Every generation has to have a crack at the Billy the Kid legend, and in the late 1980s it was time for another go-round.
Emilio Estevez was cast as the Kid. Like the real Bonney, he was a New Yorker come West, though his West was Hollywood rather than war-torn New Mexico. He was the son of Martin Sheen (Martin was born Ramón Antonio Gerard Estevez) and Emilio was, in the 1980s, making his way as a movie actor. At the time of filming Young Guns he was 25, and looked reasonably baby-faced, no worse than many Billies anyway and a lot more youthful than some. I would also say he managed the ‘merry killer’ aspect rather well.
The first picture grouped this Billy with other ‘Regulators’ in a sort of brat-pack:
Dick Brewer was played by Emilio’s brother Charlie Sheen, who had made a breakthrough in Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Wall Street. The real Brewer was killed in the attack on Buckshot Roberts at Blazer’s Mills in April ’78, and so was this one. In the movie he seems to be the foreman or boss hand who tells the others what to do.
Doc Scurlock was Kiefer Sutherland, another movie brat (his parents are Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas) who was then 22. The real Scurlock was leading the gang during the McSween house siege, but left his comrades in November 1879, aged 30, and moved to Texas, where he settled down and became a highly respected citizen, dying at 80. In the movie he is the poet and lover.
Dermot Mulroney played another Regulator, ‘Dirtface’ Stephens, here called Dirty Steve Stephens, named, as you may imagine, for his low standards of personal hygiene. He was another Tunstall hand who was part of the gang. Mulroney, a classically trained cellist, had had a small part in Sunset earlier the same year but this was his first big movie role. The real Stephens died in 1878 in the McSween house conflagration but little else is known about him, not even his birth date.
Jose Chavez y Chavez (1851-1924) – they drop the Jose part in the movie – was another of the riders. He was a Mexican-American who eventually died in his bed aged 72. He is part Navajo in Young Guns, perhaps because he is played by Lou Diamond Phillips, who is an eighth Cherokee and often took ‘ethnic’ parts. He’d been a success the year before as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. In Young Guns and especially Young Guns II he provides the required in-touch-with-nature bit, not to say a dash of mumbo-jumbo. It also emerges that chief bad guy Murphy starved his people to death – “I am the last of my clan” – to add heinous villainy to the already deep wickedness.
And of course you’ve got have Charley Bowdre, and that’s Casey Siemaszko, who was 3-D in the Back to the Future flicks and one of the boys in Stand By Me. We know more about Charles Meriwether Bowdre, born 1848, who was yet another of the gang. He had worked a cheese factory with Doc Scurlock. With Scurlock he is said to have taken cattle rustler Jesus Largo from Lincoln jail in 1876 and lynched him. There were no charges preferred. In August 1877, he and a companion were arrested for shooting up the town of Lincoln while drunk. He was the one who shot Buckshot Roberts in the stomach at Blazer’s Mills, from which wound Roberts died the next day. Bowdre fell in love with and married Manuela Herrera, a sister of Doc Scurlock’s wife Antonia. But he perished at the rock house at Stinking Springs in December 1880, shot down by Pat Garrett’s posse.
So there’s the gang. There’s no Frank McNab, no Jim French, no Coe brothers. Well, they can’t squeeze them all in.
I recognized a bit of the dialogue from Warren G’s Regulate:
Regulators! We regulate any stealing of his property And we damn good too, but you can’t be any geek off the street Gotta be handy with the steel if you know what I mean to earn your keep
Not that I’m a great fan of rap (is it rap?) I’m rather more interested in Warren G Harding than Warren G, but hey, it’s catchy.
The two pictures are played as noisy action movies, with loud 80s rock music, wisecracks, and those stupid phew-phew noises when characters twirl guns or knives.
They were written by John Fusco, who, IMDb tells us, dropped out of high school at 16 to travel the American south as a blues musician and factory worker. The Walter Hill picture Crossroads in 1986 used this Southern blues experience. Later screenplays, such as those for DreamKeeper, Hidalgo and Spirit all had (very) vaguely Western tinges but he’s probably best known for the Young Guns outings.
Christopher Cain directed the first one. He would later direct the not-very-good Mormon story September Dawn. I suppose he does OK on Young Guns, in the sense that he keeps it rattling along. Ditto Geoff Murphy, who helmed the sequel. He was a New Zealander (he died in 2018) who is probably best known for his work on Dante’s Peak and those Lord of the Rings things. In 1993 he directed a TV movie Western, The Last Outlaw, also with Mulroney (and Mickey Rourke in the lead).
Visually, Young Guns and Young Guns II are rather nice. They were shot in attractive New Mexico locations by the excellent Dean Semler, who would become very well known as the DP on Dances with Wolves. It almost seems you can’t shoot a bad picture in New Mexico. Something to do with that wonderful pink light.
These movies have quite a few points in their favor. For one thing, Bonney is not the leader of the Regulators, as he is usually shown. The gang is more of a cooperative, as it were. If anything, Billy is the wild outsider. For another, rancher Tunstall in Vol 1 is not the mentor who teaches Billy to read. Bonney can already read with considerable fluency and ease, as he shows in the bunkhouse.
This Tunstall is played by Terence Stamp, who was fifty (the real Tunstall was a young 24 when he was killed) but movie Tunstalls were traditionally older guys. Stamp keeps his native Cockney admirably in check, playing it as a well-to-do English dude.
Naturally, as was always the case in Billy the Kid movies, the real bad guys are the House, led by LG Murphy. This Murphy is Jack Palance. As far as Westerns go, Palance never bettered his first one, Shane, in 1953, as the gunman in black Wilson. And sad to say it as I am, I’m afraid he got hammier and hammier as he went on until in later Westerns (this was his last, unless you count City Slickers) he was positively chewing the scenery. Still, it kind of fits here; they wanted an arch-villain, over the top in his nefariousness. Once again, if we want to be picky, Lawrence Murphy was in his 40s at the time and Palance was pushing 70. But luckily we don’t want to be picky.
He implies that Tunstall is collecting young men about him for perverse motives, and his henchmen all guffaw lewdly.
And of course Sheriff Brady (Daniel Kamin) is a bought-and-paid-for lawman in Murphy’s employ. Murphy boasts that all the Territorial officers are also doing his bidding.
There’s a lively New Year’s beano in the main street of Lincoln, which gives Billy a chance to show off his dance steps and Doc a chance to fall for a beautiful Chinese woman Yen Sun (Alice Carter) who says that Murphy is her “guardian” (it turns out that Murphy took her in payment for ruined laundry). Pat Garrett is also there – many movies had Billy and Pat meeting earlier than they did.
Garrett is played by Patrick Wayne, Duke’s son, so Pat played Pat. The movie Pat was pushing 50, whereas the real one was 28 then, but it doesn’t matter. Garrett is traditionally quite a bit older than Billy in the legend, even a kind of father-figure. And Wayne, P. could act, just like papa. Curiously, they changed Garretts for Young Guns II, hiring William Petersen to wear the star. He would be Captain Gideon Walker in Return to Lonesome Dove, I recall, but he hadn’t done much Western work before he was Garrett. He was at least younger, at 35.
Well, Tunstall is duly murdered by the Brady bunch, and Dick Brewer acts as preacher at the obsequies. We meet Alex McSween (Terry O’Quinn) and his wife Sue (Sharon Thomas, Mrs Director Cain). Justice Wilson (Victor Izay) swears the Tunstall boys in and they get badges. They duly hunt down and shoot various bad guys, which amuses Billy, though not Doc. The Regulators find they have a spy in the camp (Geoffrey Blake) and so Billy blows his brains out.
There’s a peyote trip and for once in a Billy the Kid movie we get the Blazer’s Mills incident. Old Buckshot Roberts is our pal Brian Keith, Western vet, whose oaters went right back to Arrowhead (he was the best thing about that noxious movie) in 1953. He was 67, older than the real Buckshot, who was 47, but Buckshot is dramatically better as a crusty old-timer. Chavez and Doc are both hit, but this is Charlie Sheen’s Young Guns adieu because Buckshot Roberts kills Dick Brewer dead. No Young Guns II for him.
Billy now shoots Brady back in Lincoln. This was in fact done from ambush, with Bonney as just one of the assailants, but that won’t do for the movies. You have to have a one-on-one gunfight with Billy shooting down the crooked sheriff in revenge for the murder of the kindly and pacifist Tunstall.
Billy has the famous photo taken. There’s a $200 bounty on his head. He throws his badge down in the dust, in time-honored fashion. We get the Joe Grant (Thomas Callaway) bit, as Billy removes a bullet from Grant’s gun so that it won’t fire and then kills him.
At the McSween house siege it’s Billy who gives the orders (in reality it was Scurlock). The Army appear – they don’t usually in Billy movies – with a Gatling gun (no howitzer though) and although Billy and Doc escape, McSween is Gatling-gunned. Well, it is an action movie. Billy now shoots Murphy between the eyes. Actually, Murphy died of cancer and alcoholism, but once again, that’s not so dramatic. Plus, it gives a useful last opportunity for Jack to overact.
And that’s about it for Volume 1. More loud rock music. Roll the credits.
Such was the commercial success of the picture that in 1990 we got Young Guns II. They may possibly have been already looking forward to a Young Guns III because they decided to go down to Brushy Bill Roberts route. Vol 2 opens with an old guy in White Sands, it looks like, and a lawyer fellow in a 1940s car. The geezer claims to be William Bonney. He says he is dying and wants the lawyer to arrange a pardon from the governor, the pardon he says he was promised all those years ago and never got. And when we get to the famed shooting of William Bonney by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881, it is indeed left ambiguous. The possibility of an escape by Billy is at least left open.
Of course this was not the first Billy the Kid movie to do this. They have even been known to shoot two endings, a Billy-dies one and a Billy-escapes one, and release different versions in different markets. And as we know, Billy was not the only Western notable to escape death, according to some of the more gullible among us. In 1948 a certain J Frank Dalton claimed to be Jesse James. In 1949 he actually posed for a photograph with Brushy Bill Roberts and the two pretenders supported each other’s claims.
Then there are all those stories about how Butch Cassidy didn’t die in South America but was identified alive and well in old age in various US states. I think it’s related to the ‘Elvis is alive’ phenomenon of our own day: fans can’t bear to think that their hero is gone. Add that to the propensity for conspiracy theories (which is certainly not new) and the level of credulity of many people – some people will believe anything – and you have an atmosphere conducent to your hero escaping his fate.
Plus, it opens the door to a sequel.
Amazingly a Vol 3 is planned. They are keeping the plot under wraps but three of the cast of YG2 will be back next year in a picture to be directed by Emilio Estevez which at least they aren’t calling YOUNG Guns 3, just Guns 3. Estevez is 60, so young would be stretching things a bit. Maybe they’re going to expand the Brushy Bill tale. We shall see.
But back to YG2 for a moment. After the Brushy Bill bit we go into flashback mode and we see four dirty bounty-hunters trying to get Billy for the reward. He plays dead and one of the would-be killers goes to cut off his tragger fanger, as he calls it, but of course Billy isn’t dead at all, just playing possum, and RIP the bounty-hunters. There was quite a legend of Billy’s trigger finger being a prized heirloom.
It now emerges that Billy is running with Dave Rudabaugh and, yup, Pat Garrett. Billy calls him Patsy.
Now Rudabaugh was a colorful character, let’s say. He was always known as Dirty Dave, to distinguish him, I think, from another crooked Las Vegas lawman, Mysterious Dave, who was Dave Mather. But they’d already had Dirty Steve Stephens in Vol 1 so now they call this one Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh. He’s played by Christian Slater. I hope Guns 3 may concentrate on his later story a bit because it’s a good one: he was captured with Billy at Stinking Springs and imprisoned at Las Vegas, the county seat, then in Santa Fe was sentenced to 99 years, but he escaped, with his pal JJ Webb, and went to Arizona, where he fell in with the Clantons. So we have a fascinating link between the Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp tales. Dirty Dave may have even participated in the murder of Morgan Earp and the attempted murder of Virgil Earp, and he may also have been present at the gunfight at Iron Springs in which Curly Bill Brocius was killed – though we don’t know this for sure.
As the so-called Cowboys dissolved, Rudabaugh crossed over into Mexico where he was no more law-abiding. On February 18, 1886 he was involved in a gunfight with locals in Parral, Chihuahua. He killed two men and wounded another. Leaving the saloon unharmed, but unable to find his horse, he went back in a few moments later, which turned out to be a fatal mistake. He was shot several times from the shadows, and then was decapitated with a machete and his head placed on a pole. So perished Dirty Dave Rudabaugh.
In the movie there’s a running bit of ‘business’ as Dave claims leadership of the gang, but no one seems to have heard of him, to his annoyance, even though he says he’s killed 65 men, not counting Indians and Mexicans.
They meet up with a 14-year-old orphan boy (Balthazar Getty) from Pennsylvania who is infatuated with Billy, so the Kid gets a Kid. This boy stutters, allowing for the joke of him calling Billy the Prince of Piss, and only later managing to get out the Prince of Pistoleers. This is Tom O’Folliard. The real Tom did indeed sort of hero-worship Billy, though he was not a little kid, being born in 1858, and he was a Texan, but hey.
We meet ‘Beever’ Smith, as he is called. And now we see Doc Scurlock, a benign schoolmaster in New York, teaching poor children to read in a jolly way, until a bunch of thuggish lawmen burst in and haul him back to Lincoln, NMT, where he is thrown into a pit, and who should also be languishing in this dungeon but Chavez y Chavez.
Billy meets Governor Wallace (Scott Wilson) who offers him “leniency” in return for help in putting away the malefactors. Billy refuses “leniency” and will only take a “full pardon”, and Wallace agrees. We also meet District Attorney Rynerson (RD Call), who vows to get Billy the rope. The real Rynerson was in fact a very nasty piece of work and he and Judge Bristol (Tony Frank in the movie) were pro-Murphy corrupt and vindictive men who were a disgrace to their professions.
Hooded vigilantes now descend on the pit where Doc and Chavez are held, and it looks bad for them, but luckily under one hood is Billy; the aim was to release the boys, not lynch them.
We meet Chisum, and it’s none other than James Coburn, Garrett in Peckinpah’s 1973 telling. There was a good deal of this recycling of actors as different characters. For example, Barry Sullivan was Peckinpah’s Chisum and he had been Garrett on The Tall Man. Coburn as Chisum gets to repeat his “set fire to it” line, the one he had used at Governor Wallace’s back in ’73. Like many Chisums, this one is not on the side of the angels. “I am New Mexico and you are dead!” he threatens.
Ash Upson makes an appearance, which is nice. Roswell postmaster, close friend of Garrett’s and later ghost-writer of Garrett’s memoir, Upson was a highly-colored character, alcoholic, classically educated, declamatory. Here he is played by Jack Kehoe.
Viggo Mortensen plays John W Poe. Though he is probably these days most famous as Aragorn in those Lord of the Rings epics, I’m a fan because of his Everett Hitch, deputy/sidekick to Ed Harris, in the excellent 2008 adaptation of Robert B Parker’s Appaloosa.
Rudabaugh demonstrates his crude loutishness by disrespecting a Native American burial ground which gets him into trouble, especially with Chavez, who is half Navajo, remember. In the subsequent combat, the Regulators side with Chavez, so Dirty Dave is worsted.
Now we get the Greathouse Ranch affair at White Oaks. This Greathouse ranch, though, is run by a madam, Jane Greathouse (Jenny Wright) – well, it’s adds spice – but that doesn’t help poor Deputy Carlyle (Robert Knepper) for he still gets shot. Pat burns her house down and she does a Lady Godiva act, departing.
Well, we get to the capture. Pat shoots Tom. Doc gets shot too, doing the Charlie Bowdre exit bit, and it’s RIP Scurlock. I don’t know how he’s coming back in Guns 3 but merely being killed has not been enough to prevent So-and-so Rides Again type movies in the past, so I’m sure he’ll be there. The same fate awaits Chavez later in the movie. RIP, Lou.
So Billy is taken, and sentenced to death. Ollinger (Leon Rippy) has loaded 18 dimes into each barrel of his shotgun, he tells Billy, and we all know what happened to those dimes, and it happens here, to loud rock music accompaniment. Obviously no Ollinger could ever be as good as RG Armstrong, though.
It’s Jane Greathouse, now re-clothed, who aids and abets Bill’s escape from the Lincoln court house.
Thus we come to the finale, with the death, as I said above, left open. Pat’s horse is stolen, we must assume by Billy. We go back to Brushy Bill in the 1940s. The End.
Well, there you go. If you like not-too-serious shoot-em-up Westerns you’ll probably go for these two movies. Good luck to you. Myself, I wouldn’t put them high in the rankings of the many celluloid Billy the Kid tellings, though they do have their points.
There’s just one more Billy the Kid movie I want to review, but that will be for next time.
Until then, até logo.