FORT SUMNER, NM — On July 14, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett did what many had come to believe — and some even hoped — might be impossible: He gunned down the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid.
Billy had actually been born Henry McCarty in 1859. At 15, he kicked off his criminal career by robbing a Chinese laundry, getting busted, and then escaping from jail.Related: 9 Gun-Slinging Video Games, Movies, And More About Outlaw Jesse James
In time, the New York City native came to be known as one of the deadliest gunslingers in the west, a ruthless cattle rustler, and a constant fugitive from the law. Along the way, of course, he also took on the moniker William H. Bonney and, more famously, the nickname Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid built his reputation as a singularly lethal gunfighter during New Mexico’s 1878 Lincoln County War, during which he killed Sheriff William Brady. He spent the remaining three years of his life wanted for this capital offense.
Toward the end of 1880, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett surprised The Kid at a hideout in Stinking Springs, New Mexico. The lawman carted Billy back to town, where he was sentenced to hang, and live out the rest of his days in lock-up.
On April 28, 1881, The Kid overpowered and shot a guard with the man’s own gun, blasted away a second guard, and escaped from jail on horseback with a small arsenal of stolen weapons.
Sheriff Garrett hunted Billy down in mid-July to the town of Fort Sumner. The Kid saw shadows moving and drew his gun, asking twice, “Who’s that?” Garrett recognized the outlaw’s voice and fired twice. One bullet pierced Billy’s heart and dropped him dead on the spot … or did it?While Pat Garrett was instantly lionized for being the man who killed Billy the Kid, rumors persisted that he shot the wrong man and/or faked his target’s death, leaving Billy to break free yet again.
In the ensuing years, several individuals insisted they were Billy the Kid, with an old codger named “Brushy Bill” Roberts making headlines with such a claim. Still, a number of witnesses positively identified The Kid’s body, and most historians have come to agree that Pat Garrett killed the man he was after.
Billy the Kid’s story has inflamed and inspired popular culture ever since. Here are 10 examples that shoot a bullseye.
BILLY THE KID (1930)
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Johnny Mack Brown, Wallace Beery, Kay Johnson
To date, more than 50 movies have featured Billy the Kid in a major capacity, beginning with the 1911 silent adventure titled, directly, Billy the Kid.
Director King Vidor’s 1930 production stands as Hollywood’s first big-budget, wide-screen take on the saga. The movie was remade in color 11 years later with Robert Taylor as Billy and Brina Donlevey as Pat Garrett. [TCM]
BILLY THE KID by Aaron Copland (1938)
Aaron Copland, “The Dean of American Composers,” premiered his ballet version of Billy the Kid to huge acclaim in Chicago before its stellar success the following year in New York.
The story focuses on Billy’s early teenage life in the Old West and his final flight from Pat Garrett. Copland’s musical score incorporates classic cowboy tunes. Billy the Kid remains one of Copland’s most popular and frequently performed pieces. [All Music]
“BILLY THE KID” by Woody Guthrie (1940)
In “Billy the Kid,” Guthrie sings about the title figure drinking and carousing with “Mexican maidens,” leading up to the final, fatal showdown with Pat Garrett. [Woody Guthrie]
THE OUTLAW (1943)
Director: Howard Hughes
Cast: Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell
Multi-talented aviation mogul turned moviemaker Howard Hughes created The Outlaw as a vehicle for busty brunette bombshell, Jane Russell, and the cantilevered underwire bra he designed and constructed to accentuate her endowments. There’s also a Billy the Kid story in the movie.
Russell scorches the screen — and scandalized censorship groups from coast-to-coast — as female outlaw Rio McDonald. She gets caught up in a fictionalized story involving Billy (Jack Buetel), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). It ends with Garrett befriending Billy and helping to fake The Kid’s death. [Hidden Remote]
THE LEFT-HANDED GUN (1958)
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast: Paul Newman, John Dehner, Lita Milan
Before he made movie history with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), director Arthur Penn debuted with The Left Handed Gun, a Billy the Kid drama based on a previous tele-play by literary lion Gore Vidal.
The relatively experimental Left-Handed Gun flopped in America, but won critical acclaim and even awards in Europe, foreshadowing Penn’s future mastery of the crime film genre. [History on Film]
BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966)
Director: William “One-Shot” Beaudine
Cast: Chuck Courtney, John Carradine, Melinda Plowman
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is an insane, no-budget “turkey” made back-to-back and shown on double features with the same director’s Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.
Stuntman Chuck Courtney stars as Billy the Kid alongside veteran Hollywood vampire John Carradine as the Count. Watch for all those rubber bats flying by on completely visible strings! [Rock! Shock! Pop!]
DIRTY LITTLE BILLY (1972)
Director: Stan Dragoti
Cast: Michael J. Pollard, Lee Purcell, Gary Busey
Pat Garrett doesn’t figure into Dirty Little Billy, as director Stan Dragotti’s Spagetti-western-inspired effort focuses on the outlaw’s early days.
Cherub-faced character actor Michael J. Pollard, enjoying offbeat stardom following his portrayal of C. W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde, plays the title role in a manner keeping with the movie’s poster tagline: “Billy the Kid was a punk!” [New York Times]
“THE BALLAD OF BILLY THE KID” by Billy Joel (1973)
Billy Joel’s hit mini-rock-opera “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” gets a number of facts wrong about the titular figure, from his birth (“From a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia”) to his death (“And the cowboys and their kin/like a sea came pourin’/to watch the hangin’ of Billy the Kid”).
Regardless, “Ballad” remains a popular radio go-to and a favorite among audiences at Joel’s live performances. [Songfacts]
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, Bob Dylan
Monumental tough-guy director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) battled MGM relentlessly during the making of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, resulting in the studio taking the movie away from him. That decision was cinema’s loss.
No one seemed happy with the studio version. Peckinpah and the film’s stars, including Kris Kristofferson (who plays Billy) and James Coburn (as Pat Garrett), disowned the final theatrical cut. A director’s cut, issued in 1988, was then promptly hailed as a masterpiece.
The movie remains best remembered, though, for its Bob Dylan soundtrack, which generated the classic, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan himself appears in a small role as a mysterious killer named Alias. [Pop Matters]
YOUNG GUNS II (1990)
Director: Geoff Murphy
Cast: Emilio Estevez, William Peterson, Lou Diamond Phillips
Young Guns scored boffo box office in 1988 with a cast of young Hollywood heartthrobs portraying characters based on Billy the Kid’s “Regulators” gang during the Lincoln County War. Emilio Estevez leads the charge as Billy, backed by Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Dermot Mulroney in other roles.
Young Guns II, then, focuses on Billy’s pursuit by Pat Garret (William Peterson). It ends not with the famous gun-down but an epilogue featuring Estevez as “Brushy Bill” Roberts. The theme song, “Blaze of Glory” by Jon Bon Jovi, proved to be a monster hit. [Roger Ebert]
Main photo: Kiefer Sutherland, Alan Ruck, Emilio Estevez, Christian Slater, Lou Diamond Phillips/Young Guns II publicity photo [promotional image]