Left-handed or not, he’s quite the Kid

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By Kelly Dolejsi

Later this week, Mesa Public Library will commence its latest themed cluster of free films. Each one was shot in New Mexico and each has our state’s distinctly dusty ambience.

The spring/summer selections kick off with “The Left-Handed Gun,” a 1958 Western starring Paul Newman and a Colt single-action handgun.

Newman plays William Bonney, an excitable, unforgiving cowboy better known by his nickname, Billy the Kid.

Director Arthur Penn’s debut film shows Billy getting a job with British cattleman John Tunstall (played by Colin Keith-Johnston) bringing his herd up to Lincoln, N.M.

The Englishman shows Billy a great deal of kindness, and when he is murdered over worries he will undercut local beef prices, Billy vows revenge on the four killers.

Newman, 33 when the film was shot near Santa Fe, does a great job portraying the 17-year-old gunman.

For much of the movie, he wears a stubborn, piercingly ignorant expression that says more about Billy than any of the dialogue. I realize “piercingly ignorant” sounds oxymoronic, but somehow, his face simultaneously conveys both Billy’s uneducated, muddled thinking – the kind that leads to his single-minded plotting for revenge – and his deep dedication for a higher ideal he can’t put into words but knows was exemplified by his slaughtered former employer.

The film offers several excellent portrayals of other gunfighters of the Wild West, including Sheriff Pat Garrett (John Dehner) and Billy’s friend Tom Folliard (James Best), and offers a glimpse into what the late 1800s were like in the New Mexico territory.

However, it should be noted that “The Left-Handed Gun,” is, like most films, not 100-percent historically accurate.

We now are pretty certain, for instance, that Billy the Kid was not left-handed.

The misconception appears to have sprung from an undated ferrotype, the only known photograph of the Kid, which shows his rifle on his left side. But historians now believe that the ferrotype had been viewed incorrectly – that his pistol was actually on the right, exactly where a right-handed killer would want it.

Written evidence further substantiates this claim.

Right- or left-handed, the Kid always makes for interesting material.

We know so little about him, and we love to imagine the truth behind this short-lived, passionate, rowdy, frustrating man.

Overall, the film involves a few too many quick draws and bullet-torn button-down shirts for my taste, but I certainly enjoyed Newman’s performance and seeing my home state as it was 50 years ago –  and as much of it still is today: open, uncivilized and ultimately difficult to hide, although many of us try.

Mesa Public Library will present “The Left-Handed Gun” as part of its Free Film Series at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the upstairs meeting room theater.

Next up will be John Wayne in “The Cowboys” on May 6, Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson in “Seraphim Falls” on June 3, and, to cap things off, a short-film festival on July 1.

The series is made possible by Friends of the Library, and is co-sponsored by the Los Alamos Arts Council.

For more information, call 662-8240 or visit www.losalamosnm.us/library.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kelly Dolejsi is a member of the Los Alamos Arts Council.