It’s been a long time since I committed myself to doing a themed series. Having done a few of them in the past I kept putting this particular one off. Why? Well firstly, this kind of thing requires watching a number of predetermined films more or less back to back, and I normally baulk at that kind of discipline as I prefer to go with whatever strikes my fancy at a given time. Moreover, I knew that running a series on Billy the Kid means sitting through a few poor movies. Anyway, I finally got myself into the right mood and I’ve decided to delve into it. As with other series I’ve done I’m not claiming that this will be an exhaustive analysis of each and every cinematic representation of this figure – there are just too many movies that feature Mr Bonney. In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering what I think are all the major portrayals. I’ll obviously touch on the historical accuracy of the various films, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that side of things as I’m no expert and, besides, good history and good cinema don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So, let’s kick things off with Billy the Kid (1941), a film that dances around the facts, changes the names of just about every major character, but remains an entertaining piece all the same.
The opening sees Billy (Robert Taylor) breaking an old pal Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail, and subsequently finding himself drawn unwittingly into what would become this movie’s version of the Lincoln County War. In short, there’s a conflict brewing between two rival ranchers, Hickey (Gene Lockhart) and Keating (Ian Hunter) – read Murphy and Tunstall respectively – and Billy is hired as a troubleshooter by the former. One of his first tasks for his new master is to participate in a stampede of Keating’s herd. This excitingly shot sequence leads to a fateful reunion between Billy and an old friend from his childhood, Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy playing what’s really the Pat Garrett role), who’s now foreman for Keating. As the two men sit around the campfire it’s clear that a bond still exists, but circumstances have placed them at loggerheads. Gradually though, Billy comes to see that Hickey’s methods are unjustifiable and, after being impressed by the dignity of Keating, it’s not long before a switch in allegiances takes place. So, the two friends become allies under the moderating influence of Keating. Even after Pedro is callously murdered and Billy is itching for revenge, Keating counsels restraint. His way is to work within the law to topple Hickey. Such noble sentiments are cast aside though when Keating himself falls victim to the Hickey faction. The result is the outbreak of open warfare, and Billy and Sherwood, while united in their goal, stand divided over the methods to be used. Inevitably, these two will have to confront each other in combat. It’s surely no secret how the showdown ends, although this film depicts events in a much more heroic way. Leaving historical airbrushing aside, the face-off between Sherwood and Billy is effectively done, as is the earlier retribution that’s meted out to Keating’s murderers.
Robert Taylor was 30 years old when he made this picture and looked far too mature to play the callow youth of the title. Still, he turns in a good performance as a man who cannot escape the mistakes of his past. The script explains his descent into lawlessness as a consequence of his father’s being murdered and his resulting thirst for revenge. The upshot is that Taylor gives the audience an early take on the “angry young man” persona that cinema would explore in later decades. He starts out scowling and clad in black leather, easing into more relaxed and typical cowboy garb for the mid section when Keating’s got him cooled down a little, and finishes the same as the plot turns full circle to bring him back into confrontation with the law. Brian Donlevy frequently played the villain in westerns so it’s kind of refreshing to see him on the right side of the law for a change. The scenes where he and Taylor get to act as pals have a certain charm and affability that form a nice contrast to the later ones when they must lock horns and face each other down. The other characters are all painted with broad strokes though, Lockhart’s conniving runt and Hunter’s fair-minded crusader leaving us in no doubt who the heroes and villains are. Having said that, both men handle their material well and if complaints of black and white characterisation are to be made then the fault lies with the writing and not the acting. One of the really positive points of the movie is the wonderful location shooting in Monument Valley; director David Miller may not have been in John Ford’s league but he created some memorable images of tiny human figures dwarfed by those familiar rock formations. The climactic ride to marshal forces and take on Hickey is a great sequence that’s only marred by the puzzling decision to intercut sumptuous long shots with close-ups and poor back projection.
To my knowledge, there are currently two options for acquiring this film – one is from Warner/Impulso in Spain and the other is a DVD-R through the Warner Archive in the US. The Spanish disc is a weak effort that has a kind of hazy softness throughout – I thought it improved marginally as it went on but that may have just been me getting used to it. The print has had no work whatsoever done to it and there are numerous instances of scratches, damage, cue blips and the like. On the plus side, the colours seem to have held up well enough and make the location work look very attractive. As with all the Spanish Warner discs I’ve seen the subs on the English track are fully removable regardless of what the main menu seems to suggest. I’ve seen some screen captures from the US disc and they certainly appeared to be of better quality – crisper, sharper and better defined. The film itself is a fairly typical early 40s effort that combines solid drama with lighter moments. If close adherence to the facts is a prerequisite then this is not the film for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a reasonably entertaining western with professional performances and good location work it should check most of the boxes. Robert Taylor westerns are always good value and I’d rate this as one of his medium efforts.