During Billy the Kid’s short lifetime, his undeserving infamous popularity was credited to the newspapers and police gazettes and shortly after his death dime novels and short biographies followed. These early publications and biographies gave exaggerated tales of the Kid’s life, which created his legend and the most well-known of these early biographies was The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid by Pat Garrett. In his legendary form, Billy the Kid is a young homicidal maniac that killed 21 men for each year of his life until he was finally shot down by his friend-turn-lawman Pat Garrett. By the turn of the century not much was being written about Billy the Kid because he was looked upon by modern writers as a ruthless killer not worthy of remembrance. So Billy the Kid was on his way to being another forgotten historical figure in American history. But as luck would have it (for Billy the Kid’s sake) his legend was revitalized from that of a “homicidal maniac” to a Robin Hood-like figure by the few writers that did take him on as their protagonist and no one cashed in on this “new and improved” Billy the Kid more than the film industry.
In 1903 Walter Woods wrote a fictional play on Billy the Kid by portraying him as a good-man-gone-bad. The play was widely received and was so successful that it ran for 12 years. But despite the play's success and two silent screen “Billy the Kid” movies, the Kid was not gaining popularity and was still endangered of being placed on the “forgotten” list. That is until Walter Noble Burns came along.
In 1926 The Saga of Billy the Kid, written by Burns, was published and quickly became a best seller. Burns combined the myths from Pat Garrett’s unsuccessful biography The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid with his own research, including interviews he had with surviving friends of Billy the Kid. Burns wasn’t a historian, but he was a writer and with that he created a dramatic telling of the history of Billy the Kid; not so much as a crazed killer, but as a scapegoat. Although the biography isn’t accurate and filled more with myths than facts, not to mention Burns using his imagination to spice things up, it was this biography that sparked the public’s interest in Billy the Kid like never before and even caught the attention of screenwriters. It wasn’t long until the book was made into a movie.
In 1930 King Vidor directed Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack Brown as Billy the Kid, which was based on Burns book. During the filming, history advisors were angry by the “heroic” portrayal of the Kid, but Vidor knew that audiences love to root for the underdog. So ignoring his advisors, Vidor stuck with the image of Billy the Kid as a tragic hero and a victim of circumstances. Due to this depiction, the public embraced Billy the Kid both out of sympathy and admiration for his daring and rebellious nature, so it wasn’t surprising that the Kid became a favorite subject for filmmakers. Billy the Kid’s star was now rising.
Vidor’s Billy the Kid was just the first of many films on Billy the Kid and today there are over 45 films, not to mention TV shows and it is said that there are more films made on Billy the Kid than any other individual in the history of film making. Many of Hollywood’s biggest stars were cast as Billy the Kid and his character has been placed in all kinds of scenarios, some of which are pretty silly. The one that takes the prize for originality is the 1966 Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, directed by William Beaudine who also directed Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Billy the Kid even got involved in one of Hollywood’s most controversial films. It was Howard Hughes The Outlaw (1943), starring Jane Russell as the leading lady. The movie was judged too risqué for the time due to the sexually innuendos and Russell’s bulging cleavage that was so apparent that the movie was nicknamed “The Breast that won the West.”
Whether portrayed as a hero or a villain, Billy the Kid’s growing popularity on the silver screen made him as well known as the Lone Ranger. Not only adults, but now children were drawn to Billy the Kid and this brought out a slew of Billy the Kid merchandise such as comic books, novels, clothing and toys.
By the 1960s Billy the Kid films were beginning to fizzle out. Writers had pumped the well dry and all that could be said and done about this famous outlaw had been done. In 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, directed by Sam Peckinpah, was the last of the major motion pictures made on Billy the Kid. By that time western movies were all washed up and moviegoers had gotten tried of the same old plot and had seen enough of Clint Eastwood and his spaghetti westerns to last them a life time. So horses were replaced by muscle cars and motorcycles and our heroes went from wearing cowboy hats to wearing leather jackets. As for Billy the Kid, he was slowly being forgotten….but Hollywood came to the rescue again.
In 1988 Christopher Cain’s Young Guns hit the theaters with a big bang. Emilio Estevez was cast in what has to be the best impression of Billy the Kid we’ve seen to date. Estevez’s portrayal of the outgoing and high-spirited outlaw won audiences over and exposed a new generation to Billy the Kid. Like Walter Noble Burns book did in 1926, Young Guns gave Billy the Kid a much needed rebirth and not to mention converted Billy the Kid followers from around the world. Today the legacy of Billy the Kid is bigger than it ever was and we have not only biographers to thank, but also the filmmakers.
Yes, filmmakers! It’s the legend that made Billy the Kid famous and it’s the legend that attracted Hollywood to Billy the Kid and it was those films that attracted us to the famous outlaw. Of course the films are terribly inaccurate and most are downright corny, but the movies aren't meant to be documentaries, but for entertainment. Unfortunately, today fewer and fewer people (especially children) read books, particular history or biography books -if it's not Harry Potter or a dirty romance novel then forget it. So films and television may be the only way of keeping Billy the Kid's legend alive and hopefully an accurate and entertaining one will be made to both attract and educate the public on who William H. Bonney really was.