"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (TNT, 1989)

More historically accurate than most

Another milestone along the trail of the many film renditions of the story of Billy the Kid (there have been well over 100) came in 1989, between Young Guns and Young Guns II. This time Val Kilmer was Billy.

Mr. Kilmer was only just in his twenties still and so follows in a long tradition of ever so slightly long-in-the-tooth Billies. The actual William Bonney (let’s call him that) was almost certainly (we do not know his birthdate exactly) still a teenager or only just beyond that when he was shot down by Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner in July 1881. Some film Billies have been positively geriatric (one of the most famous, Kris Kristofferson, was 37 when he made Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid).

Mr. Kilmer did at least look youthful. He also tried to resemble Billy, as far as we know what he looked like. At one point in the film he wears those bulky clothes and squished top hat that we recognize from the famous tintype. Kilmer doesn’t manage the buck teeth, though. It was his first Western. Four years later he was to be an outstandingly good Doc Holliday in Tombstone but he hasn’t done many oaters, sadly. He had a small part in The Missing, which he supported, in 2003, and he was Inish Scull in the TV Comanche Moon in 2003, but that’s about it. He makes a pretty good Billy, I think, and manages to capture the probable juvenile irresponsibility of the fellow, with a cunning intelligence and violence lurking just below the surface.
Kilmer as Billy
Gore Vidal said in his memoirs that he had written the original script for the 1955 TV play The Left-Handed Gun, starring Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, and always felt that Warners had butchered the material when this play was made into a big-screen movie directed by Arthur Penn (and also starring Newman), so he wanted to go back to the story for a more historically accurate version.

Gore Vidal (1925 - 2012)
And indeed, Billy the Kid is probably the most faithful and factual non-documentary Billy film of them all. Not that we watch Western movies for a history lesson. But still, it’s nice occasionally to believe that what we are seeing is at least closer to the truth than we have been used to.

The film, which first appeared on Turner in 1989, was directed by William A Graham (1926 – 2013) who had helmed a fair few TV Western shows and made-for-TV movies (such as The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James)Billy the Kid is quite well done, though of course it’s hard to build tension when we all know so well what the outcome will be.
One of the better attempts
Duncan Regehr is Pat Garrett and he too tries hard for the look. So much is known about Garrett’s pursuit and execution of William Bonney (partly because he wrote about it himself), and the boy's subsequent life too is known in some detail, yet curiously we know next to nothing of his early years. Legend has it, and many Billy movies play on this, that Pat and Billy were old friends, even perhaps on the shadier side of the law, but there is no hard evidence for such a companionship and so writers and film makers have license. Certainly it enhances the plot dramatically.

Wilford Brimley does a convincing Governor Lew Wallace. Mr. Brimley was in 23 film and TV Westerns over a forty-year period, starting with Bandolero! in 1968 and the John Wayne True Grit in ’69, and he is always a pleasure to see. His Wallace occupies himself with Ben Hur (which the real Wallace did) and is rather dithery about what to do with the Kid, and Lincoln County lawlessness generally (which Wallace was).
Governor Brimley
Vidal perpetuated some of the legends, despite his claim to historical accuracy. Tunstall is unarmed, as he is nearly always shown. In fact Tunstall had nothing against firearms at all and he was far from the noble mentor of the young Bonney he is usually shown as. “Dolan has taken my store, now he wants my ranch,” Tunstall complains. Films need goodies and baddies and almost always the Tunstall/Bonney faction is shown as the put-upon honest ranchers fighting the oppression of “the House” with its powerful Santa Fe connections. In fact there was little to choose between the sides, both being greedy, grasping and lawless.

In this film Sheriff Brady himself shoots the unarmed Tunstall down in cold blood, with Billy as witness, and Billy decides to kill Brady in revenge, which he does just with his pal Tom (Patrick Massett). This is at best a liberal interpretation of the facts, and at worst a distortion. Never mind; as I said, we don’t watch Westerns for a history lesson.

We are told that Pat Garrett has bought Beaver Smith’s saloon in Fort Sumner. The ambush in which Tom O’Folliard is killed takes place not at Fort Sumner but out in the country. The outlaws hole up not in a rock house at Stinking Springs but in a cabin. Once captured, Billy is taken straight to Lincoln for trial. Well, it’s fair enough. They have to telescope events in a 96-minute video.

According to Vidal, it’s the father of Billy’s girlfriend who hides a pistol in the outhouse to enable Billy to escape. Surprisingly, we don’t see Billy shoot Bell and Ollinger; we just see the bodies. This girl, Celsa (Julie Carmen), is the sister of Pat Garrett’s new wife, so Pat and Billy are brothers-in-law in a way.

Old Tucson represents Fort Sumner, which is OK.

Albert Salmi is rather good as Pete Maxwell and Gore Vidal himself appears briefly as a preacher. Rene Auberjonois is a pro-Billy drunk who eventually turns Judas by telling Pat where he can find Billy. Well, it could have happened, I suppose.

It ends with Pat weeping over the corpse of the young Billy as it is carried to church.

Much is sometimes made of the homoerotic tints of this film. Call me obtuse but I didn’t see any suggestion of a Pat/Billy relationship in that sense. Garrett was a twice-married father of many children, and a loyal, decent husband, and Billy was famously fond of dallying with the Mexican-American girls, so it’s hard to see the sheriff and the outlaw as a pair of gay lovers, suppressed urges or not.

All in all, this is one of the better Billy movies and it is certainly classier than most. Kilmer’s Billy is much more convincing than Kristofferson’s hard-boiled, jaded man on the brink of his 40s or Newman crying to the sky in a frenzy of overdone method acting.

What’s more, Billy even has a derringer.



  1. In Hollywood movies (not just westerns) the big guy is usually the baddie when he goes against a smaller guy. Hence, Tunstall and friends are always portrayed as the good guys. The Lincoln County War was more like the Groucho Marx line, "Hey you big bully; why are you picking on that little bully".


    1. Yes,I think that Tunstall's main aim was to become as big a 'bully' as his opponents.
      Certainly the hero of a Western is often a 'small' or independent rancher/homesteader set against a rich and powerful, sometimes corporate power (big open-range rancher, railroad company, etc.)

  2. I think this is one of the better TV westerns, and Kilmer was very good indeed. Amazing how he just sort of vanished....

    1. Yes, he went off the Western radar really.