Note—The bad news is the Old Man is slowing down. It has taken five days for me to finish the last of my epic series on Billy the Kid. I t has been a research heavy project that has led be down dozens of paths and I have sometimes gotten lost browsing amid my discoveries, indulging myself in clips of old movies, listening to songs, and reading far more of articles and sources than was actually required. Previously I might have powered through all of this by spending hours in the wee small hours of the morning after I got up to pee pounding away at the keyboard. These days I am inclined just to go back to sleep and delude myself that, I’ll finish it tomorrow. All of those tomorrows add up. The good news is I am perhaps becoming less anal about delivering a blog entry everyday come hell or high water. That was always just a self imposed schedule. I was afraid if I let up, you all might go away and forget about me. Now I promise to try and pull myself back up in the saddle, but don’t be surprised if a fresh blog entry does ont plop on your porch each morning. Like I said, I’m getting old and slowing down.
The creation of an enduring Billy the Kid mythos began with scattered newspaper accounts of the events that blew up around the Lincoln County War in 1878 where he was identified variously as Kid Antrim, William Bonney, and finally as Billy the Kid. The stories were fragmented, contradictory, and often exaggerated. Both the respectable press, using reports caged from New Mexico papers, and proto-tabloid sensationalists like The Police Gazette carried items and interest grew after his last daring escape from custody in Lincoln during which he killed two jailers.
The first dime novel fictionalizing his tale appeared in the months between that escape and his death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett. It was the first of 15 or so dime novels by various publishers issued between 1881 and 1806, many of them complete fiction and others wild confabulation of a few facts. Almost from the beginning the books split between those that cast Billy as a bloodthirsty criminal, almost a super villain finally vanquished by noble law men and those that portrayed him as a sort of Robin Hood and champion of the weak against powerful forces. This mirrored the polarized treatment of another famous outlaw, Jesse James.
Just six weeks after he was shot to death the first purported account of his life, The True Life of Billy the Kid by John Woodruff Lewis writing as Don Jernado. It was a mostly fiction pulp novel which portrayed it subject as a savage, almost insane.
|The first dime novel cost only a nickle and came out six weeks after Billy was killed.|
Garrett’s own book, a justification, called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, The Noted Desperado of the Southwest, came out in 1882. Lurid and fanciful chapters were penned by ghost writer Upton Ash, but the account of the final hunt for Billy and his killing seems to be mostly Garrett’s work in an attempt to eradicate the impression that the Sheriff had virtually executed Billy. Although initially unsuccessful, after Garrett’s 1906 murder it would attract wider attention and provide the basis for most other accounts for most of the rest of the century. It also revived interest in Billy the Kid.
Other early accounts of various degrees of reliability included a colorful chapter in cowboy, lawman, bounty hunter and later Pinkerton range detective Charlie Siringo in a chapter in his 1885 embellished memoir, Texas Cowboy; Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony. In his earlier days in New Mexico Siringo claimed to have personally known Bonnie and Garrett. Although his book was noted as the first account of life on the range by a working cowhand, he hyped and romanticized Billy the Kid—“His six years of daring outlawry has never been equaled in the annals of criminal history.”
Although novelist (Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ) and former Governor of New Mexico Territory wrote about Bonney in his memoirs—mostly a justification for his controversial decision not to honor a pledge to pardon the outlaw in exchange for his testimony in the Huston Chapman, the memoirs Miguel Antonio Otero provided an unusual view of Billy. Otero came from a line of distinguished New Mexico political leaders spanning Mexican sovereignty and as a U.S. Territory. In the 1890’s he became the first Hispanic governor of the Territory but as a young man knew Billy. His book The Real Billy the Kid: With New Light on the Lincoln County War wasn’t published until 1932 but was the first to explore the admiration and affection the Mexican community felt to the young bad man who learned to speak their language. Some were close friends and members of the Regulators like Jose Chavez y Chavez or joined him later for rustling escapades like the ill-fated raid on the Mescalero Apache Agency. Otero told how the Hispanic community, who were already being made to feel like aliens in a country they had inhabited for more than two hundred years looked at Bonney as fighting the same enemies they had—the big cattle operators who pushed them aside, gobbled up their small rancheros, and drove them from public office and life. They even had yet another name for Billy, el Chivato—The Kid as in a young goat.
But at the turn of the 20th Century no one had yet read, of if they could, would have cared to hear about, a Hispanic’s assessment of the New Mexico delinquent.
If interest had ever flagged it was ramped up again by news of Pat Garrett’s 1906 and the groundless but understandable conjectures that it was somehow revenge for Billy. And then there were the tireless efforts of writer Emerson Hough who between 1897 and 1908 wrote dozens of lurid magazine pieces, some claiming to be factual and others fictional that portrayed Billy the kids as ruthless villain in the purplest of prose—“the soul of some fierce and far-off carnivore got into the body of this little man, this boy, this fiend in tight boots and a broad hat.” He capped his efforts off with his 1907 book The Story of the Outlaw. This view dominated most cultural depictions, for the next two decades.
|The first Billy the Kid on film was a cross dressing woman! Edith Storey played the title role in a 1911 two reel western now lost. This still is from another oater she made the same year.|
In 1906 the first Billy the Kid play hit the boards in New York. We can assume it was a thrilling melodrama. In 1911 the first film was released, and it was a doozey. Billy the Kid was a now lost two-reel western starring Edith Storey as the Kid. You read that right. In this concoction Billy was a cross dressing woman out for revenge on the outlaws who killed her father. Storey, an excellent horsewoman, made a specialty of westerns early in her career before moving on to more elegant parts.
In the late 20’s people who knew Bonney or witnessed events were being discovered and interviewed by the press and some were writing memoirs or having their stories ghost written. Not all memories were accurate but several gave more detailed and accurate accounts. Although the stories, and coverage of the false claims of men claiming to be Billy, all contributed to growing interest in the tale, it would take historians of the next generation to start to mine these accounts as source material for serious scholarship.
In 1926 a more respectable popular American author, Walter Noble Burns scored with a best seller, The Saga of Billy the Kid, which stuck to the broad strokes of the true story still took liberties and featured exaggerations. But it was the first major portrayal of a sympathetic version of a young man caught up in events bigger than him and almost by accident becoming an outlaw after his benefactor and employer is killed. It is the first to echo themes of an underdog crusader for justice and to depict Pat Garrett corrupted by powerful forces that control the Territory.
|King Vidor's Billy the Kid staring Johnny Mack Brown and Wallace Beery was the first talkie and set the pattern for films with the Kid as the good bad guy.|
It was this book that inspired, director King Vidor to make a big budget feature for MGM. Shot in 1928 it was the first film Vidor, a raging populist, made after the popular and critical success of The Big Parade in 1925. It was also the first talkie version of the story. The clumsy nature of early sound technology which required the camera be isolated in a sound proof booth limited the kind of sweeping visuals and epic scale of The Big Parade and that a western adventure needed which contributed to the film’s box office failure. But it was widely seen and admired in the industry which understood the limitation Vidor was working under and set the stage for a new wave of films in which Billy was, “an instrument of justified vengeance and his enemies the villains of the story.” The film starred Johnny Mack Brown as the Kid and Wallace Beery, an A-list star in his own right, as the chunkiest, most menacing Pat Garrett ever.
MGM essentially remade the Vidor picture as a Technicolor epic with Robert Taylor as Billy and Brian Donlevy as a Sheriff renamed Jim Sherwood other historic characters were also renamed following vague threats of lawsuits for defamation by Garrett’s family and surviving witnesses to the Lincoln County War. This version was a box office success and became a long time staple of old movie packages syndicated to local TV stations in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
|Brian Donlevy played Marshal Jim Sherwood--the Pat Garrett figure--in MGM's 1941 technicolor remake of King Vidor's film with Robert Taylor as the Kid. In this version the lawman is a good guy and the reluctant hunter of his old friend.|
Dozens of films were made during the Depression era 1930’s and on into the early 40’s following more or less this formula. Many were B westerns churned out by poverty row studios for the Saturday matinee crowd. Many of them had nothing in common with the true story other than the name of the hero. On the high end from second tier studio Republic Pictures, their rising star Roy Rogers was featured in Billy the Kid Returns in 1938 in which the Kid is killed off by Pat Garrett right at the start and his unsuspecting doppelganger, Roy, wanders into town.
Lower down the food chain were 42 next-to-no-budget oaters churned out by ultra-poverty studio Producers Releasing Corporation from 1940 to ’46. The first 6 starred Bob Steele, a reliable mid-level B-western star, and the rest by Buster Crabbe, best remembered for the Buck Rogers’s serials, blonde hair, and terrible acting. After Crabbe finished his first 13 films in the series the character was re-named Billy Carson in 23 more. All were directed by Sam Newfield, “America’s most prolific sound film director.” The whole series has slipped into public domain and compilations for four or more muddy prints can be found in the $5-or-less bargain bins at cheesier discount stores.
|Howard Hughes' The Outlaw was a Billy the Kid flick starring Jane Russell's breasts.|
Certainly the oddest and most notorious film version of this period was Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw. It starred newcomer Jack Beutel as Billy, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett and Walter Huston as Dock Holliday. Oh, and Jane Russell’s breasts. Today no one remembers the colorless Beutel or the nonsense plot which posits a friendship between Garrett and the Kid that goes south when Garrett’s old pal, Holliday, comes to town and takes a shine to Billy. Billy then abuses Holliday’s gal pal Rio McDonald who naturally falls in love with him alienating Doc with unfortunate results all around. But everyone remembers Jane Russell’s heaving bosoms and legs from here to Texas. Filmed in 1941 she was so hot that film censors kept it from being exhibited until 1943 and even then Hughes withdrew it from circulation when film review boards in New York and Chicago demanded further cuts. The film, a badly-made botch, now has a cult following, or rather Russell’s boobs do.
Although films in the B-movie mold continued to be churned out well into the ‘50’s albeit some of them with bigger budgets during the Western craze of the decade, a new darker, esthetic was creeping into post-World War II westerns. On one hand were traditional pop-corn fare like William Castle’s 1954 The Law vs. Billy the Kid with Scot Brady as Bonney and James Griffith as his erstwhile buddy turned hunter Pat Garrett. A lame low budget Columbia release it used the names of real figures in the Kid’s life but as characters at odds with the true relationships.
On the other hand there was Audie Murphy’s first starring role in 1950’s The Kid From Texas. Only 25 years old and the most highly decorated U.S. soldier of World War II, the boyish, diminutive Murphy was one of the few actors ever to capture the real Kid’s youth. A pedestrian script none-the-less hinted at a deeply conflicted character and accepted a dollop of the moral ambiguity that would become the hallmark of the era of the anti-hero. The film suffers from the cute, perky Gale Storm as the Kid’s forbidden love interest. It almost seems like they should have met at the malt shop. An anti-Jane Russell if there ever was one.
But for the first of the revisionist versions of the Billy the Kid legend we have Gore Vidal, Paul Newman, and even James Dean to thank. In 1954 Vidal was a rising young script writer in what is now regarded as the Golden Age of television drama. His science-fiction comedy-drama A Visit to a Small Planet had already won awards and transitioned to the Broadway stage. He was in demand by the several prestigious anthology programs on the networks when he was asked by the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse to create an hour long teleplay about the outlaw. For inspiration he partly looked to the obscure 1950 B oater I Shot Billy the Kid staring Don “Red” Berry best remembered for the Red Rider serials which focused on the Kid/Garrett relationship and the sheriff’s fatal pursuit of a former friend. But Vidal, always passionately interested history did additional research and stocked his script with actual figures from the true story and incidents from Bonney’s life and emphasized his sympathetic support from the Mexican community. A promising New York stage actor named Paul Newman was the Kid and other, Jason Robards had a small but key role as one of the Kid’s victims, Joe Grant.
|James Dean's ghost haunted Left Handed Gun based on a teleplay by Gore Vidal and the first feature directed by Arthur Penn. It was one of Paul Newman's first staring movie roles. All had deep roots in television live drama.|
The program was aired live and no kinescope prints have survived. But it did make an impression on Warner Bros. executives who were looking for a new project for America’s hottest young actor, James Dean. They hired Vidal to expand his teleplay with Dean in mind. He did just that, but before the picture could be made Dean famously died in his sports car. Newman, who was still mostly toiling in anthology television but had an early starring role in the Biblical epic The Silver Chalice and had just completed a minor hit as boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me was tagged to reprise his turn as the Kid in Left Handed Gun. Warners stocked the cast with reliable actors familiar to viewers of its TV westerns—John Dehner as Pat Garrett and Denver Pyle as Bob Olinger. Director Arthur Penn, a veteran of live TV, was called up to the Big League for his motion picture debut.
The result was a memorable but flawed film with The Kid pictured as an alienated, somewhat sadistic youth. It has been called Rebel Without a Cause on horseback. James Dean’s ghostly finger prints were all over a film he never made. However it proved to be a career boost for those involved. Newman would vault to the top ranks of stars of the “new Hollywood” with his next films—The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Penn would have a distinguished career as a director often revisiting underdog rebels or western bad men in films including Mickey One, The Chase, Alice’s Restaurant, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, and Missouri Breaks. Vidal became one of America’s leading novelists, social critics, and a famous foil for conservative William F. Buckley. He increasingly was interested in sweeping historical epics that took a sideways view of the accepted American narrative through interesting but peripheral figures like Aaron Burr or Kate Chase, the ambitious daughter of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury.
In 1986 Vidal, who was dissatisfied with the inaccuracies in Left Handed Gun created what is credited as the most historically accurate of all films about the Kid after years of meticulous research. Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid for Turner Network Television (TNT) was promoted with the tag line “He was a cold-blooded killer and the All-American boy.” Val Kilmer played a nuanced, naive young outlaw.
After Left Handed Gun there was a lengthy lull in A-list films about Billy the kid, although he frequently popped up as a character in the popular TV westerns of the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s and continued to be fare for low budget productions. Perhaps the nadir of such films—or the odd homage of high camp came in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula with John Harradine as the vampire, half of a drive in double feature with Jesse James vs. Frankenstein.
Westerns in general were going out of fashion in 1970 when a sudden spate of new Billy the Kid flicks began to appear.
The first of these films, Chisum, produced by John Wayne’s production company, views the familiar tale of the Lincoln County war through the lens of legendary cattle baron John Chisum played by the Duke himself. Wayne was always partial, especially in his late self-produced pictures, with tough as nails authority figures—often self-made rich men. In most of these films the boss holds no truck with outlaws of any kind. But in this film Chisum is depicted as an active ally of Henry Tunstall and sworn enemy of the Dolan/Murphy faction as represented by Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker). That put him on the same side as William Bonney (Jeffrey Deuel, a little know TV actor.) It also flips the historic John Chisum’s final sponsorship of hunting down the Kid. The dramatic climax of this film, however, is Chisum and his cowboys along with Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) riding to the rescue of the Kid and Regulators in the siege of McSween’s store. The film curiously ends abruptly with no explanation of the outcome of the Lincoln County War, what happens between Garrett and Bonney, or the ultimate fate of Chisum himelf. Still, the film was enough of a success to renew interest in the story.
|Dirty Little Billy was the ultimate in revisionism--Billy as a cretinous, slovenly killer.|
Next up was the ultimate revisionist version of the story, completely upending the crazed killer, Robin Hood, and even misunderstood youth versions. Dirty Little Billy released in 1972 advertized “Billy the Kid was a punk” and delivers on that premise. It sets out to debunk not only the Kid legend, but Western cannon. It is an origin story of the Kid’s early days before the Lincoln County War. Michael J. Pollard, fresh from a similar role in Bonnie and Clyde was cast as a slovenly, stupid, simpleton with no conscience who fell under the sway of a much more charismatic couple, a rustler and a prostitute. Pollard’s Billy was borderline retarded. The film was praised by critics when it was first released for it supposed realism but did poorly at the box office. It does not wear well.
|Many regard Sam Peckenpaw's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid staring Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn to be the best Billy the Kid movie ever made.|
The next year director Sam Peckenpaw dished up his dystopian, blood drenched West where heroes and villains are indistinguishable and both are cynical and exhausted. The film got a lot of attention even during production because Peckenpaw cast lanky singer/songwriter and former soldier Kris Kristofferson as Billy and Bob Dylan as a quirky sidekick. It was only Kristofferson’s third film and second lead. His other starring role was as the marijuana dealing folk singer Cisco Pike. Interestingly he had a small part in Dennis Hopper’s blackballed ensemble film The Last Movie about a stranded film crew that re-enacts a Billy the Kid movie for a village of Peruvian peasants. The film followed the pursuit of the Kid by his former friend Pat Garrett played by James Coburn who is disgusted by himself and by corrupt forces that hired him but wearily duty bound to fulfill his mission. Like other Peckenpaw films of this era, it is a gut wrenching masterpiece. Kristopherson would go on to a solid acting career and secure a place as one of the few western movie stars of the late 20th Century with Clint Eastwood, and Sam Eliot. Bob Dylan’s soundtrack song Knocking on Heaven’s Door was a career boosting hit.
Probably the biggest hit version of familiar saga came more than a decade later in 1988 with the Brat Pack ensemble Young Guns. With all of the hot young actors in Hollywood featured, the film was a magnet for teen age girls who would never have plunked down money for a western. It made a fortune. Emilio Estevez starred as Billy and his older brother Charlie Sheen was pal Dick Brewster and other Regulators included Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Philips, and Dermot Mulroney. The solid cast was rounded out by such veterans as Terrance Stamp, Jack Pallance, Brian Kieth, and Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett. Staying broadly to the known facts of the Lincoln County War, the film was notable for highlighting the Regulators for the first time and not just depicting a one man show by Billy the Kid or boiling the gang down to a couple of symbolic companions. Historical nit-pickers have been critical because it claimed to be accurate but of course altered or embellished the facts. Some more traditional Western fans objected to what they considered a lack of a moral core, or for glorifying juvenile delinquents in cowboy hats.
Modern film economics make a film that successful an automatic candidate for a sequel. The problem was that the first movie ended with Billy and most of the Regulators dead and the rest scattered. Young Guns II in 1970 solved the problem with using the faked death angle to have Billy return from Mexico to reassemble the gang to rescue one of their own. In the possess the script backed up and picked up elements of the story left out of the first film then necessarily had to add new yarns making a hash of the historical timeline that the first film promised to honor—for which many never forgave the film. It filled the missing slots with actors playing other real regulators left out of the first film—Christian Slater as Dave Rudabaugh and Balthazar Getty as Tom O’Folliard. In this outing James Coburn was John Chisum and Chicago theater veteran William Peterson takes a turn as Pat Garrett.
Since then there have been other, minor additions to the Billy the Kid cinema cannon. One of the oddest was a made for TV western/fantasy/religious parable Welcome to Purgatory in 1999. In it a ruthless outlaw gang rode into the isolated town of Refuge where no one caries a gun or curses. They believed they found easy pickings but the place turned out to actually be Purgatory and all of the resident were famous outlaws trying to redeem themselves to get into heaven. They had to defend the town without violence, die all over again, or lose out on heaven and go to Hell. Donnie Walberg played Billy the Kid/Deputy Glen. The quirky film has something of a cult following.
Film and television may be the most obvious cultural artifacts of the Billy the Kid legend, but it has permeated almost every other means of expression. In addition to all of those dime novels and innumerable 20th Century pulp fiction appearances, the Kid has turned up in serious literature.
|An early edition of Michael Ondaatje's ground-breaking novel in verse. An avant garde Billy the Kid.|
Among the most remarkable was The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems, a novel in verse by Ceylon born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje published in 1970. Told mostly in first person vignettes spoken by Billy or other characters it wove an impressionistic version of the historical saga. Highly praised on its original release it won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry from the Canadian Arts Council. Ondaatije adapted it into a well received play. A more recent edition added new material. One critic wrote, “postmodern experiment with poetry, fragmented narrative, and photography, Ondaatje mines the essence, if not the facts, of Billy the Kid, using atmosphere, language, and form.”
In 1988 Texas novelist Larry McMurtry, best known for The Last Picture Show, the Lonesome Dove series, and later Buffalo Gals, tackled the story in Anything For Billy, told in the voice of a failed dime novelist who accidently falls in with the Kid at the very beginning of his life as an outlaw and accompanies him through largely fictional and sometimes fantastic adventures as he transitions from a frightened and confused boy to a reflexive killer. The entertaining romp masks real insights into legend and iconography.
Two recent novels show that interest is not waning. Elizabeth Fackler in Billy the Kid: The Legend of El Chivato was meticulously researched and made use of previously untapped letters, diaries, and court documents stitched together with plausible fiction. The Kid by Ron Hanson traces him from his New York City origins and early orphaning to becoming a loyal seeker of family in his adopted New Mexico.
In addition to fiction, practically every year brings new additions to an ever expanding bibliography of non-fiction including biographies of Billy, Pat Garrett, and other major and minor figures in the tale, accounts of the Lincoln County War, regional histories, and folklore. They include serious academic studies, and quickie cut-and-paste pop fodder.
|Carlton Comic's long running Billy the Kid: Westerb Outlaw book.|
For kids low rent Carlton Comics produced Billy the Kid: Western Outlaw from 1957 to 1983. Launched out of a previous western title, Masked Rider, it took over the numbering of that book at #9 and the original featured character disappeared. It was launched at the height of the Western craze on TV to compete with well established books from other publishers like Red Rider and books built around movie and TV heroes like Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger. Each number featured an entirely fictional adventure of a young blond haired gunslinger as lead story and a number of other regular features.
In music folklorist Alan Lomax recorded a cowboy ballad Billy the Kid which was also pressed on early 78’s. It began:
I’ll sing you a true song of Billy the Kid,
I’ll sing of the desperate deeds that he did,
Way out in New Mexico, long long ago
When a man's only chance was his own 44.
Woody Guthrie used the tune for So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya and re-wrote the lyrics for his own Billy the Kid ballad recorded on the Asch sessions for the Library of Congress in 1944. Dylan sang a version of Guthrie on the soundtrack album for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Marty Robins had a country and western hit with an abbreviated version of the Lomax find. Other artists have covered and adapted both. Several other popular musicians have used Billy the Kid as a reference including Tom Petty and Billy Joel.
|The album cover of one of many recordings of Aaron Copeland's Billy the Kid ballet, a staple of American dance troupes.|
On the highbrow end Aaron Copeland composed his ballet Billy the Kid in 1938 for choreographer by Eugene Loring and Ballet Caravan. It premiered at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. It has become a staple of the ballet repertoire and as the Billy the Kid Suite has been recorded by orchestras around the world.
No matter the medium the Billy the Kid legend still captivates attention. It has been called “an empty vessel into which we can pour our own dreams, aspirations, fears, and anxiety.”