CERRILLOS, N.M. — "I went to a rodeo here not too long ago," related Everett Creach, a veteran stunt man and stunt coordinator whose credits stretch back to the John Wayne-John Ford Westerns of the 1940s. "And the clown brings the kids out (into the arena) and says, 'We want to see how you fall--like playing Cowboys and Indians.' And a kid says. "What's Cowboys and Indians?' "
Creach paused and shook his head ruefully. "A lot of people said, 'Have Westerns been that far back?' "
They have indeed, at least as a moviegoing staple. You've got to go back to 1969--and the release, within a three-month period, of the traditional-sentimental Wayne Oscar-winner "True Grit," the hip-jokey "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and the brutal-revisionist "Wild Bunch"--to find anything like a season of hit Westerns.
In the decade that followed, the public's lack of patience with the old cliches of the Wayne-style Western and its lack of enjoyment of the new cliches of the Vietnam-inspired, hate-letter-to-America revisionist numbers all but killed off the genre. And in the 1980s, the disappointing box-office return on Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider," Fred Schepisi's fine "Barbarosa" and Lawrence Kasdan's epic "Silverado" seemed to declare the form beyond resuscitation.
But then no one figured on the combined strength of an obsessed screenwriter named John Fusco and a privately funded producer named Joe Roth. Not to mention a group of upstart young actors--Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and Lou Diamond Phillips.
It is because of them that much of "Young Guns" was shot recently in Cerrillos, a backwater of 300 souls in the red-sand hills half an hour south of the company's Santa Fe headquarters. Christopher Cain is directing for an Aug. 10 release by 20th Century Fox.
And it is because of production designer Jane Musky's conception of the film's setting--Lincoln, N.M., in 1878--that Cerrillos had its power and telephone lines trenched and its buildings re-facaded. Cerrillos was also outfitted with a hangman's stand, a sign hawking coffins of "pino y cidro" and a squat adobe communal shelter against Indian attack. Its asphalt main drag was covered with dirt and trampled by a neighing, braying, baying menagerie and by a breeched and bonneted make-believe citizenry whose faces hint of origins in Asia, Mexico and Europe as well as points east in the United States.
It is through this multiethnic throng that Emilio Estevez bolted in the film's opening scene, eluding an angry mob by jumping into the wagon driven by Victorian gent Terence Stamp and bookish Kiefer Sutherland. He introduced himself as "Bonney. William H.," otherwise known as Billy the Kid.
Otherwise known as John Fusco's magnificent obsession.
"I was about 10 years old when I saw my first photograph of Billy the Kid," said the 27-year-old screenwriter to a visiting reporter during a break in shooting the wagon scene. "This little 5-foot-4, rodent-faced character (in the photo) just didn't correspond with the legend of Billy, the noble bandit dressed in black--Johnny Mack Brown, Robert Taylor."
Or with Roy Rogers or Audie Murphy or Paul Newman or any of the 20 pre-Estevez actors who have played the folk figure who gunned down 21 men before being gunned down himself at age 21 in 1881. The one exception was Michael J. Pollard, but his 1972 "Dirty Little Billy" portrayal of the character as "a drooling, stumbling moron" was rendered implausible by what Fusco called "a story line that never took place and couldn't have taken place. It didn't get into the history of Lincoln at all."
Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, Fusco collected material on the town and on Billy the Kid, a period when significant new research on both subjects was being published. Though he had once thought about writing a novel based on this material, Fusco had in recent years become a screenwriter ("Crossroads" in 1986, directed by Walter Hill). After three months of research in Lincoln in early 1987, he banged out a draft of "Young Guns" in one month.
The script focuses on a six-month period in 1878 when Billy rode with the Regulators during the Lincoln County Wars.
Historically, Billy's co-Regulators were a rotating group of about a dozen late-teen-aged frontier outcasts. Fusco has composited them into the five characters played by Sutherland, Sheen, Phillips, Casey Siemaszko and Dermot Mulroney. Given food, shelter and a smattering of education by Terence Stamp's John Tunstall, in return the group protects Tunstall's person and his nascent commercial empire from L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance) in the Lincoln County Wars. In truth, as in the film, these were merchant wars in which the spoils were government contracts to supply an Army fort and an Indian reservation, rather than the range wars of legend.