GORE VIDAL'S BILLY THE KID
William Bonney – better known as Billy the Kid - was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881. He was only 21-years-old when he died. Despite his short life, the Kid compiled a resume that included everything from cattle rustling to vigilante gunfighter. He eventually became the most wanted man on the American frontier. It’s no wonder then that the outlaw’s story lent itself to numerous film adaptations. He has been the subject of movies since 1911 with his legend stretched to the limits of the imagination. One of the most historically accurate portrayals of Billy the Kid, however, comes by way of a 1989 made-for-TV movie written by Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal’s Billy The Kid is a low-key retelling of the outlaw’s story with an emphasis on a righteous-minded villain. Val Kilmer portrays Billy as an amiable, easygoing gunslinger who commits crimes only when absolutely necessary. Kilmer smiles more than one thinks a notorious killer should, but it works to emphasize him as an eccentric. This is part of the realism Vidal brought to the story. Billy the Kid had not been portrayed as a nice fellow before.
Kilmer was also the right age to play a character known as “the Kid.” Other film adaptations starred middle-aged men as the notorious gunslinger with little regard to the fact that Billy the Kid only lived for 21 years. Robert Taylor and Kris Kristofferson are two of the actors who portrayed older versions of the outlaw.
The movie includes Pat Garrett (played by Duncan Regehr), Billy’s best friend-turned-sheriff, who must hunt down the Kid in the name of the law. It’s a complicated matter. Killing Billy would no doubt boost Garrett’s career as a lawman, but it also means killing a friend. It’s the sort of conundrum that was commonplace in the Old West and it is illustrated convincingly in this movie.
Vidal wrote Billy The Kid in the 1950s as a teleplay, which was the basis of Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958) starring Paul Newman. The author was not pleased with that movie, though, because he felt the studio made too many changes to his material. When given the opportunity to present a more accurate rendition of the story in a made-for-TV version, Vidal was all too happy to do so. The title reflects this fact - Gore Vidal’s Billy The Kid has been billed with the author’s name since it first aired in 1989.
Fans of westerns will be quite pleased with Gore Vidal’s Billy The Kid. It follows genre conventions closely and is regarded as the most historically accurate movie of the outlaw’s life. Kilmer’s own performance was well researched and considered, and he makes it his own. Regehr’s somber Sheriff Garrett lends a nice contrast to Kilmer’s Kid, and their friendship is front and center throughout the story. Other notable actors of the movie include Rene Augerjonous, Wilford Brimley, and Gore Vidal himself in an uncredited role as a preacher.
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