Billy the Kid (1941)

 

 

Director:    David Miller .

Starring:     Robert Taylor (Billy Bonney), Brian Donlevy (Jim Sherwood), Ian Hunter (Eric Keating), Mary Howard (Edith Keating), Gene Lockhart (Dan Hickey),  Lon Chaney, Jr. ('Spike' Hudson),  Henry O'Neill (Tim Ward),  Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (Ed Bronson, Blacksmith),  Cy Kendall (Cass McAndrews, Sheriff),  Ted Adams ('Buz' Cobb),  Frank Conlan (Judge Blake),  Frank Puglia (Pedro),  Mitchell Lewis (Bart Hodges). 

This is the remake of the 1930 Billy the kid movie. Robert Taylor plays Billy the Kid and Brian Donlevy plays Sheriff Pat Garret.

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"The history of the west was written with the blood of men both good and bad.  In 1880 the last frontier was being won to the music of six shooters on the cattle ranges.  At this time, and into this stirring scene, there rode a young outlaw who lived his violent hour in defiance of an advancing civilization.  His name has gone down in in Legend as 'Billy the Kid'."  Billy rides into town.  From horseback he climbs up a tree and enters a second story room through a window.  A man is sleeping in the bed.  Billy takes the bullets out of the man's gun and sets it back in the holster.  He then finds a shot of whiskey and pours that on the forehead of the sleeping fellow.  This awakens the man and he sees Billy standing there with a pistol in his left hand pointed at him.  The man goes for his gun and pulls the trigger, but the pistol just says click.  Billy tells the guy to come downstairs with him. 

They walk downstairs to the jail cells.  The sheriff opens the cell of his friend Pedro, who yells to Billy to watch out.  Billy whirls and shoots the gun out of the deputy's hand.  Pedro comes out of the cell and the sheriff and the deputy are put in.  Billy then throws the keys to an old man in a jail cell.  Instead of getting out of town, Billy takes Pedro over to the saloon.  The bouncer, Spike Hudson, is angry now because he threw Pedro out of the bar last night.  The bar tender says he can't serve the Mexican, so Billy orders two whiskies.  He gives one to Pedro, who immediately downs it.  The bouncer is going to grab Billy when the young man throws his drink in his face and then pushes him with his foot to the floor.  The bouncer starts for his weapon, but Billy is quicker, so the bouncer gives in. 

The owner of the saloon Dan Hickey comes over to Billy and asks him to come into his office.  So Billy goes with the guy.  The owner asks Billy to work with others on his side  -- the side that works to keep beef prices up on army beef contracts.  Sheriff Cass comes into the room with his pistol already in his hand.  He tells the boss that this man is Billy the Kid and shows him the wanted poster for Billy.  Hickey tells Cass to put away his pistol because Billy is his guest.  Cass says the owner is the boss and he does as the boss says. 

Alone with Billy, Hickey tells him that if he sells his beef to the army at his price, but this fellow Keating has a lower price, then Hickey can't sell his cattle to the army.  But after they have a couple of rounds of stampeding and stealing Keating's cattle, Hickey can sell all of his cattle and what once were Keating cattle to the army.  Billy says he's in.  Now Hickey introduces him to the boys as Billy the Kid and one fellow says he don't look so tough.  Billy tells him:  "Don't let that fool you."

The newspaperman in town, Tim Ward, walks over to the General Store owned also by Hickey and asks Hickey why so many tough looking guys are headed in one direction, out toward Keating's ranch?  Hickey's not going to tell him.  Pedro tries to go with Billy, but Billy tells him to stay behind this time. 

The leader of the gang, Cobb, tells Billy to ride down to the valley and tell the men to put that fire out.  Billy rides down, but just starts stomping out the fire without explaining anything to the fellows.  This makes one of them real mad and he pushes Billy, who then socks the man to the ground and places his hand on his pistol in its holster.  Cobb comes down himself to stop the fighting.  He says their job is to stampede the Keating herd and spread them all over the area. 

The men wait for night to stampede the cattle.  They take up their places around the herd.  Cobb fires his pistol and the cattle start running.  Keating's foreman James Sherwood and his crew hear the gun fire and Keating knows immediately it's Hickey stampeding his cattle.  As the cattle pass by the Keating chuck wagon it looks as though he may have wounded one of the rustlers.  He shoots at Billy and the bullet goes through his hat.  Billy shoots back and the bullet really comes close to Sherwood's head. 

Billy comes around the chuck wagon and from behind gets the drop on Sherwood who drops his pistol.  Sherwood asks the fellow why doesn't he shoot him?  Billy says he doesn't shoot men in the back.  Sherwood seems to recognize the voice and says he knew a young man back in Silver City, New Mexico who had the same idea.  He too was a left-handed gunman, but could steal his mother's cakes with either hand.  Billy turns the man around and sees it's his old friend Jim Sherwood.  Billy has a good laugh. 

Billy and Jim talk over coffee and cookies.  Jim tells him that Keating is a fine boss.  He suggests that Billy is addicted to excitement and adventure and that he better do something about it because that's no way to live.  Billy doesn't want to hear it. 

Jim goes to see the boss, the Englishman Eric Keating.  He and his pretty sister Edith are having breakfast outside.  Edith leaves so the guys can talk in peace.  Now Jim tells the boss that Hickey stampeded the cattle again.  And Hickey is hiring more men, men who are good with guns.  One of the guys is William Bonney.  This fellow Bonney is a good friend of his.  When he was 12 the kid got into some trouble with the law.  The man who killed Billy's dad was acquitted by the courts.  So Billy got a gun and had a shoot-out with the man and killed the fellow. 

Keating tells Jim that he is going into town to warn Hickey of the consequences of his actions, if he doesn't stop.  Jim wants to go along with him for safety, but Keating insists he go alone so there won't be any need for gunfire. 

Billy comes into town and takes his horse over to the blacksmith to takes care of its hooves.  Meanwhile, he goes over to the saloon and into the back room where the whole gang is hanging out.  He overhears a bit of the conversation.  The man who he knocked down by the fire is saying that the kid is no good, he's still wet behind his ears.  Billy goes over to the man and tells him to feel behind his ears.  Go ahead!  The guy does so and Billy tells him he had better give him the right answer.  Wet or dry?  The man reluctantly says dry. 

Billy gets paid $200 dollars.  Hickey is notified that Keating is here to talk to him.  The boss man figures Keating is going to be ready to sell his herd.  He leaves the room to talk with Keating by the bar.  Keating calmly tells him that he is going to the governor the next time his herd is stampeded.   The boys come out of the room and Keating asks which one is Bonney?  Bonney is still in Hickey's office.    Hickey goes over to get Billy.  He asks him why is Mr. Keating asking for Bonney?  Did someone identify Billy at the stampede?  Billy says no.  Then the kid goes out to have a little confrontation with Keating.  Hickey warns him that Keating is an awfully hard man to insult (because he's so calm). 

Keating is friendly with Billy, but Billy is definitely unfriendly.  He won't drink with Keating and he tells the bartender to give Mr. Keating a pistol.  The bartender puts the pistol on the bar.  Keating just drinks his whiskey and leaves.  This puzzles Billy and he rides after Keating.  Billy catches up with him and rides alongside him as he tries to figure out just what kind of man he's dealing with here. Keating tells the kid that law and order is coming to the area and Billy ought to tread cautiously. 

They let the horses get a drink at a watering hole.  Keating asks Billy to shoot one of the buzzards overhead out of the sky.  Billy does so with one shot.  He then lets Keating have his pistol and Keating kills two of the birds with just two shots.  Billy is impressed.  Two shots in a row are heard and Keating says that someone's in trouble.  The two men get back on their horse and ride in the direction of the shots.  They find a man on the ground with a nasty cut on his forehead.  Billy goes over to the guy, who barely gets out the word stampede.  Keating comes over and asks if the man has said anything?  Billy lies saying the man's speech was unintelligible.  The fellow turns out to be Tom Patterson, who works for Keating.  Billy helps take the fellow back to the bunk house. 

Back at the bunk house men grab Tom and bring him inside to lay him on a bed.  His wife rushes over to see Tom.  He tries to tell her something to tell their two kids, but he dies.  Billy seems to be affected by the emotional scene and the wife's crying.  She says it ain't right.  She looks each man in the face and says it ain't right or asks it ain't right is it?  Later Billy sees the photo of Keating's beautiful sister Edith on the piano and he gets the hint of a smile on his face.  The maid puts out tea for Keating and Billy.  Billy is just going to slug it down his throat when he see Mr. Keating using the tea cup handle and sipping his tea.  The gunman follows his example.   

Keating tells Billy that his father was a clergyman and he hated this McSwigen man, but Eric liked the man and helped him.  They said that McSwigen had killed a man.  One day he just disappeared.  Fifteen years after he disappeared, they read that in India a Sgt. McSwingen saved his regiment in a native uprising.  Billy thinks that story is too close to him personally and meant for him, so he gets angry and says he didn't come here to be lectured.  So Keating takes Billy outside for a breath of fresh air. 

He tells Billy that Edith should be home soon and he would like her to meet him.  Billy says he's got other business.  Just then Jim comes up to tell Keating that they should be going after the Hickey men.  The ranch hands figure that Tom died because of that stampede.  Jim then notices that Billy is with Keating and he says something about he doesn't want any of the men to get shot in the back.  Billy thinks that the remark is directed at him and he objects.  Keating says they are not going to act like Hickey does.  They have to know what really happened to Tom out there that lead to his death.  Keating says to Jim that he doesn't have time to referee a fight between him and Billy so Jim should just go.  Jim goes. 

Keating turns to Billy and tells him straight that Billy must leave the area because given the tensions here Jim and Billy will be shooting at each other and the one who is the killer is going to regret he had to kill his friend.  "You have a horse and the West is wide."  Keating is going into the house when he says that Billy is welcome to bunk here for the night.  He goes inside. 

Billy is thrown by all this kindness.  Just as he is leaving, Edith comes home.  She recognizes Billy and asks him to talk to Jim and convince him not to lead the men into town against Hickey.  Billy says that her brother already told Jim not to fight Hickey and his men.  Edith is so relieved to hear this.  Then she asks Billy to come and work for them.  She says Jim likes working here at the ranch and she's sure Billy will enjoy it too.  Billy declines her offer. 

In the morning Billy gets his horse ready to ride.  Jim comes over calling him "hothead".  He says it's too bad Billy won't be coming back.  Billy just says:  "You might be surprised." 

In the newspaper there is an open letter to the Governor.  It says:  "Our township of Lincoln is the headquarters for a band of wholesale crooks who are killing honest men, stealing cattle, running over their property and defying Law and Order.  Unless this condition is rectified and a new Sheriff appointed, a bloody war is at hand."  Hickey figures that Tim Ward wrote the open letter.  So he tells his boys to go over to the newspaper office and make Ward actually eat the newspaper.

The men hurry over to the office and pull Ward onto the street.  As two men hold Ward, Spike Hudson prepares to make Ward eat his own words.  Billy comes riding in, sees the commotion and stops Spike from carrying out his orders.  The bouncer tries to make a move on Billy, but Billy pushes him down with his leg and Spike lands on the ground once again.  Mr. Ward is grateful for what Billy did for him and says when he gets his own newspaper he's going to write a column in his favor. 

Billy goes in to see Hickey.  The guys are all playing cards, acting innocent.  Billy throws the newspaper on the table. He then tells Hickey he quits. He gets on his horse with Pedro and takes off. 

Billy and Pedro show up at the Keating farm.  Billy wants Keating to take Pedro, but not him, but Keating says he wants both of them to work for him.  So Billy starts working with Jim while Pedro plays the guitar.  Billy turns out to be a good ranch hand.  He gets knocked off a bunking bronco and the other ranch hands start laughing.  Billy looks at them and doesn't like it, but then he sees Jim and Keating laughing too, so he figures it's okay.  So Billy laughs at himself now. 

On the open range Billy sees a camp fire and goes to check it out.  He chases two of Hickey's men off and puts out the fire.  The Hickey men want revenge on Billy. 

Billy comes over by a sleeping Pedro sitting and leaning against a fence and decides to scare him.  He sneaks up and shout "Pedro!"  But Pedro doesn't move and Billy knows something's wrong. He goes over to the other side of the fence and looks at Pedro.  He lifts his head up and gets blood on his hands.  His throat has been slit.  Billy is really mad now.  He brings Pedro's body in and puts it on the same bed that Tom had laid on when he died.  Billy tells Jim and Keating that someone's going to pay for this.  He's going to go into town, but Keating asks him to come up to the house with him, because he wants Billy to take a letter into town. 

In the main house Keating tells Billy that he can delay his "calling on" people  to another day.  He asks the gunman to wait until he gets an answer to the letter he is mailing today to the Governor.  The people he wants to deal with will still be around at that time.  Billy say "yeah" and goes over to see Jim.  He takes his gun belt off and puts it in a drawer.  The next day he buries Pedro without his gun belt and gun.  . 

Billy gives Edith a gift of a beautiful horse for her birthday.  Keating comes out and Edith goes in to prepare for her birthday party.  Eric tells Billy that he is very proud of him and all the work that he has done so well on the ranch.  Keating says he's going to talk with his neighbor who is having troubles, but before he goes he wants Billy to get Jim, because he has something to tell them.  Keating has heard from the Governor and he is now the U.S. Marshall for Lincoln.  And now Keating makes Jim a deputy sheriff.  Moreover, he has gotten from the Governor a parole for Billy and later hopes to turn it into a pardon.  Everyone is happy with the turn of events for now they can investigate who killed Pedro and then start on Hickey.  Keating now says he has to go to his neighbor's place.  But there is one more piece of news.  Edith and Jim will marry.  Billy congratulates Jim. Keating leaves.

Jim and Billy smell cake and it brings back memories of their childhood.  Jim wants Billy to go get  some cake for them, but Billy says he doesn't have his gun.  So Jim goes into the kitchen.  Edith is there trying on her wedding gown and the maid chases Jim out of the kitchen.  They see Keating's horse come running back to the ranch without Keating.  Billy jumps on his horse and takes off looking for Keating.   He finds him by a stream dead.  He has been shot in the back. 

At the birthday party Jim keeps looking out the window for Billy.  He is told that Billy has returned.  Jim goes over to Billy and learns the bad new.  Billy is strapping on his guns.  Jim goes in to tell Edith.  When Jim comes out he tells the men that any action against the murderers of Eric Keating will be done legally.  After all, Jim is now the acting U.S. Marshall.  He tells the men to go round up the other men.  Jim, Bill and the group start riding to the other ranches to pick up more men.  Soon they have a large group of men with them. 

Badman Cobb sees the large group of men riding hard toward town and he goes to warn Hickey.  On the way the groups runs into the newspapermen Tim Ward who tells them that Hickey knows about their plans and his men are waiting to ambush the men from the buildings lining the main street.  Ward decides to ride along with the guys. 

The stage is set for the violent confrontation.  Jim divides his forces into two, one under him and the other under Billy.  They will approach the main street from either side, working toward the middle and Hickey's Black Cat Saloon.  The two groups split up and ride to either end of the street.  They get off their horses and run for cover.  No shots have been fired yet. 

Hickey tells Thaxton and Cobb to go get the Claxton boys and the four of them are to scatter.  Hickey and Sherwood agree to meet in the street.  Jim tells Hickey that he will be tried in the capital and not in Lincoln.  Hickey says he'll take his chances.  After all, the law doesn't have the men who actually killed Keating and there are good lawyers in the capital.  This is what really makes Billy mad and he tells Sherwood that Hickey will get off without any punishment.  He also says that Jim is not taking his gun from him.  So the marshal socks Billy and two men grab Billy's arms.  The U.S. Marshall now tells the sheriff to lock up Billy.  Ward objects too, so Jim tells the sheriff to lock up the newspaperman also. 

In jail Ward tells Billy that he knows who the murderers are and also knows where they will meet secretly when things get too hot for them.  The blacksmith comes in to tell Billy about his horse and Ward steals a hammer from his tool case.  When the blacksmith leaves, Ward gives the hammer to Billy and tells him the murderers are Thaxton, Cobb and the two Claxton boys.  Edith visits Billy in his cell and Billy tells her that Eric Keating died because of him.  Edith said it would have happened anyways, they were out for her brother.  Edith pleads with Billy to stop thinking about revenge and go help Jim because he's going to need it.  Billy says Jim already has a new best friend:  Hickey.  Edith leaves. 

Hickey tells the sheriff that he wants him to kill Billy.  So the sjeroff lets Billy out of his cell.  Cass pulls out his pistol when Billy's back is turned.  But Billy whirls the sheriff around and sticks the tail of the hammer into his back.  He takes the sheriff's gun.  Billy now tells the sheriff to give him back Keating's watch.  The watch is in the top right drawer of the desk along with Billy's gun.  The sheriff goes over to the drawer and grabs the gun to try and kill Billy, but Billy shoots him first.  Billy now throws the keys to Ward.

Ward gets out and rushes over to where Hickey and Jim are having their little talk.  He shouts that they will read all about what happened in his newspaper.  Hickey demands to know what happened and Ward tells him that the sheriff is laying on the floor of his office with a big hole in his middle.  Billy the Kid has escaped and gone after the murderers in Big Valley.  Jim takes Hickey along with some men to go after Billy.  Billy catches up with Thaxton and Cobb and shoots Thaxton who rolls into a pool of water.  Meanwhile, Cobb climbs up onto a small mountain and starts shooting at Billy down below.  Billy shoots one shot and hits Cobb who falls off the side of the mountain. 

Jim and the posse find a dead Thaxton and then a dead Cobb.  Billy rides over to the meeting place.  He confronts the Claxton boys.  The two men virtually beg Billy not to kill them. 

When Jim and the posse arrive, they rush over to the Claxton boys, but they are already dead.  Billy posed them like they posed Pedro, as if they were still living.    Billy is inside the cabin and tells Jim and Hickey not to move.  Jim tells Billy not to kill Hickey.  He thinks Billy could get off for killing the other four men, but he won't get off if he kills Hickey.  Hickey gets really scared so he starts running away.  Billy shoots him in the back, something which Billy said he never would do.  Jim says he's coming in to get Billy. Billy says he's coming out.  He does come out, but he has his gun on the right side of his waist now.  He is going to shoot it out with Jim.  He goes for his weapon with his right hand and Jim shoots him dead. 

"Thus, as the ways of law came to the last frontier, the last of the men of violence found his peace."

 

The film is good as far as films go, but just not that accurate.  They have a thin veneer of truth about Billy, especially about a rancher becoming an almost surrogate father for Billy and after his assassination becoming a hard gunman in the Lincoln County War.  But that's about it.  Billy killed men in cold blood, which the film ignores.  They make Billy out to be a misguided bad boy straightened out by rancher Keating.  Billy is about to be a good boy, but then Keating is assassinated and Billy's journey to the good is crushed.  He turns back to killing as the solution to the wrongdoings around him.  Of course, most of us western lovers know that lawman Pat Garrett is the one who killed Billy.  Read the historical background below to find out more about Billy. 

As background, the film often uses Monument Valley in northeast Arizona near the Four Corners area where the four states (AZ, NM, CO, UT) meet. 

Robert Taylor did a good job, but he looks 35 instead of in his early twenties.  He definitely does not look like a kid.  I found it amusing to hear a 35 year old man being called a kid.  And I think the photo of Billy the Kid with his weapons shows a man who looked a little funny in the face.  Robert Taylor does not look like a big nerd at all  -- he's rugged and handsome. 

Like Jesse James, Billy was most probably a psychopathic killer.  An like Jesse, Billy's character has been made into a bit of a hero, instead of a cold-blooded killer.  A film about Billy telling the real truth would be a lot more interesting. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.  

 

 


Historical Background:

 

1859 -- born Henry McCarty in New York City

1865 -- his father dies in the Civil War and his mother moves with him and his brother to Indiana.

18?? -- his mother Catherine met (and eventually married) Bill Antrum.

1873 -- family settles in Silver City, New Mexico (after having moved to Wichita, Kansas and then Santa Fe, New Mexico).

18?? -- Kid Antrum (Billy) was arrested for theft in Silver City, southwest NM but escaped. (Silver City is north of US 10 and west of Route 85.)

1877 -- Billy shoots and kills his first man, blacksmith F. P. Cahill, in a saloon in Camp Grant, Arizona (now Fort Grant; from Wilcox on US 10; north on Route 266; north of where Rt. 266 turns east).

18?? -- Billy settles in for awhile in Lincoln County, southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

1878 -- the Lincoln County Range War starts with the murder of a young English rancher John Tunstall for whom Billy worked. The ranch foreman, Dick Brewer, formed a group of men called the "Regulators" from the ranch hands, including Billy. The leader of the murderers was figured to be none other than Sheriff William Brady. On April 1 Billy and the Regulators ambushed and murdered Brady along with his deputy George Hindman. After escaping from a siege at a farm house, Billy surrendered in exchange for amnesty.

1880 -- Billy engages in cattle rustling; he kills Joe Grant in a saloon in a very unfair fight (Billy examined the man's gun and set the hammer to strike an empty cylinder); is captured by Sheriff Pat Garret.

1881 -- Billy is tried for murder in Mesilla, NM and sentenced to hang; he escapes jail once again, killing two deputies in the process. (Mesilla is a little south of Las Cruces and US 10; northwest of jct. of US10 and Route 85/US 25).

1881, July 14 -- Sheriff Pat Garret shoots and kills Billy in Fort Sumner, NM (west from Albuquerque to Santa Rosa on US 40 and on to Route 84; Fort Sumner is southeast of U.S. 40 on Route 84).

 

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