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American Experience: Billy the Kid (DVD Review)

27 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

On big and screens and small over many decades, Billy (as a concept) has always reminded me a little of those exceptionally pliable tunes that would have been possible for both Lawrence Welk and John Coltrane to have performed. Which is to say that filmmakers have always been able to do just about anything they want with him — though perhaps slightly less malleability than the YouTube clip I recently saw of two Welk vocalists covering Brewer & Shipley’s "One Toke Over the Line" (I am not making this up). 

On the one hand, a straight shooter like John Wayne could find a way to utilize Billy — and not unsympathetically — as a supporting character in 1970’s Chisum. Whereas, a couple years later, Jack L. Warner wrapped up his long producing career by deglamorizing the outlaw about as much as anyone could by hiring Mr. Mold Culture himself (Michael J. Pollard) to play him in Dirty Little Billy. You want more? Paul Newman rook a shot at the role in The Left-Handed Gun, Roy Rogers got mistaken for BTK in one of his early Republic outings, and let’s not forget 1966’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula from a passion pit drive-in near you. Thanks to Sam Peckinpah, we even got to see Billy (per Kris Kristofferson) and Bob Dylan in the same movie.

Thus, I appreciated this documentary, in which even former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson throws in a couple cents about the degree to which the former William H. Bonney (atop other aliases) has captured the mass imagination for more than a century. The DVD jacket carries the famous tintype Billy posed portrait (no Sy Devore garb stylings here) that everyone has seen — the one that sold for $2.3 million at an auction last year. Looking at this anti-GQ shot brings to mind the caption (“His fortune isn’t his face”) that some politically reactionary editor and Elvis hater of my childhood put under a hoody-looking “King” shot that accompanied his magazine’s blistering pan of 20th Century-Fox’s Love Me Tender. On the other hand, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in this PBS bio that Billy was attractive to women: polite, gracious and certainly good-looking enough. The legend continues.

What we do nail down here, amid actor Michael Murphy’s narration, is that of all things, the fellow who became the most wanted man West of the Pecos was born to an Irish immigrant mother in (it’s likely) New York City. Dad’s identity remains a secret, but then a new adult male (New Mexico prospector) came into the picture. After he wed Billy’s mom, all three ended up in that territory not long before the latter’s TB death went a long way to wipe off what is described here as the “always smiling, always laughing” demeanor off her son’s face. The stepfather then ignored Billy — who, by age 16, was already hustling in brothels and saloons. You’re probably not going to get too far in life when you hang out with characters with names like “Sombrero Jack,” which is what Billy did.

What he also did — but only for a while — was to go back and forth between respectability (occasionally) and notoriety, remaining loyal to those whose own bad fortune in Lincoln County, N.M., at the hands of others sparked his vengeful streak. Billy got caught in the middle of a giant land grab by vicious Irish immigrants who didn’t like it when another immigrant (who was British — uh-oh) stood in their way. Billy sided with the Brit, and ambushes ensued on both sides — gradually leading to his incarceration in Pat Garrett’s jail at a time when Pat was out of town — not any lawmaker’s ideal situation given that Billy had already proven him to be a showy antecedent of John Dillinger when it came to escapes. The getaway described and dramatized here makes me think a little of Brando mixing it up in the jailhouse with deputy Slim Pickens in One-Eyed Jacks, though there’s no evidence here that either of two slain Garrett subordinates were in any way as scummy as Pickens’ character (I love it when Brando says to Pickens point blank, “You’re gonna get killed”).

There’s a great anecdote here about how immediately the news of Billy’s death at hands of pursuing Garrett reached the Midwest and beyond in the days of primitive communication. Garrett lived more than a quarter century after killing Billy under something less than whatever the Marquis of Queensberry equivalent is for rules of shooting someone — and the take-no-prisoners aspect of the fatal shooting did Garrett’s rep no good in the long run. The documentary doesn’t make the case that Billy and Pat were ever friends because evidence on that count is lacking. But, of course, had other filmmakers taken this fact to heart, we wouldn’t have some of the feature film renderings we have, and who would want that?

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