When outlaw Billy the Kid (born Henry McCarty, also known as William Bonney) was shot dead on July 14, 1881, his fame was already on the rise. Within a year of his burial in New Mexico Territory, his killer, Pat Garrett, was complaining about the “thousands of false testimonies” being circulated in “public newspapers and … cheap yellow-cover novels.” Over the next century, dozens of books and films would further blur the actual details of the child’s life.
In The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, his book-long attempt to provide a “true” account of the outlaw’s life, Garrett wrote that McCarty was “the equal of all fabled brigands, unrivaled in desperate courage and presence of spirit in Danger, loyalty to one’s allies, generosity to one’s enemies, bravery, and all those elements that appeal to the holier feelings.” (His description may have been fueled by a bit of guilt – earlier in the book he refers to the child’s ambush as “unfortunate” and “official duty”.)
Subsequent scholars have described McCarty/Bonney as a crude and unrepentant baby-faced killer. But whatever the truth of Billy the Kid’s life might be — maybe he was an illiterate psychopath who was gunned down at age 21, or maybe he was an all-American legend unfairly prosecuted by the law — it produced some great examples of westerns and crime fiction. For 140 years, writers and filmmakers have used the Kid to explore all sorts of interesting things about America, redemption and violence.
Outlaw as anti-establishment Christ figure: “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”
This 1973 film is a haunting, often elegiac retelling of the legend of Billy the Kid. It’s also a hot mess at moments, its tone swinging wildly from scene to scene, thanks in no small part to troubled production and an even more troubled post-production compounded by director Sam Peckinpah’s deepening addiction problems.
Like The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah’s other revisionist western, the plot of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is fueled by a schism between two former friends: Pat Garrett (a snarling James Coburn) who quits his job as an outlaw for the government encroaching on the western territories; and Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), who shoots people in the back but still acts as a blissful symbol of rebellion against a corrupt, often murderous system. At two points in the film, when Billy stretches his arms wide in surrender, the references to Christ aren’t exactly subtle.
With its deep shadows and quiet Bob Dylan score, “Pat Garrett” often plays more as western noir than straight western. In the end, Billy the Kid is probably the most honest character in the whole mess because he never tries to pretend he’s anything other than an outlaw and a rebel. The real Billy probably never saw himself in such big thematic terms, but that’s why we have films to capture those points.
Outlaw as poetic muse: “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid”
Long before he wrote The English Patient, a young Michael Ondaatje wrote a ‘verse novel’ about Billy the Kid, mixing poetry, prose, interviews and even contemporary newspaper clippings. Much of this plays out in the child’s mind, though the poetic stream of consciousness (“Blood a necklace on me all my life”) probably doesn’t come close to what the actual McCarty was thinking at any given moment.
Readers familiar with Ondaatje through The English Patient and its dense, beautiful prose might be struck by the reduced nature of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which at times reads almost like a Cormac McCarthy novel; but the tone also perfectly reflects the gloom of the western territories of the time, as well as the bitterness of Kid’s life.
Outlaw as Teenage Heartthrob: “Young Guns”
This 1988 film managed to cast most of the so-called Brat Packs as participants in the Lincoln County War that helped make Billy the Kid famous, including Emilio Estevez as Kid, Kiefer Sutherland as Doc Scurlock (one of Kid’s friends and a self-fearing Regulator) and Lou Diamond Phillips as José Chavez y Chavez. It’s loud and cartoony like the action movies of the 1980s, but you don’t care about historical accuracy — you want to see young, charismatic stars blast a bunch of bad guys to bits (including a blink of an — and you’ll — miss-it cameo from Tom Cruise).
Like many young men, the historical McCarty might have seen himself as a charming and charismatic brawler, the hero of his own story. In that sense, at least, “Young Guns” presents the Kid as he probably would have preferred us to see him.
Outlaw as a literary icon: “The Kid”
Ron Hansen, an author best known for the literary western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, produced a novel about the life of Billy the Kid, aptly titled The Kid. Like Jesse James, his Billy the Kid novel contains large chunks of beautifully written narratives that feel almost non-fiction, except that the details are too rich — for example, the historical record is too patchy to know when the child is grieving felt. or his wisdom teeth hurt.
But like Pat Garrett and many other writers, Hansen ascribes purer motives to the ruffian’s actions. “And it was his undoing that in his loneliness and loss he met a wild and vice-ridden crowd,” says the tale. “Would have made a revered, happy, screaming captain of all he overlooked if he hadn’t teamed up with villains like Sombrero Jack first.”
As with his novel about Jesse James’ final months, Hansen invests a great deal of energy in giving a murderous outlaw a nuanced, often tender soul. Does that match reality? We’ll never know, but Hansen has done a lot of research into how the boy watched his own growing legend. “He had friends who brought him newspapers from all over New Mexico and he read about his life,” Hansen told NPR in 2016. “Indeed he would – at least once he wrote to the newspaper’s editor saying that these appeared to be someone’s imaginations; I didn’t do any of that.”
Of course, that doesn’t excuse the child’s actual criminal acts, which the book explains at length. Hansen succeeds in the trick of great crime novels: he turns a criminal into a human and complicated character.
Outlaw as Cringe: “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula”
It’s hands down the most boring and cheap attempt to bring two cultural icons together in one film. Everyone probably felt terrible making it. You will feel terrible watching it even if you are a bad movie lover. Trust us on this one – the title is the best part.