Billy the Kid: A Reader’s Guide, by Richard W. Etulain, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2020, $34.95
In 242 pages Dick Etulain can’t possibly guide readers to all the written and filmed works about Billy the Kid. But he certainly covers the essential ones, not only listing but also assessing some 80 books, 85 essays, 35 novels, 75 newspaper articles and 25 films about a man who ranks right up there with Lt. Col. George Custer and outlaw Jesse James as most written-about Old West character. He points out the historical contributions made on paper and on-screen but also the factual inaccuracies.
It all starts with the 1882 book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, written by Pat Garrett (with significant help from ghostwriter Ash Upson) less than a year after the death of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. “The early chapters seem a mix of dime-novel sensation, journalistic hyperbole and false facts,” writes Etulain. “Very little of that beginning section can be proven, but leading Kid specialists are divided on the worth of the second half of the book, rumored to come from Garrett.” Etulain calls Robert M. Utley’s “smoothly written and rigorously researched” 1989 biography Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life the leading account of the Kid’s life. His top mark when it comes to historical novels about the Southwest outlaw goes to the 2016 Ron Hansen offering, The Kid, for its “careful, inviting combination of historical accuracy, skillful scene setting and plausible interpretation of Billy.”
On the big screen Etulain says Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in the title roles, “remains the strongest of the Billy films, revealing and convincingly dramatizing the persisting legends of a bifurcated Billy.” He suggests that despite its historical inaccuracies (for instance, Billy was right-handed), The Left Handed Gun (1958), with Paul Newman as the Kid, was most likely the best Billy the Kid film released before 1960. For more on the subject Etulain recommends Johnny D. Boggs’ 2013 book Billy the Kid on Film, 1911–2012.
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