Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Belle Starr 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 (narrator Lou Diamond Phillips), 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 James 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 is a tourist attraction.
Jesse’s mother sold the pebbles that lay atop his supposed grave — and, when they got low, brought in more. Possibly he’s under asphalt: Some say he lies beneath a major nearby highway.
Billy the Kid, born in New York City, has had 48 movies made about his short life. His career started ignobly when he stole butter and laundry, but 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 Sheriff Pat Garrett, who later plugged him, the program examines the Kid’s 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 boother 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 shone the cinematic spotlight on them. And they apparently died separately in the United States without benefit of a fusillade.
This episode — the first of three one-hour spex on “The Untold West”– uses film clips (Tyrone Power as Jesse, Robert Taylor as Billy, Gene Tierney as Belle and Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch & the Kid), and shows a seg from the 1909 “Great Train Robbery” as “marking the beginning of Hollywood’s love with the West.” (The film 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.