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PBS Goes West With Custer, Billy the Kid Docs

As a fan of westerns, I was actually pretty excited about the new season of PBS’ “American Experience” — a look at the old west, including two new documentaries: “Billy the Kid” and “Custer’s Last Stand” on Jan. 10 and 17, respectively.

The results, however, are mixed. At nearly two hours, the Custer special — directed by Stephen Ives — is a little bloated; and the one-hour “Billy the Kid,” from director John Maggio, contains some intriguing tidbits but didn’t really hold my interest.

That was a surprise, given how many movies I’ve seen featuring both characters, and especially the disparate takes on Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who has been depicted as everything from an inspirational hero (see “They Died With Their Boots On”) to (in “Little Big Man”) a complete loon.

Perhaps the most intriguing element — even more so than all the talk about military strategy — involves how Custer’s wife, who adored him, “almost single-handedly turned the Battle of the Little Bighorn into one of the most iconic events in American history and mythologized Custer’s role — turning it into a tale of heroic sacrifice with only the most noble of motives,” as the release puts it.

Even so, it’s a bit of a slog to get to that postscript near the doc’s end.

Given the shortage of top-notch history on TV — especially with the History channel pawning its credibility and doing less and less to merit its name — there’s no pleasure in voting thumbs down on “American Experience.” But this is one of those situations where my advice would be to skip the documentary, and go re-watch one of the movies. Boots optional.

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