“You go in there, smart gringo, and I’ll bury you there.”
Jose Chavez y Chavez / Lou Diamond Phillips
Young Guns II (1990) / 104 minutes run time
Who even needs the truth?
In 1948, Texan Brushy Bill Roberts confessed to being Billy the Kid. He publicly sought the pardon owed to him by New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace following the Lincoln County War. It shocked the nation — could it be possible that infamous Wild West outlaw William H. Bonney was somehow still alive in this modern age?
Tests were performed, interviews done, stories told, and fleshy scars shown. No pardon was granted, however: Brushy Bill died in 1950 from a massive heart attack, amid a swirling dark cloud of speculation.
And yet, Brushy Bill became folklore in his own right — the stuff of legends. As recently as 2003, forensics have been used to attempt to parse out the true identity of Roberts and Bonney (still, no definitive conclusion has been reached, although the consensus is that Roberts was not the famed outlaw.)
But it doesn’t matter, does it?
The West was built on fabrications and half-truths, authors in New York writing pulp novels about wily desperados and cunning lawmen they’d never met or could never imagine in locations they’d never set foot in. But the public consumed them en masse — they were hungry for these tall tales. The truth then, about what was happening west of the Mississippi, and the truth decades later when a crusty old man came forward with an unbelievable story, was irrelevant. This, perhaps, was the greatest strength of the Western genre, one that lives on today: how it builds up, from absolutely nothing, cultural truths that Americans take to be self-evident.
Neither of the Young Guns films is what you’d call “accurate” Westerns. They are over the top, play fast and loose with history. The horsemanship is inexpert, and while the acting’s solid enough, it was just an excuse — clearly — to cast the hottest young actors in Hollywood at the time and to cash in on one of the genre’s re-emergences. But something interesting happened: While Young Guns was only a modest success (critically, anyway; commercially it cleaned up at the box office), Young Guns II is the rare instance of the sequel being superior to the original in just about every way.
I was in middle school when I discovered Young Guns II. About the same time, I found out that my older sisters were half-sisters — that my mother had been married before, and that her husband had died unexpectedly. This was a decade or so before I was born, and painful as it was to her, it was decided that I didn’t need to know — that it didn’t make a difference, that my sisters were my sisters, full- or half-blood be damned.
A friend from church introduced me to Young Guns II during a Friday night sleepover at his house not long after, and something about it struck me deeply. In fact, I didn’t realize during the haze of those weeks that it was a sequel at all — somehow ignoring the film’s title, I thought the film was a standalone, recalling the painful memories of Brushy Bill Roberts (a tremendous framing device I love to this day). It wasn’t until years later I discovered and watched the first Young Guns, and I found it bloated and overly anachronistic, too smarmy for its own good. (Estevez shouting, “Okay, let’s rock!” is especially cringe-y.)
But it was something that stuck with me for years afterward: Can you acknowledge the second film, its merits, while distancing yourself from the first altogether? If you watch Young Guns II without ever having seen the first, if you watch it with no prior context, it still gives you just enough — asks you to look deeper for context — than it does if you come to it having seen the previous one. It’s utterly fascinating. You can name a litany of films where the second in a series is better than the original (The Empire Strikes Back and Terminator 2, to name a pair quickly), but even these need the context of the earlier films to appreciate fully the plot, the characters, the intricacies. Young Guns II, then, is an anomaly: it’s better without the first film, better as a standalone.
And yet, ignoring the history of the characters in the first film, the first film’s plot and details, is the symptom of a much larger phenomenon inherent in many of Hollywood’s Westerns: ignoring “facts” and “history” and rewriting stories however they wanted, so long as there was a good guy, a bad guy, and perhaps a half-naked woman at the center of it all.
This self-assurance — or, entitlement, if you’d prefer — is astounding. Where does this power come from?
To quote The Royal Tenenbaums: “Well, everyone knows that Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is … maybe he didn’t?”
It’s a passing line in a remarkable film, but one I come back to often when I think about Westerns like Young Guns II. They rewrite the past with a freedom that no other genre has. Even looking at the fates of some of the core characters of the film is … astounding:
Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez), according to most believed accounts, was shot twice by Pat Garrett, just above his heart. Supposedly, in the dark room where the murder took place, Billy didn’t recognize Garrett, drawing his revolver but hesitating and asking, “¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?” (Spanish for “Who is it? Who is it?”). In Young Guns II, Billy escapes Garrett’s capture and is presumed to be Brushy Bill in the 1950s-set narrative frames.
Josiah Gordon “Doc” Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) moved to Texas, had a family, was respected. He died in 1929, at the age of 80, from a heart attack. In Young Guns II, Doc is killed in one of Garrett’s ambushes, sacrificing himself bravely so the others can get away.
Jose Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) was arrested for murder in 1894, and spent years in jail until his sentence was commuted after helping the police during a jail riot. He was granted a pardon in 1909, and lived a quiet life, dying of natural causes in 1924. In Young Guns II, Chavez dies off-screen from a bullet wound he received in a Garrett ambush.
Hendry William French (Alan Ruck) has a more complex narrative. This character is a creation of two very real and very disparate people, Henry Newton Brown and William “Jim” French, an especially odd portmanteau of people, considering Jim French — a.k.a. Big Jim; a.k.a. Frenchy — was variously said to be either half-Native American or half-black. This erasure of a person of color is far too often seen in the Western genre, and quite frankly — other than studio machinations — serves no real narrative purpose. Take Alan Ruck out of the picture and put in a person of color … and we lose nothing and gain so, so much.
The liberties taken speak for themselves, and the divergent paths are incredible and incredibly odd. While, yes, I understand that an entertaining movie and a plot with more weight were the objective, still the movie itself is about Billy, and that plot works just fine — having Chavez maybe “die” off-screen serves no purpose, since Billy seems to be cured of his grief alarmingly fast.
Does it need to be the truth?
By the end of their lengthy run in the second half of the 19th Century, Western pulp novels had become Frankenstein’s monsters of plot devices and characters irrelevant to The West. They were full of conflicts between robbers and detectives that might as well have taken place on the moon. They were full of horsemanship and complicated trick-shooting; the cowboy heroes had to fight Mexicans and bandits with convoluted and colorful nicknames, took part in Shakespearean love triangles that often stretched across the border and back again, costumes and masks, and even, in some cases, devil-worshipping, human-sacrificing cults.
The West in reality was a far less interesting place — the shootouts we see in films and television were not, as they’d have you believe, so everyday — and people just … lived life. They went to the store, the bank. They worked, fought, and made up. They were utterly, hopelessly, human. The truth had been manipulated completely for the sake of telling a good story. But isn’t that always the case? We have the cold, hard truth of a life, of who we are, and then we have the story we tell ourselves, the narrative we shape so we can keep on living. This Western ideal, the myth of this great big place, ballooned in the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere: a land perpetually locked in the battle of good versus evil. A land that needed their beliefs, the strength of their convictions, so the hero — any hero, take your pick — could battle injustice wherever he went.
Who is it, indeed.
Fowler, Gene. Mavericks: a Gallery of Texas Characters. University of Texas Press, 2008.
Walker, Dale L. Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West. Forge, 1999.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Harvard University Press, 1971.