

Zachary is to bring the mules up for a final big score (robbery of a mule train of gold), where he meets the big boss:  George Hadley, the horse trader and head of the local regulators.  As Zachary is captured, he is rescued, and the robbery is thwarted by the Timberline regulators, alerted by Sarah Jean.  It turns out that Zachary was a Pinkerton agent and was undercover with the gang until he could identify the real leader.  And now he, Sarah Jean and Joshua can live happily ever after.

Among Joel McCrea westerns of the early 1950s, this obscure one is not one of the most effective. It depends on a gimmick, with the movie being mostly narrated by Joshua from a position of partial ignorance.  Although the movie is not long (just 80 minutes), the gimmick is worn out before it is done.  Barbara Hale is competent and pleasant to look at, but not terribly charismatic.  (See her also as Randolph Scott’s fiancée in 7th Cavalry.)  Alex Nicol, who plays the surviving Varden brother, is a better and more interesting bad guy in both Dawn at Socorro and The Man From Laramie.  The river into which James Arness falls to his death is the same one (the Las Animas) used to good effect in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Charles Drake is so smooth and amiable as George Hadley that we know he must be the leader of the outlaws, so that development isn’t really much of a surprise.  If you are a particular fan of Joel McCrea (and I am), you may want to see this for the sake of completeness.  Although it’s pleasant enough fare, it may not be worth seeking out otherwise.  For other McCrea westerns from this period particularly featuring him in a parental role, see Saddle Tramp and Cattle Drive.


George Sherman was a journeyman director who moved more into television work in the later 1950s and 1960s.  He made quite a few westerns of which his best may be a late one:  Big Jake (1971) with John Wayne.  Story is by Irving Ravetch.  Shot in color around Durango and Moses Lake, Colorado, with good cinematography and excellent scenery.  Cinematography is by Maury Gertsman and music by Joseph Gershenson and Henry Mancini (uncredited).

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Return of the Bad Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2015

Return of the Bad Men—Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, George “Gabby” Hayes, Jacqueline White, Anne Jeffreys (1948; Dir: Ray Enright)


Indian Territory Marshal Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott) is retiring as a lawman to marry Madge Allen (Jacqueline White), the young and attractive widow of another lawman.  Early in the movie is the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, and the hasty settlement of the town of Guthrie.  The local military authority persuades Cordell to accept a temporary appointment as marshal, just in time for a gang of all the known outlaw names of the old west to start a crime spree (Youngers [out of commission since 1876], Daltons, the Arkansas Kid, Billy the Kid—who was long dead by 1889—and especially the Sundance Kid [Robert Ryan]).  They’re led by Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong), whose niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) decides to go straight and joins Cordell as his assistant.

It’s all very counter-historical, and somewhat formulaic.  Gabby Hayes as a toothless bank president?  That’s neither formulaic nor believable.  Things work out as you’d expect.  There’s supposed to be some sexual tension with Cordell and Cheyenne, and some competition between Madge and Cheyenne, but since Randolph Scott’s in his ultra-straight mode you know how that’s going to work out, too.   Cheyenne’s more interesting than Madge, though, and it makes you wonder about Cordell’s judgment.  Note also that the actress playing Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys) gets higher billing than the one playing Madge (Jacqueline White).  There is a good performance by Robert Ryan as a hard, ruthless Sundance Kid.


Two legs of a romantic triangle:  Production stills of Marshal Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott) captured by Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys).  And Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid.

The “return” of the title is an apparent reference to a successful film Scott and Hayes had made two years earlier, also about a law officer in Oklahoma territory:  Badman’s Territory (1946).  This is not really a sequel in any meaningful sense, except that it also includes a variety of unrelated and implausibly-gathered outlaws.

For another western in which Randolph Scott works things out with a woman (Angela Lansbury) unalterably opposed to his being a lawman, see A Lawless Street.  One recurring lesson seems to be to watch out for the attractive young widows and daughters of deceased lawmen—they tend to want you to leave the profession. (See The Tin Star, for example.)

Note: This is at least the third movie in which Randolph Scott’s character is named Vance, along with Virginia City and Western Union, which are both better than this is.


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Copper Canyon

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 6, 2015

Copper Canyon—Ray Milland, Hedy Lamar, Macdonald Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ian Wolfe, Mona Freeman, Hope Emerson (1950; Dir: John Farrow)


Welsh actor Ray Milland didn’t make many westerns, and the best of the few he did make is probably A Man Alone (1955).  The beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr made even fewer; this movie, from late in her career, seems to be her only western.  Nevertheless, they both show up in this watchable and busy story of North-South disputes and nefarious doings in a post-Civil War western mining town.

Shortly after the Civil War, a group of Confederate veterans approaches Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), who has a stage sharpshooting act.  They are under the impression that he is Col. Desmond, a former southern commander from Virginia.  Captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp during the war, he escaped with $20,000 the camp commandant had; as a consequence, he’s still wanted by the federal authorities, even though the war is over.

The southerners are mining copper but find themselves oppressed by a corrupt local regime in Coppertown and are unable to get their ore to market.  Carter denies that he is Desmond but shows up in Coppertown to put on his act in the local saloon, run by the beautiful and exotic Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr).  Both Roselle and deputy sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) have been sent to Coppertown by the mysterious Mr. Henderson (Ian Wolfe) to keep the southerners from smelting and marketing their ore so he can buy them out cheaply.


Adversaries Johnny Carter (Ray Milland) and Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) strike up a closer acquaintance.

Carter strikes up a relationship with Roselle to the irritation of Travis, who has been trying to develop his own interests there.  While Roselle tries to keep Carter involved with her and not joining a miner’s wagon train to Mesa City, he slips out to give the miners cover by pinning down Travis’ attacking men.  Back in Coppertown, he is betrayed and framed for the robbery of the $160,000 in proceeds from Mesa City.  Carter has finally persuaded Balfour, owner of the local smelting facility, to allow the southerners to use it, but Travis shoots Balfour in the back.  With Roselle’s help Carter gets out of jail and stops the cut-rate sale of claims to Henderson.

Using military skills, Carter organizes an attack on Travis and his men at the smelter, with the support of the local cavalry Lt. Ord (Harry Carey, Jr.).  He wins a shootout with the nefarious Travis.  At the end he takes the stage out of town with Roselle, never having admitted that he is Desmond–if he is.  Lt. Ord is promoted to captain.  And Carter and Lisa take off for Sacramento and San Francisco to start a new theater, with $20,000 Carter happens to have in the lining of his gun case.


Carter (Ray Milland) is captured by Deputy Sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey).

While pleasant and watchable fare, this isn’t terribly memorable.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Milland and Lamarr, as the attraction of these characters to each other overtakes their competing agendas.  According to stories from the production, the two leads couldn’t stand each other.  Milland doesn’t seem like much of a southerner.  Undeniably beautiful (and reportedly very intelligent as well), Lamarr doesn’t exude much warmth.  There are a lot of characters, many of whom remain underdeveloped. Six-foot two-inch Hope Emerson could be excellent in character parts (see her in Westward the Women [1951], for example), but here she is underused as Ma Tarbet, a bartender and associate of Roselle.  Philip Van Zandt is the cheerfully corrupt sheriff of Coppertown, dominated by his deputy Travis.  Harry Carey, Jr., is fine in one of his young lieutenant roles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Rio Grande, 1950).  Macdonald Carey usually appeared in westerns with much lower budgets and less upscale casts, but he makes an excellent villain here.

CopperCanyonMilland2Hedy Lamarr-1949

Stars Ray Milland and Hedy Lamarr in publicity stills.

Director John Farrow’s best-known western is Hondo (1953), although there are stories he didn’t finish that one.  This is in lively color, with a lot of plot for its 84 minutes.

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The Oklahoma Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 23, 2015

The Oklahoma Kid—James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp, Harvey Stephens, Hugh Sothern, Ward Bond (1937; Lloyd Bacon)


The most obvious feature of this western from 1937 is that the two best-known actors in it have the most urban personas of any from the 20th century.  That’s perhaps one reason why James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart didn’t make many westerns.  They don’t sound all that authentic in a western, either.

The Oklahoma Kid:  “Listen, I learned this about human nature when I was but so high, and that is: that the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong.”

Cagney plays the outlaw of the title, the Oklahoma Kid.  It is 1893, the eve of the famous Oklahoma land rush into the Cherokee Strip (the largest land run in U.S. history).  There were several Oklahoma land rushes, the most famous in 1889 and 1893, featured in Tumbleweeds (1925, William S. Hart’s last film), Cimarron (both 1931 and 1960 versions) and Far and Away (1992), among other movies.  The land to be opened to settlers this time has been bought from the Indians for a pittance, but even that pittance is robbed from a stagecoach by the evil Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang.  However, it is also stolen from them by… the Oklahoma Kid.  McCord sees to it that the original crime is attributed to the Kid, instead of to his own gang.


Wes Handley (Ward Bond) is inclined to take on the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney) over his choice of music.

Meanwhile, law-abiding folk are planning to set up the town that will become Tulsa.  The Kincaids, father John (Hugh Sothern) and son Ned (Harvey Stephens), will ride their fastest horses and claim the site.  Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane) will come along shortly after, with law and civilization.  However, McCord and his men are Sooners, sneaking across to the land the night before the gun goes off, and they claim the Kincaid’s site first.  The Kincaids strike a deal:  they get the town site they want, but have to agree that McCord gets exclusive rights to saloons, booze and gambling.  That sets up a conflict between the forces of law (regular folks) and chaos (McCord).

When there’s talk of setting up a vigilance committee, McCord frames John Kincaid for a murder.  It turns out that the Oklahoma Kid is Jim Kincaid, John’s wild son, and he comes back to help the old man.  He brings back Judge Harwick to hear the case, but he’s too late, and a venal hack judge has sentenced John to hang.  John refuses to be busted out of jail, though, and, as Ned, now the local sheriff, pursues the Kid, McCord whips a mob into a fury.  By the time Ned and the Kid get back to town, their father is dead.


Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and the Kid (James Cagney) come to an impasse.

The Kid starts to hunt down the four of McCord’s men who led the mob:  Indian Joe, Wes Handley (Ward Bond), Curley and Ace Doolin.  The last is Doolin, whom he wounds, and Doolin testifies to McCord’s involvement.  Ned goes to arrest McCord, but McCord gets the drop on him and shoots him.  The Kid comes up the back way, and McCord looks like he will get him, too.  But the dying Ned shoots McCord, the Kid’s name is cleared of the original robbery charges, and he gets Jane Hardwick, who had previously been engaged to Ned.  (Ned was apparently unaware that guys named Ned never get the girl in movies.)

This had a bigger budget than most 1930s westerns, as we can tell from the top-flight stars and main-line director.  Cagney’s particular form of screen energy dominates the movie, making the Kid seem kind of a pre-gangster of the plains.  Cagney was a bigger star than Bogart at this stage of Bogart’s career.  Cagney and Bogart didn’t get along well on the set, much as their characters didn’t, although they went on to make Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) together—gangster movies, for which they seem much better suited.  Cagney made two more westerns in the 1950s as his career was coming to a close:  Run for Cover (1955), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).  Bogart made at least one more; he shows up as a Mexican bandit chieftain in Virginia City (1940).  This film is surprisingly watchable, considering the apparent unsuitability of the casting and the fact that it’s from an era when westerns were generally made very cheaply and had little cinematic prestige.  Director Lloyd Bacon was versatile (his work includes 42nd Street and other musicals with Busby Berkeley as choreographer and Knute Rockne, All American), but he didn’t make many westerns.  According to Cagney, Bacon wasn’t the director originally slated to direct.


Cagney wasn’t entirely happy with the way the project turned out.  In his 1976 autobiography Cagney by Cagney, he described how the project started:  “The picture was an idea of [writer] Ted Paramore’s, who conceived of doing the story of the mountain men, particularly of their paragon, Kit Carson.  We researched it and I came up with some things I wanted to do, pretty exciting things, I thought.  Warner’s, without warning pulled Paramore off the script and without a word to me, changed directors.  When I got the final script it had as much to do with history as the Katzenjammer Kids.  It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer.”  Bogart, profiled in the New York Times just before the film’s release, seemed not all that wild about it.  “I speak the same lines and do the same things as I do in any other Warner picture.  The only difference is that I snarl at the Injuns from under a ten-gallon hat.”  Actually, Cagney’s hat is significantly larger than Bogart’s.  Bogart seemed preoccupied by the hats; he was famously quoted as saying that “Cagney looked like a mushroom under [his] huge western hat.”

Music is by Max Steiner; cinematography is by the legendary James Wong Howe.  Shot on the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California.  In black and white, at 81 minutes.

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The Salvation

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2015

The Salvation—Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mikael Persbrandt, Jonathan Pryce, Douglas Henshall (2014; Dir: Kristian Levring)


This is a bleak Danish Euro-western with a vengeance-driven plot.  Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are Danish veterans of an unsuccessful 1864 war with Birmarck’s Germany, as Germany grabbed the traditionally Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein.  In the wake of the war they came to settle on the American frontier, and after seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and 10-year-old son Kresten are finally able to join them.  As Jon and his family take a stagecoach from the town of Black Creek, they are joined at the last minute by two men who have been drinking.  In the course of the journey, the men show interest in Jon’s wife and knock him out of the coach.  He follows and finds first his dead son and then his wife’s body.  Implacable, he kills the two men responsible.

It develops that the more offensive of the two was the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a Union army veteran, former Indian fighter and now local outlaw chieftain.  Delarue has terrorized the town, led by mayor-undertaker Keane (English actor Jonathan Pryce) and sheriff-priest Mallick (Scottish actor Douglas Henshall), but now he ups the ante.  He demands that in two hours the town surrender the killer (obviously impossible), or two people for him to kill.  When he doesn’t like the two chosen, he gratuitously shoots a third.


Col. Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes his head tax.

[Spoilers follow.  If you plan to see this in the near future, you may wish not to read this and the following paragraph.]  Delarue is not operating alone.  He is chasing people off so that a railroad can take over the town and all the country around because it has oil—hence the name Black Creek.  Keane buys up farms for a pittance and delivers the deeds to Delarue.  When Jon and Peter come back to town to sell their farm, Jon is captured and Peter thrown in jail.  Peter escapes and releases the beaten Jon.  As they flee, they split up, and Peter is killed. Jon finds a rifle and heads back to town.


Brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), not a man to underestimate.

Delarue has raped his brother’s widow Madelaine (Eva Greene), who has a scar across her mouth and is mute from having her tongue cut out by Indians.  She tries to leave but is restrained by Delarue’s men, and he gives her to them.  Having made it back to Black Creek, Jon kills Keane and puts him in one of his own coffins.  Jon starts picking off Delarue’s men one by one, and a larger-scale battle breaks out.  Jon is hit twice, and it looks like Delarue, the last survivor of his band, will win.  But voiceless Madelaine kills him with a rifle blast to the back.  As Sheriff Mallick and his posse come back to town, Jon orders them to leave, and then he and Madelaine leave together.


Former soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a man to run.

Mads Mikkelsen, with the sharp planes of his face, plays implacable very well, but he seems mostly to have only one expression.  Eva Green, with no dialogue but only her ferocious eyes for communication, is very effective.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes an adequate villain, but one that is written without much subtlety; the story would work better if there were more dimension to him.  Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt as Jon’s brother Peter may be the best character in the movie, but he is killed off too early.  French-English former soccer star Eric Cantona plays one of the most prominent of Delarue’s henchmen (the Corsican).  This is an unusual take on the immigrant experience in the American west.

The combining of town positions like mayor and sheriff with undertaker and priest make clear the town’s connivance with Delarue and its responsibility for what comes of that.  The sheriff-priest has chosen to protect his flock by acceding to the presence and dominance of evil.  This kind of collective guilt is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s town of Lago in High Plains Drifter (1973), although The Salvation has none of its surrealism.  The necessity and ultimate futility of violence remind us more of Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992).  There is little dialogue and less exposition.  Although the movie is not long at 92 minutes, it feels quite leisurely, even slow, in its pacing.  As a western, it works; although it is violent, it nevertheless does not exactly revel in the violence.  This may be the best Danish western you’ll ever see.


Madelaine (Eva Green), recent widow who doesn’t say much, is not a woman to take lightly.

The film was co-written and directed by Kristian Levring.  The excellent cinematography, much of it in tones of brown, is by Jens Schlosser.  It was shot in South Africa, with the occasional butte or other geographical feature to remind us, perhaps by means of CGI, of the American west.  The music, mostly quiet guitar, is played by Javier Mas.  Rated R for violence.  Seen at several film festivals (including Cannes) in 2014, it was released in the U.S. in art houses and video-on-demand in late February 2015 and is scheduled for release in the UK in April 2015.

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Frank and Jesse

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 16, 2015

Frank and Jesse—Rob Lowe, Bill Paxton, Randy Travis, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Maria Patillo, Sean Patrick Flanery, William Atherton (1995; Dir: Robert Boris)


This was not in fact originally made for television, although something about it has that feel.  The best actor in this film is Bill Paxton, who plays Frank James, although Rob Lowe as Jesse James is better than you’d expect.  There are lots of historical inaccuracies, but it’s not terrible; there are many worse Jesse James movies out there.  This sticks to some of the facts about the James brothers, using the dates for some of their better-known depredations.  But it juggles around others and feels free to invent things whenever it wants.

The outlines of the James brothers’ story are familiar by now.  Frank and Jesse are veterans of the Missouri border wars in the Civil War, having ridden as guerrillas with both William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.  (Frank refers to both of them having participated in Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas.  Frank was probably there, but Jesse wasn’t.)  They are less than comfortable in a post-war Missouri where carpetbaggers and avaricious Yankee railroads play prominent roles, oppressing honest citizens.  Pinkertons hired by the railroad attack their mother’s home (the famous attack is out of sequence in their career, and the results weren’t exactly as depicted); the brothers pay the mortgage for a widow who helps them.


The James brothers (Rob Lowe as Jesse, Bill Paxton as Frank) on the run.

They are driven deeper into a life of crime, assembling a gang with the Younger brothers, Bob and Cole (Randy Travis), Clell Miller, Archie Clements (who was actually killed during the war) and the Ford brothers (much earlier than the Fords were actually involved with the Jameses).  They rob the Gallatin bank in 1869 (it actually took place in 1866), killing the Yankee manager who insults their Confederate service.  Frank is depicted as against killing and being the brains behind the gang’s public relations activities.  Jesse is colder and quicker to kill.  We are glad when Frank loses the distracting tricorn hat.  The gang robs trains, on one of which they encounter Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton, whom we are quick to recognize as slimy after his roles in the Die Hard movies), which never happened.  Jesse and Allan Pinkerton never met, as far as we know.

The famous Northfield raid of 1876 is not very accurate.  When the gang arrives in September, there is snow on the ground.  The gang shoots down a number of townspeople; in fact, two people were killed, aside from gang members.  It shows Charlie Ford having previously warned the Pinkertons of the raid, which didn’t happen.  Both Cole and Bob Younger, as well as their brother Jim, who is not shown in the movie, were shot up.  But Cole didn’t kill a dying Bob, as shown here.  All three Youngers were taken prisoner, and Bob died in prison some years later.  Nothing much is shown of the six years between the Northfield raid and Jesse’s killing in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1882.  Both Jesse and Frank get married, to Zee (Maria Pitillo) and Annie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), and attempt to have family lives while on the run.


Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton) has the James gang in his sights.

In the end, the Ford brothers approach Jesse with the intention of killing him, motivated by both threats and promised rewards from Pinkerton.  This shows Charlie doing the shooting, when it was Bob who killed Jesse.  It depicts Jesse as knowing what was coming, cooperating with it, returning the gun and even deliberately turning his back for the shot, thinking it would get the authorities off Frank’s back.

This is not in the same league with The Long Riders (1980) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), but it doesn’t have that kind of ambition.  It’s better than American Outlaws, for example.  It’s worth watching for its version of the interplay between Frank and Jesse.  A little familiarity with Jesse and Frank’s careers and chronology is helpful, but don’t take them all that seriously.  Just enjoy this for what it is, including the fact that Rob Lowe isn’t as bad as you expect.  He makes a decent Jesse James, better than many on film.  Enjoy William Atherton’s malevolent self-righteousness as Allan Pinkerton.  Bill Paxton and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson had parts in 1993’s Tombstone, as Morgan Earp and Mattie Blaylock, respectively.  Normally, the presence of a country music star in a western is not a good sign, but Randy Travis is better as Cole Younger than some others have been, with a distinctive voice that seems to fit.  Sean Patrick Flanery shows up as a Chicago Tribune reporter, a sort of sympathetic counterpoint to Pinkerton.


In color, rated R, written and directed by Robert Boris at 105 minutes.  Apparently its numerous departures from the facts were made consciously.  At the end of the movie, it makes this disclaimer:  “This motion picture is based upon actual events.  However, some of the characters and incidents portrayed and many of the names used herein are fictitious; any similarity of such character, incident, or name, to the name, characters or history of any person, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”  The title is sometimes written as Frank & Jesse.

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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)


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).


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.


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.


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.


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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The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)


One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.


Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.


Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.


A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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Jesse James (1939)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 24, 2014

Jesse James—Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, Nancy Kelly, Henry Hull, Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, John Carradine, Slim Summerville (1939; Dir: Henry King)


If you had never seen a Jesse James movie, this might not be a bad place to start—not because it’s strongly factual (it isn’t), but because it’s almost pure romanticized legend.  It’s a top-flight big-budget production with a strong cast, a big-name writer and a well-known director, in color at a time when almost all films were in black and white.

Jesse James: “I hate the railroads… and when I hate, I’ve gotta do something about it.”

As the film opens, the St. Louis Midland Railroad, in the person of Barshee (Brian Donlevy at his slimiest), is bullying and bamboozling poor, honest Missouri farmers into selling their land for much less than it’s worth. That doesn’t work on the James family of Liberty; their mother, Mrs. Samuels (Jane Darwell) feels poorly but is strong-minded. When Jesse (Tyrone Power) shoots Barshee in the hand while he’s trying to use a scythe on Frank (Henry Fonda), Barshee gets a warrant for his arrest. While trying to serve it, he throws a bomb into the room where Mrs. Samuels lies, killing her and starting the James brothers on their outlaw trail for good.  Jesse confronts Barshee in a bar, killing him and one of his strong-arm minions.


Good ol’ Missouri farm boy Jesse (Tyrone Power) becomes notorious outlaw chieftain Jesse James.

Jesse has to leave his long-time girlfriend Zee Cobb (Nancy Kelly), niece of the local newspaper editor, Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull).  Liberty Marshal Will Wright is sympathetic to them, like many of their fellow Missouri citizens, but is also romantically interested in Zee.  After Jesse and Frank have started a successful career robbing trains, Zee and Will talk Jesse into taking the railroad’s offer of leniency if he turns himself in.  However, the sleazy railroad president has no intention of keeping his word and plans to see Jesse hung.  (The offer of a deal to return to respectability that turns bad is also a feature of the stories of Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.)


Jesse (Tyrone Power) turns himself in to sympathetic Marshal Will Wright (Randolph Scott).

Through the craftiness of Frank and the connivance of Will, Jesse is liberated.  Before resuming his outlaw career, he and Zee are married, but the outlaw life wears on her.  When her son is born, she returns to her uncle’s home in Liberty, and Jesse turns mean.

Zee Cobb James:  “Shooting and robbing—it’ll just get in your blood, Jesse. You’ll end up like a wolf!”

A detective spreads word that if a member of the James gang kills Jesse, he will receive $25,000 and amnesty.  Bob Ford (John Carradine) is tempted, and he warns the detective about the gang’s next job in Northfield, Minnesota.  The gang is shot up, Jesse is badly wounded and Frank and Jesse barely escape, desperately jumping their horses through a storefront window and, later in the pursuit, over a cliff into a river.  Frank disappears from the story at this point; Jesse escapes his hunters and arduously makes his way back to St. Joseph, where Zee finds him and nurses him back to health.  He resolves to take his family to California and go straight.


Frank James (Henry Fonda) runs for his horse in Northfield when a bank robbery goes bad.

As he is about to catch a train west, he is visited by the Ford brothers, Bob and Charlie. They tell him Frank wants to do a last job, and he is tempted. But he refuses, and as the brothers are leaving, Bob shoots Jesse in the back.  As the film closes, Major Cobb gives a populist eulogy for the deceased outlaw, painting a very sympathetic portrait of him.

Many of the members of this cast do very well. Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy and Donald Meek are all very good.  Power was known more for costume dramas, but he made a few good westerns (The Mark of Zorro, Rawhide).  Henry Hull quickly becomes tiresome in his role as the hard-drinking editor, the first of a string of those in westerns. (See, for example, Wallace Ford in Wichita and Edmond O’Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)  This is a problem in the writing, as well as in Hull’s overplaying.  Nancy Gates as Jesse’s wife Zee often comes across as sanctimonious in her sometimes lengthy ruminations on outlawry and such; again, much of this is due to the writing.  She did not have a robust career, but she appeared in at least one other good western in the same year:  Frontier Marshal, also with Randolph Scott.  At this point of his career, Scott often played ethical characters with criminal conflicts (Western Union, Virginia City); here he is also conflicted because of his attraction to Zee and his sympathy for the brothers.  He’s the most ethical character in the film, although he doesn’t really have much to do.  Both Donald Meek and John Carradine would appear the same year in the superb Stagecoach.

Although it has occasional bursts of action, there are also several spots where it bogs down slightly with a lot of talk, when Jesse is briefly in jail, when Zee is philosophizing about the outlaw life, or when Major Cobb is dictating another of his cranky, repetitive and tedious editorials.  Notwithstanding the pacing problems and talkiness, the technicolor Tyrone Power is always great to look at, and Henry Fonda as Frank is excellent and persuasive.


A brooding Tyrone Power as Jesse; and the real Jesse James about the time of his death at 34 in 1882.

This would be followed the next year by a sequel.  Since Jesse dies at the end of this movie, the sequel is about Frank:  The Return of Frank James, with Frank seeking revenge for Jesse’s killing.  Henry Fonda as Frank, Henry Hull as the tedious Major Rufus Cobb, Donald Meek as the slippery railroad president, John Carradine as Bob Ford and J. Edward Bromberg as Runyan the detective all reprise their roles.

The variations from actual history are too numerous all to be mentioned here.  The film makes no mention of the James brothers’ guerrilla history with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.  There are no Younger brothers in the gang; all the members but Jesse and Frank are nonentities.  Events like the railroad-sponsored bombing are misplaced and telescoped together in time.  Mrs. Samuels was not killed by the incendiary bomb, but she did lose an arm and it killed her youngest son.  It was not what started their outlaw careers but came after they were well-established in robbing trains and banks.  Bob Ford was quite young when he killed Jesse, and he was not a member of the gang on the Northfield raid.  No one gave any warning to authorities in Northfield; the citizenry was just well-armed and prepared not to let its bank be robbed.  Jesse was not wounded at Northfield, although other members of the gang were killed or badly shot up (e.g., the Youngers).  The movie shows Jesse being killed shortly after recovering from his Northfield wounds. In fact, the Northfield raid was in 1876 and Jesse was killed six years later, in 1882.  There is no evidence that Jesse was planning to move to California when he was killed.  Jesse was not the Robin Hood figure shown in this movie.  For a more accurate historical depiction of the James brothers and their depredations, see The Long Riders more than forty years later.


The film has an unfortunate place in movie history because of a stunt.  As Frank and the badly wounded Jesse are making their escape from Northfield, they both appear to ride off a 70-foot cliff into a river below.  While it appears to be two riders and two horses, the second is simply a closer camera angle of the one stunt, so it looks different.  The horse in the stunt was killed, however, which caused such an outcry that it led to the formation of what became the American Humane Association’s Film and Television Unit.  Since 1940, the unit has monitored the treatment of animals in movies, and since 1989 the phrase “No animals were harmed during the making of this picture” (a registered trademark) has appeared in the credits of movies for which it is true.  The stunt is visually impressive, but knowing what the outcome was dampens the viewer’s enthusiasm.

In 1939, the use of color in film was in its infancy.  Few movies were in color, like the big productions Gone With the Wind and Dodge City.  This was.  Director Henry King had been making movies for 25 years at this point, including such notable silent films as Tol’able David and The Winning of Barbara Worth.  He was not involved with the sequel.  He made several more memorable westerns, including The Gunfighter and The Bravados, both with Gregory Peck, before finishing his long and eminent career more than twenty years later.  Writer Nunnally Johnson had a newspaper background, like many others of the best writers for movies (Ben Hecht, Charlie MacArthur).  He sometimes played a production role on movies, and he was prominent enough that his name sometimes even appeared with the movie’s title in the credits (“Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones,” for example).  He did not write many westerns, although he did some uncredited work for King on The Gunfighter.  Shot on location in Missouri.  108 minutes long.


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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)


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.


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.


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.


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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