Hollywood History: The Left Handed Gun

Despite numerous eye-witnesses insisting that the Titanic broke in two as it sank, engineers said that was impossible, so for decades after the event the conventional wisdom was that the ship sank intact. When Robert Ballard finally discovered the wreck in the mid 1980s, the truth was revealed. Although A Night to Remember (1958) can be forgiven for this historical misstep, the error nevertheless exists. But at least the title of the movie wasn’t The Ship That Sank Intact. Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun, released the same year, did not escape the same fate.

There is only a single authenticated photograph of notorious gunslinger Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, A.K.A. Billy the Kid. In this picture, the Kid can be seen wearing his gun on his left hip, leading everyone to assume he was left-handed. But in the 1980s, someone finally noticed that the loading gate on Billy’s 1873 Winchester Carbine was on the wrong side, proving that the picture was actually a reverse image. Billy the Kid was right-handed.

The film does not dwell on or indeed even mention Billy’s left-handedness (though he does wear his gun on his left hip), however the fact that the film’s very title is a historical inaccuracy underscores the emphasis on drama rather than fact. To be fair, many other films didn’t even try. The Billy the Kid series of the 1940s starring Buster Crabbe featured a guy in a cowboy hat who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real person, and it’s probably safe to assume that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula did not prioritize historical accuracy. In terms of broad strokes, The Left Handed Gun is more-or-less faithful to the actual events, but it does get a number of details wrong.

Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.

Expanding on an episode of the TV series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse called “The Death of Billy the Kid,” penned by Gore Vidal (who would later revisit the material himself in the 1989 TV movie Billy the Kid), screenwriter Leslie Stevens focuses on Billy as a tormented youth. Reprising the role from the TV episode, Paul Newman plays Billy as moody, reactionary, and temperamental. While he is occasionally shown clowning around with his friends, Newman’s Billy is morose more often than not, moping about and dwelling on how he’s been wronged, quick to fly into a rage even at his friends. While there is much we don’t know about the real Billy, and there’s certainly room for interpretation, none of this aligns with what we do know. By all accounts, the real Billy the Kid was a gentleman: courteous, polite, and laid back even when things were dire. While in jail awaiting sentencing, Billy told a reporter, “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The joke’s on me this time.” Stevens writes Billy as illiterate, but this too is inaccurate. During his incarceration, Billy sent multiple eloquently-written letters to Governor Lew Wallace pleading his case.

The real Billy the Kid.

One of the most obvious ways in which the film takes liberties with history is in the compression of time, with the events depicted in the first third of the film being especially condensed. In the movie’s version of the tale, rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is murdered by his competitors, Billy and his friends kill the corrupt Sheriff Brady (Robert Foulk) in retaliation, and the angry residents of the town corner Billy at the home of Alex McSween (John Dierkes) and set fire to the place. To say that the movie leaves out some details would be an understatement to say the least. In reality, Tunstall’s death sparked a sweeping conflict involving hundreds of people that came to be known as the Lincoln County War. Following Tunstall’s death, Alex McSween had Billy and rancher Dick Brewer deputized. They attempted to serve warrants on Tunstall’s killers, but Sheriff Brady ignored the warrants and instead threw Billy and Brewer in jail. When they got out, Brewer formed the Regulators, a group consisting of thirteen men, including Billy the Kid, who swore to serve their own brand of justice. A lengthy and violent conflict ensued, with multiple shootouts and a substantial body count. It all culminated in the Battle of Lincoln, a protracted gunfight that finally ended with the burning of the McSween mansion. Whole books have been written on the subject of the Lincoln County War, but this film boils it down to only the barest of essentials. The burning of the McSween house is nothing at all like the real incident. Instead of an actual battle involving two sizable factions and lots of shooting, the scene plays more like a lynching. Billy is depicted as being somewhat cowardly, diving out a window and leaving McSween to die in the fire. In reality, Billy led several Regulators out the front door to draw enemy fire while McSween escaped out the back. Unfortunately, the plan failed, and McSween was shot dead before he reached the back gate. What in real life was a three-day standoff takes up just a few minutes in the movie. After the portion of the film that corresponds to the Lincoln County War, the story is allowed to breathe for a bit, focusing on character-driven drama and Billy’s lingering anger over what took place, but in terms of real history, even this is condensed. All of the events in the film seem to take place within a matter of months, but in fact things played out over several years.

There are other inaccuracies to be found throughout. In an early scene, a character talks about Billy having killed a man in Silver City for insulting his mother. This is likely a reference to Billy’s killing of Frank “Windy” Cahill. But the real incident took place at Fort Grant, not Silver City, and Billy did not shoot Cahill for insulting his mother, but because Cahill physically assaulted him. In the film’s climax, Pat Garrett guns Billy down in the street, whereas the real shooting occurred indoors. The village of Old Fort Sumner, where Billy spent much of his time in the final two years of his life, has for some reason been renamed Modero. Billy’s gang, the Regulators, are never mentioned by name, and their numbers are reduced from thirteen to just three. Similarly, the Murphy-Dolan faction, backed by the infamous Santa-Fe ring and employing multiple gunmen from several gangs, are reduced to just four conspirators, none of whom are named Murphy or Dolan. One of the most puzzling departures from real history is in Billy’s famous showdown with Joe “Texas Red” Grant, in which the Kid covertly sabotaged his opponent’s pistol before things got ugly. In the movie, Grant survives his encounter with the Kid. In real life, he did not. Really, the whole scene is an inversion of fact, with Billy raving like a madman at the calm and collected Grant. The truth is that Grant was drunk and confrontational, while Billy kept his cool the whole time. The reversal is an odd choice, considering the decision of the filmmakers to depict Billy as short-tempered and violence-prone.

Most of these issues are trivial, however. It’s a movie after all, not a documentary, and it’s not uncommon for movies based on real events to combine characters and streamline narratives for dramatic purposes. However, there is one pivotal element that doesn’t quite work and which leaves the rest of the film on slightly shaky ground. All of Billy’s violent actions stem from the murder of his employer, John Tunstall, depicted here as a kindly old man (he was really only 24). But the movie never really conveys why Tunstall is so important to Billy that his death sparks such a reaction. Very little time elapses between the opening of the film, when Billy wanders onto Tunstall’s ranch, and the sequence depicting Tunstall’s murder. There is really only one scene in which the characters bond, when Tunstall gives Billy a copy of the Bible and tries to teach him to read. (This never really happened.) Otherwise there’s nothing. The reality of the bond they shared and the effect Tunstall’s death had on Billy cannot be understated.

John Tunstall tries to impart some wisdom to Billy the Kid.

In real life, after the death of his mother, young Henry McCarty struggled to get by. Scrawny and with feminine features, he was mercilessly bullied by the ruffians he encountered and had to learn to act tough to hold his own. When he fell in with the wrong crowd, he was on a path to disaster. Now using the alias William H. Bonney, he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he was soon thrown in jail for horse rustling. But after a conversation in the town jail, the owner of the horses decided not to press charges, instead giving Billy a job. That man was John Tunstall, and the event would have changed Billy’s life for the better if things had gone differently. Billy found dignity and stability in the months he spent working for Tunstall, who even gifted him with new clothes and new guns. This was Billy’s first and only chance at an honest life, and it was snatched away from him when Tunstall was murdered. The rage he must have felt is perfectly understandable and is completely glossed over in the film. They try to plant a flag on it, with the other characters wondering why Billy has flipped out over the death of a virtual stranger, but that just makes the whole thing feel even more awkward. It’s one of the weakest aspects of an otherwise really fine film.

Not all of the details in the film are wrong, of course. Though the situation is vastly oversimplified, it does accurately depict the motivations behind the Lincoln County War. The reasons for Tunstall’s murder at the hands of his business rivals are truthfully relayed, and Sheriff Brady’s participation in the conspiracy and thus the impossibility of justice ever being served are faithful to history. Out of all the Regulators they could have picked to include in the story, Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard are an understandable choice, as they were the only ones to continue riding with Billy after the Lincoln County War ended. It is true that after the fire at Alex McSween’s house, the governor declared amnesty for all participants in the Lincoln County War, but the movie leaves out the caveat that this did not apply to anyone with an indictment, so only the Murphy-Dolan faction was covered. Also, in the film it is ultimately Billy who breaks the truce. In reality, it was the Dolan faction who violated the agreement by killing Suzan McSween’s lawyer, Huston Chapman. This led Billy to seek a pardon for his indictment from Governor Wallace in exchange for testimony against Chapman’s killers. Wallace agreed to the pardon but never delivered, instead leaving the Kid to his fate. None of this is depicted in the film. Pat Garret’s capture of Billy at the cabin in Stinking Springs is more-or-less accurate, but Tom O’Folliard had already been killed several days earlier, and Billy angrily shoving Charlie Bowdre out of the cabin to be gunned down by Garrett’s posse is pure nonsense.

“Hello, Bob.”

Just about spot-on, however, is the depiction of Billy’s most famous exploit: his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse. With Garrett out of town, Deputy Bob Olinger (played here by Denver Pyle) was across the street having dinner, leaving Billy alone with Deputy James Bell. Since they were alone, no one knows what happened for sure, but somehow Billy managed to get his hands on a pistol and shot Bell. Billy would later tell a friend he didn’t like having to shoot Bell but felt he had no choice. This is depicted in the movie, with the Kid hesitating before firing. Drawn by the sound of gunfire, Olinger came running toward the courthouse but stopped in his tracks when he heard a voice from the window above. “Hello, Bob,” the Kid said, and blasted Olinger with his own shotgun. This event as filmed is almost perfect on a cinematic level, but for one slight flaw. Director Arthur Penn deviates from history slightly, staging the Kid on a balcony, backlit by the sun, rather than standing at the window. It’s a valid choice artistically, but we see the Kid in a POV shot, with a rack-focus attempting to convey Olinger straining to see, which doesn’t quite work as intended. Also, the moment lasts a few seconds too many. Billy waiting so long to fire is neither believable nor accurate. Aside from that, however, the scene is well-staged, tense, and true to history.

John Dehner as Pat Garrett.
The Real Pat Garrett.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the movie from a historical standpoint is the casting of John Dehner as Pat Garret, who looks the part far more than any other actor to take on the role. The performance is solid as well. Dehner plays Garret as an everyman, which is probably not far from the truth. As for his relationship with Billy, well, that’s a bit complicated and depends largely on who you ask. According to Garret himself, he was on friendly terms with Billy, but he tried not to involve himself in the gunslinger’s activities. However, according to Fort Sumner resident Paulita Maxwell, “Garrett was the best friend Billy the Kid had in Fort Sumner,” and they were “as thick as two peas in a pod.” In the film, Garrett tries to mind his own business until he’s elected sheriff, and then he just does what he has to do with detachment, so the filmmakers are clearly leaning toward Garrett’s version of events. One thing that is decidedly a fabrication, however, is the scene where Billy guns down Tom Hill at Garrett’s wedding. This incident never took place, though it works dramatically to give Garrett the necessary motivation to turn on Billy and serves to sway the audience in Garrett’s favor. Had the film stuck to Garrett’s real motivation – the five-hundred-dollar reward on the Kid’s head – the audience would probably not be so sympathetic.

Needless to say, the selling point of the movie is Paul Newman’s performance, and he absolutely dominates the screen. Newman portrays Billy as dangerously unstable and obsessive. As with many other Billy the Kid films, he is the driving force behind his gang, browbeating his friends into going along with his criminal activities. In fact, Billy was never the leader of his gang. Dick Brewer, Frank McNab, and Doc Scurlock, who aren’t even depicted here, were the real leaders of the Regulators. And while Billy was certainly all-in, he never had to coerce anyone. But that isn’t what audiences want to see, and Newman’s performance is so magnetic it’s easy to forgive. Harder to overlook is Billy’s somewhat rapey seduction of romantic interest Celsa Guitirrez (Lita Milan). That is decidedly out of character for the real Billy and an uncomfortable smear on his reputation. That said, within the constructed narrative, it makes sense and is consistent with the forceful nature of Newman’s version of the Kid. Not true to life by any means, but certainly good drama. On that subject, it’s unclear whether Billy really had a relationship with Celsa. He was rumored to have been involved with Paulita Maxwell, though she vehemently denied it and even threatened to sue biographer Walter Noble Burns if he named her as Billy’s lover in his book, The Saga of Billy the Kid. It was she who pointed the finger at Celsa Guitirrez. The truth on that particular point will probably never be known.

The obligatory love interest.

Ultimately, this film is less about history and more an examination of the fine line a person with dangerous personality traits can walk and how easily such a person can succumb to an innate penchant for violence. Strangely, this is at odds with the ballad that plays over the opening credits. The song speaks of Billy as a tragic figure, a victim of circumstance, but that is not the story the movie serves up. On the whole, this film is a morality play. Shortly after Tunstall’s murder, as Billy is pondering revenge, Alex McSween urges restraint, saying that revenge will be wrong despite the miscarriage of justice. (McSween did no such thing.) This mission statement informs everything that follows, and while the movie does manage to tread on some morally complex themes as some of the conspirators struggle with guilt over their involvement in Tunstall’s murder, the bulk of the film focuses on Billy’s deteriorating mental state as he is inexorably swallowed by the violence in his soul. The film wants us to forgive Tunstall’s murderers and condemn Billy for not letting it go. The real-life events surrounding Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War were not nearly so simple. They were full of shades of gray. Both sides were guilty of questionable business practices. Both sides carried out acts of bloody violence. The conspirators were unrepentant, the Regulators relentless. The Hollywood-style Western formula of easily identified good guys and bad guys bears little resemblance to history. The real Lincoln County was a lawless land, lorded over by corrupt politicians and shady businessmen who steamrolled ordinary people, where dangerous gunslingers ran rampant. Into this situation came Henry McCarty, an orphan without guidance caught up in something bigger than himself, scapegoated for crimes he was not solely responsible for, and propelled to international notoriety by sensationalized newspaper articles and an inaccurate biography written by the man who killed him for the purpose of assassinating his character. Westerns of the 1950s had no interest in such moral ambiguity, preferring simple tales of right and wrong, where lawmen served up justice and bandits got the punishment they deserved. Given that backdrop, it’s actually impressive that this movie has the level of complexity that it does.

The Left Handed Gun may not be the most historically accurate film made on the subject of Billy the Kid, but it’s most definitely one of the more entertaining ones. Under the steady hand of Arthur Penn in his directorial debut, working from a solidly constructed script by Leslie Stevens, it delivers a compelling character study, and Paul Newman’s performance alone is a must-see. With The Saga of Billy the Kid, Walter Noble Burns arguably created the modern legend of Billy the Kid, and Burns was no more interested in historical accuracy than Hollywood is. As the saying goes, if the legend is more interesting than history, go with the legend. That’s what The Left Handed Gun does, and the results are certainly interesting. Unfortunately, most people, if they know anything about Billy the Kid at all, are only familiar with Hollywood’s version of the story, and they assume that’s what really happened. They forget that Hollywood, after all, is not history.

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