Billy rides again
Last year Epix, the premium cable and satellite television network owned by MGM+, joined the throng of those who since the silent movie days have been making films and TV dramas about the outlaw known as Billy the Kid. You might wonder if the world needs yet another Billy but there are certain characters of American folklore – one thinks of the likes of Jesse James or Wyatt Earp – who exercise a fascination on the public (not only the American public) that never seems to grow old. Every generation must make its contribution to the myth, just as there will always be a new Zorro, Robin Hood, Three Musketeers and so on.
MGM itself was an early entrant in the game, with its 1930 picture starring John Mack Brown as Billy, remade a decade-ish later with Robert Taylor in the title role, and as we have said before (for we have often ourselves returned to the subject on this blog, as the index under B will indicate) other famous Billies have included Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, and many more.
This one, the 2022 one, is the English actor Tom Blyth, who does well enough, I reckon. He has the slight bug-eyed look of the tintype, though not quite the buck teeth that Bonney (let’s call him that for the mo) was known for. At certain angles he looks like a young James Coburn, with touches of Bob Geldof. Is that praise? At 27, Mr Blyth was perhaps a tad old for the role – Bonney was probably born in the fall of 1859 and was still a teenager during the Lincoln County War, everyone remarking on his particularly boyish appearance – but Blyth does look quite young, and anyway, screen Billies have been notoriously geriatric. Franklyn Farnum in the now-lost 1925 silent was 47! Blyth manages the language well, in any case, an Englishman convincingly playing an Irishman in the US and often speaking Spanish.
Producers, set designers, costume people and so forth do well these days (if the production values are decent, and they are in this one) at getting an authentic look to the show. Production designer John Blackie said, “We were going for a sort of lean and hungry scenery; the colors are pared way down so that the characters stand forward.” Executive producer Donald de Line added that “It was a very monochromatic look that continued into the wardrobe for our characters.” Billy wears that squashed hat and cardigan we know from the famous tintype. Other characters are costumed realistically and the buildings and accessories all look right. So full marks there.
Unusually for Billy dramas, this one takes the story back to his New York childhood. With eight 50-ish-minute episodes of Season 1, which only take us up to the start of the so-called Lincoln County War (in January this year the show was renewed for a second season), the series has the scale and scope (and clearly the budget) to do that, and it covers Billy’s childhood at some length. They used a small boy (Jonah Collier) to play the pre-teen Billy. He’s always called Billy, by the way, though the best guess is that his birth name was Henry. Despite a huge amount of historical research and many biographies, actual hard facts on Bonney remain few and far between. We don’t even know for 100% sure when and where he was born. But like other representations, this is a drama, not a documentary, and the English screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst and the show’s directors and writers had license to invent – which of course they certainly do.
Mr Hirst put together some popular English-history epics for the screen, especially about the Tudors, and as a recipient of a first class degree in English and American Literature at Nottingham University and having studied the writings of Henry James at Oxford, he must have more than an inkling of both the factual and folkloric elements he was dealing with.
As to be expected these days, the show plays about with chronology, flitting back and forth in time. It opens with the Joe Grant affair, which occurred in January 1880 (the show gives 1879 but it doesn’t matter). Bonney shot and killed Grant at Hargrove’s Saloon in Fort Sumner. The Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican reported, “Billy Bonney, more extensively known as ‘the Kid,’ shot and killed Joe Grant. The origin of the difficulty was not learned.” Bob Boze Bell wrote about this moment in True West in 2016. Apparently Bonney had been warned that Grant intended to kill him. Bonney told Grant that he admired his revolver, and asked to examine it. Grant handed it over. Before returning the pistol, which he noticed contained only three cartridges, McCarty positioned the cylinder so the next hammer fall would land on an empty chamber. Grant suddenly pointed his pistol at Billy’s face and pulled the trigger. When it failed to fire, Billy drew his own weapon and shot Grant in the head. A reporter for the Las Vegas Optic quoted Bonney as saying that the encounter “was a game of two and I got there first.”
But most of Episode 1, The Immigrants, concerns the departure of Patrick and Kathleen McCarty (Joey Batey and Eileen O’Higgins), the former reluctantly, from the New York tenement they lived in, with Coffeyville, Kansas as the destination. (More probably they were Michael and Catherine McCarty).
They are accompanied by their two sons, Billy and Joe. Rather curiously, I thought, young Joe (Leif Nystrom) hardly appears at all. The camera largely ignores him, all the limelight falling on Billy. We are occasionally reminded that there are two boys but we don’t see the other one. Joseph McCarty was probably born in 1863 and was four years younger than the lad who became known as Billy.
In Episode 3, Antrim, poor young Joe falls ill of consumption while the family is in Silver City and is buried there. However, True West magazine tells us that
Billy the Kid had a brother, or perhaps, a half-brother named Joe. Around 1880 he moved to Trinidad, Colorado where he made his living as a professional gambler. There was some newspaper gossip claiming he was planning to shoot Pat Garrett for killing his half-brother, but Joe denied it and said he and Garrett had discussed the killing and parted amicably.
Joe drifted to other New Mexico towns such as Las Vegas where he prevented a shooting by convincing a man to lay down his gun. In Silver City he helped prevent a lynch mob from hanging a man. Joe lived for a time in Tombstone. He wound up in Denver where he plied his trade as a small time gambler.
In 1928, a local reporter, Edwin Hoover, interviewed Joe but wrote him off as “colorless”. Hoover probably missed out on perhaps a great story. When told Joe was Billy the Kid’s brother the reporter blew it off with a “So what?”
Joe McCarty died on November 25th, 1930, in poverty at Denver, his body given to the Colorado School of Medicine. His age was given as seventy-six but he was probably ten years younger.
But back in E1, I liked Timothy Webber as old Moss, the driver who becomes mentor to Billy (including with one of those classic shooting lessons we see so often in Westerns).
The party suffers various calamities but eventually gets to Coffeyville, which, though, is a muddy, threatening dump. McCarty père has mental health issues, as they would be called these days, and is sunk in a depression from which he will shortly expire, the mumbo-jumbo muttered over him by a priest not helping much, leaving widow Kathleen and the boys to earn their keep in whatever way they can – though the boys’ mother does not sell herself sexually, as a friend suggests she do, saying that whoring or marrying are the only two options for a woman out West.
Billy is fascinated by firearms even as a young boy and soon becomes extremely adept with them. In E2, The Rattler, he disposes of a dangerous snake with a pistol, with remarkable speed and accuracy. The whole ‘quick on the draw’ myth (click the link for our exposé of that shibboleth) is played up in this series, and Billy is credited with lightning speed, as well as astonishing accuracy.
In this episode they go down the Santa Fe Trail and Billy protects his ma from the unwelcome advances of their driver, using the driver’s own gun. In Santa Fe they meet Henry Antrim (Jamie Beamish) with whom Kathleen is rather taken. He seems religious (Kathleen is a devout Catholic) and kind. Billy, though, can tell right away that Antrim is a wrong ‘un. The man leads a lynch mob that hangs three Mexicans, and Billy is already developing a liking for his Hispanic fellow men (though not yet women). And it’s Billy who is proved right.
Actually, this was William Henry Antrim, known to the boys as Uncle Bill, but I guess the writers didn’t want another Bill, given that they’d decided to call Henry that, and the family joined up with Antrim much earlier than Santa Fe (1873), probably meeting in Indianapolis in 1865 and then becoming quite prosperous in Wichita, where Catherine set up a laundry. There is not a great deal of evidence for the wicked-stepfather syndrome. Both boys seemed happy to take the Antrim name, for example. However, Antrim wasn’t around much, not even for the funeral of his wife when she died of consumption in September 1874, and he had little to do with the boys after that. Still, it’s more dramatic to have Antrim as a no-good.
In this episode Billy meets investigative reporter Ash Upson (Ryan Kennedy), who fills him in on the nefarious doings of the Santa Fe Ring, a ruthless secret society of rich men that has New Mexico law and justice in its pocket. Marshall Ashmun Upson (1828 – 1894) was a colorful character who established the Albuquerque Press in 1867, later postmaster at Roswell and JP in eastern Lincoln County. After the death of Bonney in 1881, Pat Garrett commissioned Upson, a spendthrift alcoholic who lived with Garrett and his wife, often to their despair, to ghost-write The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, which was full of exaggerations, absurdities and errors and which contributed largely to the ‘Billy the Kid’ legend. The TV show’s Ash will reappear, regularly, often at a crucial dramatic moment and often to help Billy out.
Episode 3, Antrim, reveals the true depravity of Kathleen’s new husband. He drinks, whores, steals his wife’s savings, loses money and uses foul language. A rotter, in fact. Billy is very tempted to shoot him but his ma asks him not to and he’s a good boy, so holds back.
We also meet another bad guy, Jesse Evans. The real Jesse Evans (born c 1853, disappeared 1882) was an especially nasty piece of work, a former Chisum cowhand who joined up with another desperado, John Kinney, and both were more than ready to steal and murder. Evans broke away from Kinney, who was wounded in a gunfight, and formed his own gang, which referred to themselves as The Boys.
The Boys were hired by LG Murphy of ‘The House’ in Lincoln and it was members of this gang that murdered Murphy’s rival John Tunstall in February 1878. The show’s writers decided to have Jesse (Daniel Webber, Lee Harvey Oswald in 11.22.63, looking and acting a bit like Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in the 3:10 to Yuma remake, I thought) as a friend of Billy’s back in Silver City, leading the boy into the ways of wickedness. It’s Jesse who gets Billy to try to rob the Chinese laundry in 1875, when Billy was 16, and it’s Jesse who teaches Billy the dark art of rustling.
For all through the episodes Billy is a good fellow, one of those classic Western outlaws who is decent deep down and really wants to go straight but is absolutely forced by cruel circumstance to shoot, rob, etc. You know. They went for this slant.
E4 is titled Interlude and it is a bit of one, in the story, but it does contain the Windy Cahill killing. Billy goes on the run to Arizona after escaping from prison as a result of the laundry affair, and joins up with another rogue, known simply as Alias (not very like Bob Dylan in another Billy picture) played by Michael Adamthwaite. Billy and Alias get taken on by rich rancher Henry Hooker (Gardiner Millar) but to do that Hooker makes Billy sing, and the boy silences the saloon (and impresses the barmaid) with his beautiful Irish ballad. Later he will sing again, accompanied by himself on a guitar. He’s obviously musical, this Billy, which the real Billy was said to be. However, the TV Billy also drinks whiskey, which the real one didn’t. The next morning he will wake up in the barmaid’s bed, the first philandering we see.
Hooker actually died on his ranch in 1907 but in the show Alias kills him in an argument over rustling.
It is now that Billy takes the name William H Bonney, because Alias tells him it would be unwise to go on using the Kid Antrim one, what with the law after him and all. Billy and Alias go rustling army stock at Camp Grant. The local blacksmith, Cahill (Trevor Lerner), suspicions that Billy’s horse is one of those stolen at Grant and accuses the lad of horse stealing (a wicked crime in them days, as you know) and it leads to a fight in which Cahill is accidentally killed. Billy makes himself scarce but he speaks to his dead ma, rather like Henry Fonda talking to dead Jim Earp in My Darling Clementine and John Wayne talking to his late wife in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, you know how they do, and as a result he comes back to give himself up. The judge shows no mercy, though (he’s in the Santa Fe Ring, you see) and Billy is obliged to escape again, using a hairpin the barmaid smuggled him to pick the jail padlock.
But then Indians steal his horse and he is afoot in the desert, rescued in extremis by la belle Barbara (Christie Burke), a feisty member of the Seven Rivers Gang, led by, yup, Jesse. Billy and Barbara get it on, until Jesse gets back, when it is clear that she is Jesse’s girl, so there’s more reason for looming conflict.
E5, The Little Bit of Paradise, shows us one of Jesse’s gang members, Bob Olinger (Sean Owen Roberts) and clearly they are setting up Olinger as a nasty for his future demise at Billy’s hands, or rather Billy’s use of Olinger’s own shotgun, at the Lincoln County Courthouse on April 28, 1881. Ameredith R Olinger (no wonder they called him Bob) was in fact a Seven Rivers denizen but whether he rode with Evans in this way is unknown. Certainly he took part in the Lincoln County War and became a deputy, with James Bell assigned to guard Bonney after his sentence to hang. Traditionally, Olinger (or Ollinger) was a sadistic brute who mistreated his prisoner, best played by the great RG Armstrong in Sam Peckinpah’s version, but this may have been because Billy was usually regarded as a hero and Olinger-brutishness would mean he deserved his fate.
Jesse proves even faster on the draw than Billy, and we sense they are setting that up for a future Billy/Jesse showdown.
Billy goes down into Mexico where he runs into a certain Melquiades Segura (Guillermo Alonso) with whom he partners in a scheme to out-cheat a poker cheat, the creepy Don Ortiz (Emilio Merritt) and they will succeed but Don Ortiz will seek his revenge and there will be hell to pay. In the end Billy will become a killer (it was forced on him before then, self-defense and all) by shooting Ortiz dead.
E6, Fate, introduces us to Pat Garrett (Alex Roe, they’re going for more of a Glenn Corbett look than a James Coburn one). Of course many Billy dramas rehearsed the old story about Pat and Billy being longtime pals, making the final dénouement all the more tragic. There’s no evidence that they were friends before, but it’s better dramatically. In this show though, not only are they friends, Pat is running with Jesse and the Seven Rivers outfit. Worse yet, he’s one of the baddest hombres of that unsavory bunch. I’m not sure all this is terribly convincing. But we are told Pat had a tragedy in his past; his wife and baby died in childbirth, you see. Ah, that explains it. No wonder he shoots people. In reality, Garrett did marry, Juanita Martinez, who died 15 days after their wedding, and Garrettographer Leon Metz says Pat then married her sister Apolonia, though this is disputed.
It’s Pat who decides, “I’m gonna call you Billy the Kid.” In fact Bonney was generally known as simply the Kid, and the ‘Billy the Kid’ moniker came at his death, taken up by the dime novelists.
Billy goes back to Mexico to bust his erstwhile pal Segura out of jail, ruthlessly killing two guards. “You are different,” says Melquiades. Yup.
Well, we’re already at the penultimate episode and we still haven’t met LG Murphy or John Tunstall. They better get a move on. E7, At the House, remedies part of that. We meet petty tyrant Murphy (Vincent Walsh) who announces “This is my kingdom.” He’s a classic Western crooked town boss, with gunslinger henchmen. We oateristas have seen them a million times. We also meet Murphy’s slimy partners Dolan (Chad Rook) and Riley (Shaun Benson), as well as lawyer McSween (Luke Camilleri) who used to work for Murphy but was disgusted by his crookedness and went over to Tunstall. He’s not exaggeratedly Scottish as he often was in Billy movies, nor ultra-religious, ditto, and he’s rather posh and well-spoken. Sadly, Alexander McSween’s interesting and powerful wife Susan, probably the real driving force in Lincoln, didn’t appear at all. Maybe they’ll feature her more in Season 2. I hope so.
In any case, this show follows the usual pattern of painting The House as the out-and-out villains and the Tunstall faction as the goodies. In realty, there was little to choose between them. Tunstall was no do-gooder, and there is no evidence whatever that he eschewed firearms. He simply sought to replace Murphy and grab hold of the House’s monopoly. At least this series shows him as a reasonably young man. At 24 he was not that much older than Billy yet he is always shown in Billy films as an elder statesman sort of guy, a religious pacifist who teaches the young Billy to read (nonsense, Bonney could read very well already). But we still haven’t met Tunstall. They’re sure giving him a big build-up, and when he does finally pop up, in the last episode, he’s first seen in deep shadow, to heighten the drama of his appearance (all a bit over the top, really). He’s played by Benjamin Sutherland, actually a Canadian, 32 years old.
But back in E7, Billy is recruited by the bad guys, along with Jesse, Pat, Olinger & Co, and it seems he’s on the Murphy side. Being a goody, though, he tries to stop the worst excesses of the gang’s depredations on the poor Mexican farmers (Pat callously shoots one down). He has to give a demonstration of marksmanship at a Murphy party, which he does reluctantly. He meets nice chap Charlie Bowdre and his glam wife Manuela, who are on the side of the angels (aka Tunstall). It’s quite clear Billy is disenchanted with the ne’er-do-wells he is lumbered with and is thinking of changing sides.
We also meet Sheriff Brady (Bill MacDonald), who isn’t all that corrupt and lowdown as he usually was, though he is clearly in the pocket of Murphy and the Ring.
Billy meets another beautiful Mexican, Dulcinea (Nuria Vega), a rich lady, and pays court to her. He’s sure romancing the Mexican gals now. He was a bit of a slow starter.
The last episode of S1 is titled The Rampage, and I thought it’d be all about the Lincoln County War, but nay, they’re saving that for the start of S2. Instead, the titular rampage is Jesse and gang going round oppressing folk. Olinger shoots a small boy in the back while he’s running away. Oo, that’s bad. Riley’s wife is an alcoholic and not exactly chaste, and she tries to seduce Billy, who’s frightfully restrained and well-mannered, but Riley sees them together and it leads to ructions, fatal for Mrs Riley (not sure of the actress).
Billy finally changes sides, honorably going to Jesse to announce it first.
Season 2 next.
Well, well, it ain’t bad. As I said earlier, the look of it is good. The Alberta locations are very nice and there are some excellent shots. They do follow the facts more than many such dramas, even if they make full use of their poetic license, which I feel will probably be renewed in time for S2.
You could give it a go, if you have 8 x 49 minutes to spare. I found it on Paramount +.