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Billy the Kid meets Jesse James

A UCLA film series is devoted to the many movies they inspired.

January 06, 2010|By Susan King

Jesse James and Billy the Kid were the rock stars of the wild, wild West.

James, who was born in 1847 and died in 1882, was an outlaw, gang leader, bank and train robber from Missouri who was the most infamous member of the James-Younger Gang. Mythologized even while he was alive, his celebrity grew after his death in dime novels where he was portrayed as a sagebrush Robin Hood.

Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William H. Bonney, who was born in 1859 and died at 21 in 1881, was a outlaw and gunman who claimed that he killed more than 20 men (in reality, historians believe he probably shot only four -- but he was just starting out). Unlike James, he was still a relatively unknown outlaw until the year after his death saw the publication of the highly exaggerated "The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid," which was written by his killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett, and M.A. "Ash" Upson.

Just as these men captured the attention of novelists, Hollywood transformed James and Billy the Kid from murderous outlaws into heroic romantic heroes who were fighting the government and authority.

Starting Friday, the UCLA Film & Television Archive is exploring the cinematic history of these two outlaws in its "Two Western Myths: Billy the Kid & Jesse James" film series at the Billy Wilder Theater.

Jan-Christopher Horak, the head of the archive who programmed the monthlong series, notes that "there are lots of Billy the Kid movies and Jesse James movies because going back to the 19th century they have been the two primary mythological figures in terms of outlaws. They were young and in both cases were never brought to justice in a court of law."

Both were killed by a representative of the law.

"With Billy the Kid, it's Pat Garrett, and in the case of Jesse James it's Robert Ford, who is going to get a reward. In both cases, the killings are instigated by the government. That only added to the fires of the anti-government ideology."

Horak was also inspired to create the series -- the first western series at UCLA in a long time -- after catching up this past summer with the 2007 film "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck in his Oscar-nominated role as Ford, who was a member of James' gang. The film concludes the series on Jan. 31.

"I thought that film was pretty interesting in terms of its discourse turning Jesse James into a superstar and media hero," he says.

"Ford is chasing him because he is a media hero. He is like the first stalker. So I thought, let's go back . . . and see the way people read those myths in various points in film history."

The series opens with King Vidor's 1930 "Billy the Kid," starring Johnny Mack Brown as Billy and Wallace Beery as Pat. Vidor spent two years on the film, which presents a portrait of the mythologized Billy of the dime novel era.

Sam Fuller's first film, 1949's "I Shot Jesse James," rounds out the bill.

"It picks up on the homoerotic aspect of 'The Assassination of Jesse James,' " says Horak. "Fuller was much more interested in the Bob Ford character than the Jesse James character."

Both outlaws were also popular "B" western subjects in such films as 1942's "Billy the Kid Trapped," starring Buster Crabbe of "Flash Gordon" fame, and "1941's "Jesse James at Bay," with Roy Rogers, both of which screen Jan. 16.

"They virtually have nothing to do with the myth except for surface plot elements," says Horak. "They are turned into both totally positive characters without any notice that they killed anyone. Buster Crabbe made 13 Billy the Kid films."

But with political unrest and the Vietnam War in the 1960s, myths of the Old West were examined with gritty revisionist eyes, notably Sam Peckinpah's 1973 "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and Philip Kaufman's 1972 "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid," which both screen Jan. 29.

With "Pat Garrett," screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer turned Billy the Kid into a rock 'n' roller, says Peckinpah scholar Nick Redman. The cast reflected that decision, with Kris Kristofferson as Billy and Bob Dylan and Rita Coolidge in supporting roles.

"Peckinpah perhaps unwittingly or wittingly went along with it," says Redman. "Although I don't think he was part of the rock 'n' roll generation. He didn't know who Bob Dylan was at that time."

Kristofferson was 36 when he made the film -- 15 years older than Billy at his death.

"I think that the idea was Billy as world-weary character," says Redman.

"Pat Garrett" is considered the director's flawed masterpiece. "A lot of people think it's as good or better than 'The Wild Bunch,' " says Redman.

But it's a broken film. "One of the reasons why was Peckinpah's behavior was so bad," says Redman. "He was drinking more than he had ever done before and many days refused to come out of his trailer. He didn't treat Wurlitzer's script very well. In fact, [Wurlitzer] wrote an essay about the appalling treatment he received.

"But there are some great moments of existential weariness. Wurlitzer and Peckinpah wanted a Billy who lived fast and died young, but not quite as young as he actually was in life. They wanted that kind of older person who felt could see the end coming and does everything to allow the end to come."

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