The stories about Billy the Kid, the notorious outlaw whose life has been a source for countless tales and films, have been shrewdly spotlighted by producer-director-writer Todd Robinson, who’s built yet another version of the killer. Billy’s story isn’t over.
New York-born William H. Bonney, the Kid, who killed 21 accounted-for men before his death at age 21 in 1881, started his spitfire career in New Mexico in a mercantile battle between the Murphy-Dolan group and the Tunstall-McSween faction. The docu traces his brief career by comparing factual, mythical and film accounts of the young man. He’s been played by Johnny Mack Brown, Robert Taylor, Marlon Brando, Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Emilio Estevez, Audie Murphy, Kris Kristofferson (and an unmentioned Jack Beutel in Howard Hughes’ “The Outlaw”), plus countless others.
Easygoing host David Marshall Grant ambles around the New Mexico town of Lincoln, indicating sights and sites, and producer Robinson intercuts film clips illustrating how the Kid’s life has been misinterpreted. There’s a partially enlightening look at how Pat Garrett supposedly shot him in the dark, but even that is suspect. One man said to be the escaped Billy (there are many) is dismissed when computers measure his photo and Billy’s.
He was no Taylor or Newman. Short, buck-toothed and slow-witted, he was supposed to be granted a pardon by Gov. Lew Wallace, author of “Ben-Hur,” after giving himself up. When Wallace failed to pardon him, according to an historian, Billy felt betrayed.
The Sheriff Pat Garrett-Billy the Kid friendship has been turned over and over but never fully explained. The docu shows various filmed versions of the outlaw. The Johnny Mack Brown version — with Wallace Beery, as Garrett, killing Billy — had to be changed for sentimental American consumption; Europeans considered it appropriate.
The historians and writers who appear on camera have sorted out historical reality from legend. Film clips, photos, paintings and a reenactment on the streets of Lincoln all look at the mysterious Billy the Kid, who was given that sobriquet by a local newspaper of the time.
The Kid remains obscure, despite this absorbing work. Legends die hard, and the Kid’s still riding — probably into a new film.