Monday, 13 May 2013

Billy The Kid Unbound

Billy The Kid's Gang.
I have always found the intersection between fact and fiction  to be an immensely interesting place to explore. I'm always excited when a real flesh and blood individual or historical event is found to be behind popular legends and heroes. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Hunchback of Notre dame and even Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have in recent years been claimed by some to be loosely based or inspired by real historical personages. Other figures from history get the mythical make over and emerge into pop culture almost unrecognisable, and often infinitely more interesting and heroic than they were in reality. To find such a figure one need look no further than the individual known as Henry Antrim, or was it Henry McCarty, or even William Bonney ?
The real Billy the Kid
What ever his real name, he was better known as Billy the Kid, outlaw, killer of twenty one men before the age of twenty one. Also known as the Left Handed Gun, Billy the Kid and his pals, Doc Scurlock  and Charlie Bowdre, were involved in what came to be known as the Lincoln County War, a feud between two rival merchant companies with in the county. What made things difficult for Billy was that one company was backed by corrupt politicians, and sadly not the one he was working for. The Lincoln County War erupted in 1878 when John Tunstall, one of the business men that Billy the Kid was allied with, was shot dead by a group of men working for the rival company known as the House. Soon, deputised by a Justice of the peace, Billy and his friends set out with warrants to bring Tunstall's killers to justice. Unfortunately for them, the House also had their own Justice of the Peace and legally deputised lawmen also seeking to bring Billy and his friends, now calling themselves the Regulators, to justice. Very soon it was all out war in Lincoln County. The bloody conflict between the two groups continued  from February 18th until July 19th of that year. Following the war, Billy remained at large until July 1881, when he was shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the age of 21. In the wash up of history it appears that Billy wasn't quite as legend has painted him. Very unlegend like, Billy the Kid moved to Lincoln County to work in a cheese factory, he didn't really kill twenty one men (only nine or less, which is so much better) and wasn't really left handed (the most famous photo of Billy was printed in reverse up until recently). In fact it seems, that like many other figures of history, it was his enemies that spread the stories that made him infamous, an infamy that would paint them in a better light and make him a bigger target. But over time, like many outlaw characters, Billy has made the leap from villain to folk hero, something that has been aided by the general fondness that many people in the region had for him and the contempt that many felt towards Sherriff Pat Garrett for shooting his former friend. There has also been a sense that Billy the Kid was made a scape goat by political corruption and that there were many on the other side that had committed far more heinous crimes but were never brought to justice. 

But Billy has gone beyond being a historical figure and moved into the realm of pop culture icon. He has broken the chains of history and leapt into a whole new realm of existence created by Hollywood and other purveyors of wild west dreams. In fact you know the character has truly made the leap when they break loose of their original historical or fictional setting. The characters become unbound and are free to feature in new narratives in ways in which they are still somewhat recognizable. Billy is now able to fight for justice with more clarity than he did in real life, he is able to fight  Dracula  (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), battle the mad creations on Victor Frankenstein (Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities, Issues 1-4, Dark Horse Comics, 2005) and travel through time to the 20th Century with Bill & Ted (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Where many feel reality let William Bonney down, the realm of fiction is making up for it.

Jeff and Billy
It was in this new realm that I came across the movie Billy the Kid Trapped  (1942) starring Larry 'Buster' Crabbe as a white hat wearing Billy the Kid. Directed by Sam Newfield (Nabonga (1944), White Pongo (1945)  and Jungle Siren (1942), it's a fun, straight forward Western  featuring Glenn Strange, the last of the Universal Frankenstein Monsters, as  Boss Stanton, the mastermind behind the sinister goings on. In this movie, Doc Scurlock and Charlie Bowdre have been replaced by nice guy Jeff Walker (Bud McTaggart) and the comical Fuzzy Jones (Al St John), two likeable gunslingers who accompany Billy through his adventures in the Wild West. The film opens  with Billy and his friends waiting to be hanged for the murder of Art Lake, a murder they claim they didn't commit. Things really start to move when the trio are rescued from jail by a group of unseen men and it becomes apparent that someone is committing crimes masquerading as Billy and his gang. With the help of the local Sherriff , John Masters (Ted Adams), who becomes convinced of their innocents, the gang leave New Mexico and head to Mesa City to catch the guilty party and clear their names. There they meet the beautiful post mistress Sally Crane (Anne Jeffreys) and begin their campaign to clean up the town, catch the imposters and clear their names. Eventually it becomes clear that the political boss of the town, Boss Stanton, has deliberately set Billy and his friends up to take the blame for his gang's lucrative criminal activities, including the murder of Art

Lake. It's just as the Kid and his friends try to confront Boss Stanton that Sherriff Masters appears and pretends to arrest the Kid and his gang. It soon becomes clear that while the Kid has been investigating Boss Stanton, Sherriff Masters has been rounding up Stanton's henchmen. Together they hatch a plan to kidnap Boss Stanton's corrupt town judge (Walter McGrail) and send for another to come and convict Stanton and his gang once they have arrested them. Fortunately for Billy and his friends the plan works and soon they are cleared of the crimes that had been committed by Stanton's gang, including the murder of Art Lake.

Anne Jeffreys
Billy the Kid Trapped is the Buster Crabbe's 3rd outing as Billy the Kid and the 9th instalment in the 19 film Billy the Kid series produced by PRC. The first six films featured Bob Steele in the role of Billy Bonney before passing the white hat to Crabbe. Although the Kid of these movies is heavily fictionalised, several themes true to the life of the real kid flows through Billy the Kid Trapped. In this version there is a senses of an individual trying to do what's right but finding themselves trapped by political corruption and made a scapegoat for the crimes of others. There is also the idea of needing to seek legal authority outside of the local area to try and combat the corrupt legal authorities locally. Whether it be the politicians and merchants of the House or Boss Stanton, his gang and the crooked judge, Billy the Kid is once again forced to seek justice when those who are appointed to do so fail in the shadow of the mighty dollar. Maybe this is the strength of the image of the Kid, the one who seeks justice when justice fails, and the reason why this image has become unbound.


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