Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"rock stars of the wild, wild West"

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.

Above, Johnny Mack Brown, left, is Billy to Wallace Beery's Pat Garrett in King Vidor's 1930 film, which opens the "Two Western Myths" series Friday. (UCLA Film & Television Archive / January 4, 2010)

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