Monday, October 26, 2015

The Neverending Ballad of Billy the Kid

I never could understand this love affair with Billy the Kid.  This photo has put the notorious outlaw back in the news.  That's supposed to be Billy on the left.  If genuine, the photo is expected to fetch well over two million dollars, but just in case it is being insured for $5 million, as it is believed to be only the second known photograph of William Bonney.

Of course, National Geographic wasted no time in making a two-hour special on the photo, giving it the title:  Billy the Kid: New Evidence, hosted by Western aficionado Kevin Costner.  Part of the enduring myth of the Kid is that Pat Garrett never gunned him down at the Maxwell Ranch in New Mexico, and Billy lived to the ripe old age of 90 under the alias of Brushy Bill Roberts.  There were other claims as well that led to a DNA investigation in 2003, which proved to be anything but conclusive.

Billy's story has inspired writers, musicians and filmmakers down through the ages.  Aaron Copland even wrote the music for a ballet around the Kid.  Probably the most famous telling is Sam Peckinpah's 1973 movie, with the soundtrack provided by Bob Dylan, who also had a small role.  James Coburn, as Pat Garrett, comes off the more impressive of the two in this great scene.

Yet, these and other productions didn't give me new found respect for William Bonney.  He would have most likely died in ignominy had not New Mexico's territorial governor decided to put a price on his head, which is what led Pat Garrett to track Billy down.

Billy was a teenager when he arrived out West, working as a ranch hand.  The photo is alleged to be taken at the Tunstall Ranch, where John Tunstall was murdered by rival ranchers.  Billy went by his real, Henry McCarty, at the time and was loyal to the rancher and wanted to revenge his death.  There was a lot of feuding and fighting in Lincoln County, so this wasn't unusual.  However, researchers doubt the house existed on the ranch, as Tunstall lived a rather spartan existence in a dugout.  Tunstall was English though, so the croquet game Billy and the boys are playing seems fitting.

Sam Peckinpah has Billy floating back and forth across the border, doing whatever it took to keep himself and his gang happy.   Kris Kristofferson gives Billy a big grin and makes him quite the ladies' man.  Apparently, Billy was very charming and a bit of a dapper dresser.  But, he was also said to have a "hair-trigger temper," resulting in his violent reputation.  However, there are those who would defend Billy against all such allegations.

More than anything, Billy fit the prototype of the independent Western gunslinger.  Over time, his reputation grew to the point of becoming legend.  It helped that there were those like Brushy Bill Roberts who claimed to be him, as this kept Billy in the news into the 1950s.  As you can see, quite a few movies have been made of him, with his star power finally fading in 1990 with the sequel to Young Guns.  I suppose if there is any lasting image of Billy the Kid it is that of Buster Crabbe, who played him countless times.

The photo will no doubt revive interest, especially if it fetches a princely sum on the auction block.  You could see film producers scrambling for a young actor to play the role.  I just hope not Zac Efron.  However, it is hard to imagine kids today taking much interest in this mystical Western figure, unless he is part of some time travel fantasy like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, which itself is quite dated.  Maybe it is best to just let William Bonney rest in peace.

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