Billy the Kid (1941)

Synopsis:

The life and times of the infamous outlaw and gunfighter of the American Old West, Billy the Kid, played by Robert Taylor (Magnificent Obsession and Knights of the Round Table), whose exploits have become the stuff of legends.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Guns and shooting are going out. Law and order is on the march.”

Billy the Kid is pretty much my least favorite movie about the legendary 1800s bandit, whose life is Hollywoodized here to a ridiculous degree. Directed by David Miller (Lonely Are the Brave) and (uncredited) Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm), Billy the Kid doesn’t even include Billy’s famous nemesis, Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The film is based on Walter Noble Burns’s 1926 novel The Saga of Billy the Kid. The book was previously filmed in 1930 with B-movie actor John Mack Brown as Billy. Both movies were produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I haven’t seen the 1930 movie, but the 1941 remake isn’t a very good movie, and the film’s rewriting of history is done sloppily.

And worst of all is Robert Taylor’s unconvincing performance as the title character. Taylor was a dependable leading man to strong actresses — e.g., Magnificent Obsession (1934) Camille (1936), Waterloo Bridge (1940) — but on his own, he was a rather bland and uninteresting actor. In this case, I just couldn’t accept him as the mercurial Wild West outlaw — Taylor’s attempts at looking menacing were laughable.

There are still small pleasures to be found here. Billy the Kid does have an absolutely delightful cast of character actors. The usually vivacious Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty) does a good job underplaying a character clearly inspired by Sheriff Pat Garrett (why change the name?). Ian Hunter (The Adventures of Robin Hood) plays a rancher, and Gene Lockhart (Algiers) plays a corrupt cattle baron.

The breathtaking Technicolor cinematography by William V. Skall (Joan of Arc) and Leonard Smith (National Velvet) is by far the best thing about the movie. Although the intense primary colors don’t really belong here — the gorgeous images are somewhat at odd with the gritty storyline — I have to admit that the movie does look great — it almost feels like you are watching a collage of old paintings.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Billy the Kid is a glossy, but uninteresting western. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was never good at this sort of sulky tale. The studio tended to make everything look pretty. Warners and RKO were much better at producing gritty movies. The movie isn’t a total misfire, but you are better off renting Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun (1958) or Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Color, 94 minutes, Not Rated.

4 responses to “Billy the Kid (1941)

  1. A tough film to welcome and your reasons are sound I do like Taylor in the later portion of his career. Like Fonda and Stewart it took some aging before entering the western with some credibility. Reminds me I have a copy of Dirty Little Billy I should give a go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, he’s fine in a few ’50s westerns. I thought he was very good in Westward the Women and Saddle the Wind. To me, he’s not believable as brooding anti-hero though.

      Anyhow, I forgot all about Dirty Little Billy — Michael J. Pollard did a pretty good job as Billy.

      Like

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