Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and director David Miller, who later helmed the John Wayne aerial opus "The Flying Tigers" and the last Marx Brothers' comedy "Love Happy," give the notorious legend of Billy the Kid the glamorous treatment in this spectacular-looking Technicolor western epic. Indeed, Robert Taylor looks far too mature to be essaying of role of the murderous young ruffian. Although he was a right-hander in life, Taylor packs his pistol on his left hip, and scenarist Gene Fowler conjures up some clever dialogue to account for his southpaw status. Chief villain Dan Hickey (Gene Lockhart of "Edge of Darkness") makes the pointed observation the first time that he encounters Billy: "Left-handed, eh?" Billy replies with insouciance, "I'm saving my right to shake hands with friends." This left versus right hand theme is concluded in the off-beat ending that ennobles the title character. Meanwhile, M-G-M decks Taylor out in black from Stetson to spurs as the grim, unshaven, lead-slinging lawbreaker. Interestingly, our when ill-fated protagonistsince he is clearly not the herojoins the underdog cattleman, he curbs his violent urges and the filmmakers reflect Billy's change of nature by allowing him to shed his black-leather jacket. Of course, Billy doesn't stay on the right side of the law for long. Dour but dependable Brian Donlevyoften cast as a villain for the sake of his thin mustacheplays Billy's childhood friend; the two of them grew up in Silver City and Donlevy as Jim Sherwood believes that his friend got the shaft. It seems that somebody gunned down Billy's father in the back and he hasn't forgotten that injustice. Despite the age discrepancy, Taylor turns in an effective, downbeat performance.
Scenarist Gene Fowler, who contributed to Twentieth Century Fox's 1939 biography of Jesse James with Tyrone Power, based his script ostensibly on William Barnes Noble's vintage book "The Saga of Billy the Kid," butnot surprisingly"Billy the Kid" takes liberties with history. Essentially, most of the facts remain intact, though never as authentically as they were depicted in Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun" with Paul Newman, Andrew V. McLaglen's "Chism" with John Wayne, Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" with Kris Kristofferson and the two "Young Guns" movies with Emilio Estevez. The names have been altered. The villainous Hickey stands in for Lawrence Murphy, while British cattleman Henry Tunstall has been renamed Eric Keating. Lawman Pat Garrett is called Jim Sherwood. The action still occurs in Lincoln County, New Mexico territory in the 1880s.
The plot opens with Billy stealthily breaking his Mexican partner Pedro Gonzales (Italian actor Frank Puglia of "The Burning Hills") out of jail and then inciting a fight in Hickey's saloon with the distasteful likes of the bouncer played by odious Lon Chaney, Jr., because the saloon doesn't serve Hispanics. After this short-lived scuffle, Hickey convinces Billy to hire on with his outfit and ride with him. Under Hickey's orders, the Kid launches a stampede of Keating's cattle to whittle not the numbers of steers down as well as cut back on their pound per hoof. During the stampede, the Kid encounters his old Silver City friend, Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy of "Never So Few") and nearly gets his head shot off. Eventually, he switches sides and joins Keating. One of the primary differences between the wealthy Hickey and the foreigner Keating is that the latter have no objections to Billy's Hispanic partner signing on, too. Not long after Billy has turned over a new leaf, he discovers Pedro dead in the corral where they were gentling a horse for Keating's sister. Inevitably, when Keating takes his case to the territory governor and convinces the lawmakers to give in a U.S. Marshall's badge. Not only does Keating swear in Jim Sherwood as U.S. Deputy Marshall, but he also secures a pardon for Billy the Kid that later will serve as a basis for his pardon. Just everything is looking optimistic, Keating rides off from his ranch one day and his rider horse returns without him. Neither M-G-M nor Miller filmed Keating's murder at the hands of Hickey's henchmen with their own deputy badges. Primarily, they shot down Keating because he was harboring a fugitiveBilly the Kidand Keating's death puts Billy on the prod.
Classic western helmer John Ford photographed his best oaters in scenic Monument Valley with its flat, sagebrush studded terrain with buttes crenellating the horizon. Evidently, what was good enough for Ford proved good enough for Miller. Sadly, Miller lensed too much of "Billy the Kid" on indoor soundstages with the actors straddling ersatz horses. In the exterior long shots, we see horsemen pouring across the wilderness, then for the closer shots we are transported to a soundstage with the characters riding either fake nags or real ones slowed down to a walk with back projection of Monument Valley. In an interesting scene between Keating and the Kid outside on the trail, the Kid learns that Keating has no love for firearms. However, Keating's non-violent ideology doesn't preclude him from being a crack shot. As vultures circle overhead, Billy knocks one out of the skies and Keating borrows the Kid's six-shooter and knocks down two birds. The vultures are unmistakably animated as are several backdrop shots of the mountainous terrain. Ian Hunter, who played King Richard the Lion-Heart in the Errol Flynn swashbuckler "The Adventures of Robin Hood," is solidly cast as the transplanted Englishman. Mary Howard, who went on to appear in "Riders of the Purple Sage," is flat as Keating's sister Edith that the Kid has a crush on but who is destined to marry Sherwood. Appropriately, Miller saves Billy's death scene for the last few minutes and Billy gives his friend Sherwood an edge on him by wearing his six-gun on his right hip so that he cannot win in a fast-draw competition. "Billy the Kid" is okay for what it is, but it is no classic.