Hollywood’s Old West still here

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Forgiving Billy and remembering Roy

By Sherry Robinson

The Old West of Billy the Kid is still with us. And so is Hollywood’s Old West.
The governor has been entertaining the idea of a pardon for the Kid since 2003, and the Legislature considered a pardon before that. The descendents of Sheriff Pat Garrett, who killed the kid in 1881, have made their opposition clear.
In 2001, historian Bob Boze Bell and I took opposing positions on the question in side-by-side newspaper columns. Bell made a case for forgiveness; I argued that Billy was a rustler, horse thief and back shooter, not a misunderstood youth.
But, bless him, he’s been good for tourism.
As it happens, I just watched “Chisum,” starring John Wayne as the legendary New Mexico cattleman and partisan in the Lincoln County War. It’s one of many movies based on this colorful episode in the state’s history. Watch any of them and you start to see why the Kid doesn’t fade away.
In this movie, Billy, already a reputed killer, is befriended by rancher John Henry Tunstall and begins to turn his life around. Tunstall’s death, at the hands of the opposing faction, sends the tormented Billy down the path of bloody revenge, while our hero, John Wayne-John Chisum, seeks justice.    The DVD’s special features brags about how the scriptwriter researched the events to achieve accuracy, but Hollywood’s idea of accuracy meant the film’s named characters existed in real life but not necessarily their story. (Why he chose to make the neighboring reservation Comanche instead of Apache is beyond me.) Tunstall, Chisum and Billy (temporarily) were the white hats; Lawrence Murphy was the black hat.
In historic reality, there were no heroes, but in cinema, there are always good guys and bad guys. And as long as there’s a scripted Billy the Kid out there, we’ll keep wondering if we should forgive him.
Speaking of good guys and the cinema, we also learn that even though the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, in Branson, Mo., closed at the end of 2009, a victim of declining visitation and the economy, their graying fans haven’t forgotten. Auctions of the museum’s collections and the stars’ belongings began last summer and will continue in 2011.
Trigger, frozen forever on his hind legs through the arts of taxidermy, fetched $266,500 from a Nebraska cable TV network. One pair of Roy’s spurs – he never used spurs on Trigger – sold for $10,625. Trigger’s saddle and bridle brought $386,500.
Dale’s horse Buttermilk raised a mere $25,000, but ol’ Bullet, the faithful German shepherd, was worth $35,000. Nellybelle, a Jeep, sold for $116,500.
The family and the auction house tried to place the famous stuffed stars with a museum, but shrunken museum budgets sent them to the auction block with other memorabilia.
Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys, was never a cowboy. He was, however, a king of licensing and merchandising. Dale Evans was his third wife; he was her fourth husband. But the union lasted, and the Bible used at their dinner table sold for $8,750.
In the powerful language of the cinema, they and their contemporaries (Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, among others) were all about doing the right thing, sticking up for the weak, prizing honesty above greed, and telling the truth – all with minimal bloodshed. (Typically they shot the gun out of the outlaw’s hand; an actual wound was a dot of ketchup on the shirt.) They taught lessons to their young viewers. What, we might ask, are kids learning from their video games?
So just as we had two Roys, we have two Billys – the real one of hard-to-forgive deeds and the cinema character who might be redeemed by the right mentor or a good woman. (Choose your clich.) If the governor decides to pardon Billy, it’s most likely the movie Billy he’ll pardon and the movie Billy we’ll remember.
Happy Trails.

Sherry Robinson
NM News Services