Book Review: Billy the Kid on Film 1911–2012, by Johnny D. Boggs

Billy the Kid on Film, 1911–2012, by Johnny D. Boggs, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., 2013, $39.95

No doubt the Billy the Kid legend would have endured absent motion pictures, which more often than not have distorted his legend. Think The Left Handed Gun, starring Paul Newman as the Kid; Billy in truth was no southpaw. Think Howard Hughes’ censor-vexing 1943 curiosity The Outlaw, in which Billy (portrayed by the otherwise forgotten Jack Buetel) and Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) cross trails with their sometime friend (in Hollywood fiction only) Doc Holliday (Walter Huston), and Billy gets tangled up with Doc’s untamed gal, Rio (Jane Russell). Their flawed history aside, those two films are far from great (arguably a great Kid film has not yet been made), but they get great coverage by author Boggs, who earlier wrote Jesse James and the Movies. In the silent era studios filmed more pictures about Jesse than Billy, and Boggs says it took the 1939 box-office success of 20th Century Fox’s Jesse James to convince a major studio, MGM, to put Billy on its A-list, with 1941’s Billy the Kid (starring Robert Taylor). “This strange Billy film, billing itself as ‘the first true story’ about the outlaw, is pure fiction,” writes Boggs, who adds it was “ full of history-twisting and moral whitewashing [and] wasn’t anywhere near as entertaining as Jesse James.” Nevertheless, Hollywood never completely gave up on Billy, and Boggs discusses 75 Kid movies, from awful ones like 1966’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (starring John Carradine—no, not as the Kid) to the 1988 blockbuster Young Guns and its 1990 sequel, Young Guns II.

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