Saddle Sore: BILLY THE KID (MGM 1941)

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What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? Perennial bad guy Brian Donlevy is on the side of the law, loveable Gene Lockhart is the villain, and almost 30 Robert Taylor is BILLY THE KID. This 1941 Technicolor horse opera has only a passing resemblance to reality, and was actually a remake of a 1930 film starring Wallace Beery and Johnny Mack Brown, which depicted the outlaw’s legend a bit more truthfully… but not much!

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In this version, Billy joins up with ruthless cattleman Hickey, who’s out to takeover Lincoln County. They start a stampede of rival Keating’s cattle, and during the commotion Billy encounters childhood friend Jim Sherwood, now working for Keating. Billy and his pal Pedro switch sides, and Pedro takes a bullet for it. The Kid is out for revenge, but Keating’s cooler head prevails, and he sets out to seek help from the territorial governor.

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But Keating doesn’t make it, as we see the familiar trope of his empty horse returning to the ranch. Hickey tries to make it look like Keating was killed escaping the law, but the hotheaded Billy ain’t a-buying it. He, Jim, and the Keating hands ride into town, but when kill-crazy Billy goes too far, Jim has him locked up while he negotiates with Hickey. Billy escapes of course, and hunts down the men responsible for Keating’s death. Jim and Hickey corral Billy, who shoots the bad hombre in the back. Billy and Jim have a final showdown, which Billy loses on purpose by drawing with his right hand instead of his usual left.

Yeah, that’s the whole shootin’ match in a nutshell, pardner. You might recognize some of the Monument Valley locations, but you’ll notice the painfully obvious matte shots more. The color cinematography was Oscar nominated, but lost to THE BLACK SWAN. Director David Miller’s no John Ford either; he had an uneven career, his best film being 1962’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, an existential tale of a cowboy at odds with modern society starring Kirk Douglas.

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Robert Taylor is stoic and tight-lipped as Billy, and not in a Gary Cooper way. Taylor was a handsome hunk who made the girls swoon, but not a great actor by any measure. He had a long film career based on his looks, though I can’t think of any movies he really stands out in. Brian Donlevy was better cast as a slimy villain in Westerns like UNION PACIFIC, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and THE VIRGINIAN; as a hero he’s only so-so here. It’s jarring to see Gene Lockhart as the baddie after having so much sympathy for him in 1938’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL , where he played Bob Cratchit. Lockhart is one of those character actors who’s good in whatever role he did, one of my favorites being the weasely sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

"Even a man who's pure of heart, and says his prayers by night..."
“Even a man who’s pure of heart, and says his prayers by night…”

Let’s not forget the Familiar Face Brigade, and this movie’s loaded with them. Lon Chaney Jr is one of Keating’s henchmen, just before turning into THE WOLF MAN that same year. Ian Hunter (Keating) was King Richard in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and the long-lost dad in Shirley Temple’s THE LITTLE PRINCESS. Every cowboy movie’s gotta have an ingénue, and undistinguished MGM starlet Mary Howard fills the bill here. Thar’s plenty of sagebrush vets filling out the rest of the cast, including Olive Blakeney, Dick Curtis, Arthur Housman, Cy Kendall, Henry O’Neill, Kermit Maynard, Frank Puglia, Chill Wills, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Grant Withers.

BILLY THE KID strives to be a thrilling action epic, but falls far short of the mark. It has more in common with Saturday matinee B-Westerns than John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille. The casting leaves a lot to be desired, especially with stiff Taylor in the title role. Speaking of which, why did they even bother to use the real William Bonney as the protagonist in this unfactual flick? Why not GEORGE THE KID, or SIX-GUN STEVE, or even A BOY NAMED STU? If you want Billy the Kid, you’re better off catching Paul Newman in THE LEFT HANDED GUN or Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

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