Filmed by Modern Times Film Co. and TBS Prods. Exec producer, Michael Deane; TBSP exec producer, Pat Mitchell; TBSP supervising producer, Vivian Schiller; producer/director, Cathe Neukum; writer, Tom McMahon; Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Belle Starr, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Wild Bunch ride again — sort of — as writer Tom McMahon sets about deflating Old West legends with the assistance of writers, historians, descendants, an actor, a film director and other knowledgeable types. Hardly a spellbinder, docu does exactly what its subjects did: exploits without flair.
Their names, as is emphasized during the program, survive because of hype. James hailed from a slave-holding, Confederate-sympathizing family. His stepdad was beaten up by Yankees, and he and his brother Frank considered banks and railroads natural enemies. They led their notorious gang on a gun-exploding spree that was blown up by a newspaper editor and subsequent dime novels. His famous death — a gang member shot him from behind as Jesse straightened a picture in the family parlor — helped his popularity, and his proclaimed tomb’s a tourist attraction.
Jesse’s mother sold the pebbles that lay atop his supposed grave — and, when they got low, brought in more to sell. Possibly he’s under asphalt: Some say he lies beneath a major nearby highway.
Billy the Kid, born in NYC, has had 48 movies made about his short life. His career started ignobly enough when he stole butter and laundry; eventually he was responsible for six deaths and was sentenced to death for killing Sheriff William Brady.
Without poking much into his connections with a well-known judge and with Sheriff Pat Garrett, who plugged him, the program examines his wire-protected tombstone in New Mexico and shows a bullet hole he may have made in a wall.
Notorious Belle Starr, plain Myra Maybelle Shirley, wasn’t an outlaw at all. She married a Cherokee outlaw after her first hubby, a killer, was done in. Her obit after she was shot from her horse inexplicably described her as a “desperate woman,” and the Police Gazette and pulp magazines boosted her rep enough to boot her into the outlaw pantheon, proving the value of good publicity.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren’t much in outlaw lore, despite their Wild Bunch connection, until George Roy Hill’s 1969 feature shined the cinematic spotlight on them. And they apparently died separately in the U.S. without benefit of a fusillade.
First of three one-hour spex on “The Untold West,” program, using film clips (Tyrone Power as Jesse, Robert Taylor as Billy, Gene Tierney as Belle, and the obvious as Cassidy and the Kid), also shows a seg from the 1909 “Great Train Robbery” as “marking the beginning of Hollywood’s love with the West.” It was made in New Jersey.
Cowboy-poet Arden Stewart flatly recites doggerel about the Old West. Editing is good, and the selection of colorful feature clips shows how the Western won so many fans. Otherwise, intro stanza of “The Untold West” doesn’t raise much dust.