Me and Billy The Kid never got along. I didn’t like the way he cocked his hat
and he wore his gun all wrong –Joe Ely
He was an outlaw, that’s for sure and a cop killer. It is said that he killed his first man after a “bullying” incident. His physical appearance was unimpressive – a wiry 5’7”, 135 lb. frame. He was overly fixated on guns in a culture where guns were commonplace. He was a gang member. He has been perceived as a hero and a villain at different points in American history. He was an Irishman who sided with an Englishman in the Lincoln County War. He was an escape artist. There is only one authenticated photograph of him. His last words were in Spanish, Quien es? (Who is it?) Historians never thought much of him. The New Mexico Tourist Board reveres and promotes him. That’s some of what we know, there’s a lot we don’t or ever will know. Of course, we’re talking about Henry Antrim a.k.a. William H. Bonney better known as Billy The Kid, the biggest, baddest, desperado of all time if you believe the hype. That oft quoted line from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance could very well have been said about Billy The Kid, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Because of some gaps in the historical record, writers and film makers alike have used the semi-blank canvas of the Kid’s life to project their own psychoses, pathologies, ideologies, and whatever else malingers in their collective brains. From the earliest silent films, King Vidor’s 1930 epic, Paul Newman’s turn as Billy in The Left Handed Gun, Sam Peckinpah’s vision in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, to Gore Vidal’s 1989 take on the subject, you can see competing versions and characterizations of history and the man himself. Even the creepy, bizarre Billy The Kid Versus Dracula doesn’t seem out of place. You see, everything is possible in Billy World.
Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid remains a favorite despite the premise that Billy and Sheriff Pat Garrett were close pals. But like so many other things believed to be true, there is no basis in fact for this assertion. The studio took the finished product out of Peckinpah’s hands and sliced it and diced it to the point that it was universally dismissed by the critics at the time it was originally released in 1973. The restored 1988 release is more coherent and easier to follow – now a critic’s choice. Plus it yielded a Bob Dylan soundtrack and one of his most enduring songs Knocking On Heaven’s Door. Studio honchos also butchered The Left Handed Gun to the point that Gore Vidal who wrote the original screenplay felt the need to rework it with Val Kilmer in the starring role. Leave it up to the studios to rehab the image of Billy The Kid for public consumption.
Everyone from dime store novelists to esteemed writers like Larry McMurtry has also added to the mythmaking down through the years. Songwriters have been no exception. Woody Guthrie put his populist stamp on the outlaw. Joe Ely played around with the myth in his insanely funny Me and Billy The Kid.
And while it is understandable that the artistic types could find connections and come to conclusions not based on fact, historians have tended to minimalize The Kid’s relevance as a historic figure. They point to men such as Coronado, Kit Carson, and Diego de Vargas (Diego who? Look him up, I had to.) as figuring more prominently in the settling of the West. But the Kid figured more prominently in the unsettling of the West and historians have never forgiven him of that indiscretion. But many of the issues and controversies Billy The Kid faced are some of the same issues and controversies we face today. Bullying, gang violence, gun violence are still front page news. It doesn’t matter if the gang member rides a steed or drives a tricked out Escalade, the reasons why people join gangs and join criminal enterprises are still the same today as they were then. Racism still persists today as it existed between the Dolan brothers and John Tunstall the protagonists of the Lincoln County War. It was essentially the centuries long Anglo/Irish feud played out in the American West. It still simmers today in Northern Ireland. And the Mexican peasants who harbored Billy The Kid and kept him safe during his stints on the lam were looked down upon by the culture in power. It’s really no different today, is it? Talk of immigration reform, the border fence, and carrying the proper identification is nothing new. America has always been built upon the backs of people not carrying the proper papers.
And yet the Kid still had a shot at redemption. New Mexico Territory governor Lew Wallace (former Civil War general and author of Ben Hur) offered him blanket amnesty for crimes real and imagined. But in the end, Wallace was unable to pull off the deal due to political pressure thus throwing him to the wolves of the mythology of the industrial complex. But you see, Billy The Kid is still relevant. The truth is fascinating.