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BILLY THE KID (director: David Miller; screenwriter: Gene Fowler/from the book “The Saga of Billy The Kid” by Walter Noble Burns/story by Howard Emmett Rogers & Bradbury Foote; cinematographers: Leonard Smith/Willian V. Skall; editor: Robert J. Kern; music: David Snell ; cast: Robert Taylor (William ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney), Brian Donlevy (Jim ‘Holy’ Sherwood), Ian Hunter (Eric Keating), Mary Howard (Edith Keating), Gene Lockhart (Dan Hickey), Lon Chaney Jnr (‘Spike’ Hudson), Frank Puglia (Pedro), Cy Kendall (Sheriff Cass McAndrews), Ted Adams (Cobb), Henry O’Neill (Tim Ward), Grant Withers (Ed Shanahan), Eddie Dunn (Pat Shanahan), Dick Curtis (Kirby Claxton), Joe Yule (Milt), Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (Ed Bronson), Olive Blakeney (Mrs. Patterson), Chill Wills (Tom Patterson); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Asher; MGM; 1941)
“A flat fictionalized rendition of Billy the Kid, with the miscast Hollywood glamor boy Robert Taylor as the lead.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A flat fictionalized rendition of Billy the Kid, with the miscast Hollywood glamor boy Robert Taylor as the lead. The too old for the part actor looks more like “Billy the Father.” It’s directed in a workmanlike way by David Miller and based on the book “The Saga of Billy The Kid” by Walter Noble Burns; the screenplay is by Gene Fowler. The only reason for seeing this film is the striking location shots which come by way of Monument Valley, though most of the shots are taken indoors in the studio. This literate version is lost in its lumbering and clumsily told rewriting of the outlaw’s legend.

Set in 1880, the film opens as William “Billy the Kid” Bonney (Robert Taylor) breaks his guitar playing friend and lucky charm Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail. Then Billy goes into the Black Cat saloon with him and forces the bigoted bar patron Spike (Lon Chaney Jr.) to let the bartender Milt serve the Mexican. This impresses crime boss Dan Hickey (Gene Lockhart), who hires Billy to help stampede Englishman Eric Keating’s (Ian Hunter) cattle so he can steal the herd and get a high price by selling it to the Army. The stampede is successful, but Billy is surprised that his childhood friend from Silver City Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy) is Keating’s foreman. The two reminisce, and Jim relates how Bonney was orphaned at 12 when his dad was shot in the back. The Kid never trusted the judicial system again, as a fixed jury exonerated his dad’s killer and he took justice into his own hands by getting revenge on the killer. But that made him a criminal on the run with a price on his head.

Jim tells Keating that Hickey hired Billy to stampede the cattle and of his friendship with the wanted outlaw. Keating calls on Hickey at the saloon without a gun to warn him to stop his rustling and meets Billy, and tells him law and order is on the way. They ride out on the trail together and bond by shooting buzzards. There they find Keating’s cowpuncher Tom Patterson lying on the ground, who dies in their arms from injuries sustained from the stampede.

Billy is served tea in Keating’s ranch and meets his single sister Edith (Mary Howard), set to marry Jim, but turns down a generous offer to work there. Back in town, crusading publisher Tim Ward (Henry O’Neill) puts out an editorial that appeals to the Governor to restore law and order. Hickey sends Spike to force Ward to eat his words, but Billy stops it. This causes Billy to quit working for Hickey; soon he and Pedro are employed by Keating.

It tediously moves along by playing on the conflicted Billy, who’s pressed to reform under Keating’s supervision (he was just made marshal and Jim his deputy) as he’s given a chance to have all previous charges against him dropped if he avoids trouble in the near future. But all bets are off when first Pedro is shot in the back and soon afterwards Keating is ambushed and shot in the back. Billy doesn’t trust the law to get a conviction on Hickey or his hired guns the Shanahan brothers, Cobb and Claxton. This calls for a climactic shootout that starts out in town and ends up on the trail.

Taylor is dressed all in black, but that mean looking getup still hardly convinces he’s the fastest draw in town.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”