|Billy the Kid, pictured with his Winchester rifle, in the one known photograph of the outlaw. (Courtesy of Robert McCubbin )|
Picturing Billy the Kid
American Experience documentary homes in on Wild West legend
There were a lot of Williams in the Wild West: Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Sheriff Bill Tilghman, Billy Clanton (of O.K. Corral fame), and, of course, Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Bonney, a.k.a. Henry Antrim, a.k.a. William Henry McCarty Jr. Thats a lot of names for someone who died before he turned 22 and didnt do much in his life other than steal some horses, kill four men, and have an association with the murders of another five.
Even so, in the 130 years since Pat Garrett gunned him down in the New Mexico Territory, Billy the Kid has fired the imaginations of millions. Aaron Copland composed a ballet about him. Michael Ondaatje wrote a novel about him. Hollywood has made close to a hundred movies or TV shows about him. Tonight hes the subject of an hourlong American Experience documentary on Channel 2, Billy the Kid.
The most interesting thing in the documentary, both for itself and for how its used as an artistic device, is the one known photograph of Billy. John Maggio, who wrote and directed, keeps coming back to the image. A visual refrain, it recurs the way a hook does in a hit song.
The picture cost Billy 25 cents, and he has the look of someone out to get his moneys worth. Head cocked, hes showing off for the camera - while trying not to show that hes showing off. His sleepy eyes and slightly parted lips give him a casual look (the open mouth also reveals a bit of snaggle tooth). He wears a vest, suspenders, a jauntily knotted bandana, and a Stetson or sombrero whose dented crown is so high it looks like a top hat. Completing the portrait is a Winchester rifle, which Billy holds upright, grasping it by the muzzle. It looks more like walking stick than weapon.
There isnt much known about Billy. He was born in New York, moved to New Mexico (by way of Indiana) with his mother, brother, and stepfather when he was 13 or 14, and was orphaned soon thereafter. By the time he was 16, he was a wanted man. What made Billy famous was his involvement in the Lincoln County War, a violent dispute between two rival groups over money, land, and local power. He gained a national reputation when the governor of New Mexico offered a reward for his capture.
Billys becoming famous was a matter of chance, really, greatly aided by his having such a headline-friendly alias (a newspapermans creation, not his). Various talking heads - the best-known are former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Momaday - expound on Billys charm and his sense of loyalty (which is what got him mixed up in the Lincoln County violence) and how he sympathized with local Hispanics. Avoid the mute button at all costs when Momaday comes on. What a voice that man has. But so much of what we hear from the various experts (most of whom come across more as enthusiasts) sounds embroidered and a bit storybook.
If the talking heads largely substitute enthusiasm for information, Maggio does the visual equivalent. Ah, reenactments, that bane of 21st-century documentary. Every few minutes therell come along a shot of a revolver being loaded, a lone horseman galloping away, a shotgun being fired, curtains blowing in the wind, a noose hanging on a gallows.
You know the drill. Directors of westerns have been relying on them for almost as long as there have been westerns. If you saw any of this in a feature film, youd think theyre tired and clichéd. Seeing them in a documentary, youre supposed to think - what, exactly? That theyre imaginative? Artistic? Stylish? Theyre just as tired and just as clichéd, only theyre also something much worse. Theyre phony. Theyd fit right in in a Wild West version of Downton Abbey - hey, now theres a thought - but until such time as theres something called Masterpiece Experience they have no business being seen on PBSs flagship documentary series.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.