By Antonio Malara
Billy the Kid, nickname of Henry McCarty was an American criminal who lived in the mid-nineteenth century. He was a gunslinging outlaw from the far west who was credited with dozens of murders. He became popular following a bounty placed on him by the governor of New Mexico in 1881. At that point he became something of a legend until he ran into Sheriff Pat Garrett, who captured and killed him when Billy was only twenty-one. Billy the kid subsequently became a symbol of rebellion and non-conformity, one who lived his life without those rules imposed by the system. Billy was that type of person who, starting from the crime, ends up being the victim and not the executioner, a sort of avenger rather than a killer, in those times where the distinction between reality and legend was very thin especially as regards the outlaws like him who moved from one place to another helping him to increase his legend and his deeds.
Personally I have never read a biography of Billy the Kid and I have never even seen a documentary, what I know of the character I have known only and exclusively through cinema. There have been many films dedicated to this far west gunslinger and I have only seen three, probably the most famous. One more than all was the one that struck me in a particular way but I want to go in order and talk about the Billy the Kid phenomenon by analyzing the three films I've seen about his character. I want to clarify that he will reveal the parts of the plot.
“The Outlaw” is a 1943 film directed by Howard Hughes and tells the story of Billy the Kid relating to an episode involving him, the character of another outlaw named Doc Holliday, his woman Rio and the Sheriff Pat Garrett. In Hughes' film Billy is described as an intelligent, rational and mistrustful person, a sort of far west narcissist. In The Outlaw the first character to appear on the scene is Pat Garrett who meets his old outlaw friend Doc who discovers the fact that Pat has gone legal by being a sheriff. Billy later appears as the individual who stole Doc's horse. Due to a murder committed by Billy, Doc decides to help him escape after he is injured by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Held under the care of Rio, Doc's woman, Billy once healed, seduces Rio and in doing so stealing Doc's woman as well as the horse. The second part of the film focuses on the escape of the protagonists chased by the sheriff, in a game of tension where the true intentions of both Billy and Doc are not clear. Once arrested by the sheriff, he is forced to free Billy and Doc so that they can help him escape from the Indians. Once in safety, always with a game of tensions, the duel that saw Billy pitted against Doc always for the horse, instead leads to the killing of Doc by Pat. In the finale, Billy first ties Pat to a pillar and then agrees with him, leaves his guns to Pat in order to make believe that the person killed was him and not Doc. The film closes with Billy leaving with Rio.
For a Hollywood film, The Outlaw was a bummer for several reasons. The first was the figure of Jane Russell who played Rio. The young Jane, even if with a sour face, showed her generous forms and a pointed breast perfectly exposed by her low-cut shirts. More than a film about Billy the Kid, it was a film about a friendship triangle and in fact the character of Doc was much more incisive than Billy thanks also to the performance of Walter Huston who had a superior expressiveness compared to the character who plays Billy. The film has become famous for the presence of Jane Russell who in her posters showed that irrepressible physique even more than in the film. Even today, looking at it, you can't help but notice her sexy shapes. The ending where the sheriff is chained up and the outlaw goes off with his girl was certainly against the trend for Hollywood canons, however this was offset by the death of Doc, Billy's new friend so in a sense it's as if the crime in part had been beaten. I saw the character of Doc as an alter ego of Billy, an excuse not to let him die, who at this point is no longer the real protagonist.
The Left Handed Gun
“The left handed gun” is the first film directed by Arthur Penn and stars Paul Newman in the role of Billy the Kid. In the film, Billy meets a rancher named Tunstall who takes him to work transporting cattle to the city of Lincoln. In the city, another businessman convinces the sheriff to stop Tunstall because he wants to sell at too competitive prices. The sheriff leaves with three other men and kills Tunstall while the latter, a peaceful and always unarmed man, tries to reach the city alone with his horse. Billy saw the men who killed his master and although he had known him for a short time he had immediately become fond of him for how he had treated him, accepting his past as a violent boy. In the city of Lincoln, Billy discovers who killed Tunstall and along with two other friends who also worked for Tunstall, kills the sheriff and another of the expedition that took out Tunstall. Billy flees with his friends and finds refuge in another city where there’s Saval, a person who can help them. In the same city he also finds solace in a gunslinger who befriends him; Pat Garrett. He tries to help him from a psychological point of view, trying to make him reason, not to be instinctive and to make well-considered decisions. Around that time, the new governor declared an amnesty that effectively exonerated Billy and his friends. They have a quiet time in town until Billy decides that he must complete his revenge on Tunstall, then back in Lincoln, they kill the deputy sheriff, also part of the expedition that killed the rancher. Subsequently during Pat Garrett's wedding, Billy in a daring way but more in defense kills the last member of the expedition, thus disappointing his friend Pat Garrett who at that point agrees to become the sheriff. Later Pat Garrett manages to arrest Billy in his escape, but killing his friends. Billy is sentenced by hanging and at the same time becomes a famous person thanks to the newspaper articles that speak of him. Billy manages to escape but returned to his friend Saval, he decides not to help him anymore. Feeling betrayed by everyone and surrounded by Pat Garrett, he decides to be killed in a firefight, disobeying the orders of the sheriff who later discovers that Billy was unarmed.
Arthur Penn's film is more of a far west drama than a full-blown western. Even if the events are not completely real, in my opinion it describes very well the soul and the character of the real Billy the Kid. In "The left handed gun" Billy is a tormented and obsessed boy "who never changes" as described by his friend Saval's wife. The sense of revenge and abandonment combined with the feeling of being misunderstood lead him to self-destruction. However the people around him understood it but Pat Garrett, Saval and his wife could do nothing to change it. The film also denounces two very American aspects. One is unfair competition with a trader who is a friend of a powerful person who influences him by putting the weaker one out of action (the sheriff who kills the farmer Tunstall). The other is the power of the media which, by telling and amplifying the story of a person who lives “outside the box”, creates his myth (in the movie there’s a scene where kids try to all sort of things to get to know Billy when he is in jail). "The left handed gun" is certainly a good drama beyond narrating the story of Billy the Kid and heralds films like "The Chase" where even there the protagonist is looking for a sort of redemption that he cannot find.
Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a 1973 film directed by Sam Peckinpah starring James Coburn as Pat Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. The film tells the story of the two gunslingers starting from what is an ending. In fact, the film opens with the killing of a powerful Pat Garrett in 1909. With a brief parallel, the film travels back to 1881 when Pat Garrett returns to Fort Sumner to visit his one-time friend Billy the Kid. Pat announces to Billy that he has decided to end the outlaw life and advises his friend to go to Mexico because the powerful of the Santa Fe Ring don't want him around anymore. Pat delivers a sentence to which Billy gives an answer that personally made me think and has always stuck in my head since the first time I saw the film. Pat says: “times have changed” and Billy replies: “times maybe not me”. In these answer there is all the essence that I will comment after the description of the film, a different vision of life that is still valid today for anyone. Pat gives Billy five days to leave the city, he obviously doesn't do it and after a few days on the run he is surrounded by the new sheriff Pat Garrett who arrests him. While in prison Billy manages to escape and brutally but also ironically kills the two guards who were holding him prisoner. From that moment on, the story of the two protagonists is divided and more than an escape and a chase, the film looks like an introspective journey of the two protagonists. Billy first seeks help from his old colleagues but soon after he has to continue alone because Pat has received pressure from the governor and therefore becomes even more ruthless by returning to being an outlaw rather than a sheriff. Through many little stories Billy returns to seek protection at Fort Sumner and Pat discovers his hiding place. Pat kills Billy after he spends a night making love with his woman and eventually the people who live in the village-fort despise Pat with the film ending with a little boy throwing stones at Pat as he rides away on his horse.
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is a metaphor for changing times but above all for people who change and become corrupted. Pat has decided to sell himself to the powerful because in doing so he would have a more peaceful and secure life. Billy on his side is not willing to live a flat life, scheduled and under the perennial influence of powerful people. In the sentence I mentioned earlier, there is the story of any human being, the one who has now lost inspiration and joins the powerful who will tell him what to do and the other type, who still wants to believe in freedom. The film uses the two characters to describe just that, a metaphor that is still valid today. Nowadays being ourselves, free from any pre-set ideology is something that becomes increasingly difficult. The film makes a mockery of the law which is criticized by the powerful Pat at the beginning of the film and it is never clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. It is as if this thing called law is not able to distinguish this double attitude of human nature. The gunslinger becomes sheriff at the behest of the powerful, he still behaves like a gunslinger in the name of the law and later criticizes it because he in turn has become one of the powerful and sees it as an obstacle to his plans. The gunslinger Billy wants to remain so, he wants to be free and kills in the name of personal justice by replacing the law. There is no winner, there are anti-heroes who in the end are reality and not the utopia of the heroes who still want to sell us today when it comes to honesty and justice. About Billy that does not change with the times is an aspect that I have always considered mine, that's why I loved the film from the first time I saw it. Watching the film today almost twenty years after the first time, I personally have not changed at all from an ideological point of view. I have never corrupted myself with anyone and I always pursue freedom as much as can be done in this era of slavery-capitalism that wants people to be all the same and obedient.
Pictures: Maria Chiara Malara