I first read Jon Tuska’s The American West in Film, in 1988 and found the sophistication of his work truly impressive. I had not read more of his work until recently when I pulled off my shelf, where it had been for many years, this book, Billy the Kid: His Life and Legend. A reprint of a work originally published in 1994, this book has a detailed biography of the “The Kid” as chapter one containing more than 100 pages, and then successive chapters on Billy and the historians, Billy in fiction, Billy in film, and an analysis of the legend of Billy the Kid. There are also two appendices, a Billy chronology and a Billy miscellany.
The chapter on the life of Billy the Kid is more than I ever wanted to know largely because of the poor quality of the writing and the problem of keeping track of a myriad number of minor characters, comings and goings, the Lincoln County War and political infighting, etc. I am sure that this history could be narrated in a more compelling manner; as it is this is not an account for the casual reader. It is one written for the full-fledged Billy buff and the diehard antiquarian.
The chapter on the historical accounts relating to Billy the Kid was also uninspired. I found Tuska’s recounting, for page after page, of what he considers the errors of various historical accounts on Bill the Kid quite boring after a while. Essentially, he goes page by page through these various books and calls out what he considers errors in other books, but which sounded too many times more like interpretive differences. He singles out for criticism the work of Robert M. Utley, a revered historian of the American West whose books on the Lincoln Country War and Billy the Kid are also on my shelves, as are his works on the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee uprising, the Army in the West, and a biography of Custer. There are, no doubt, errors to be corrected in Utley’s work, but there are also interpretive differences concerning which side was more in the right in the Lincoln County War, etc. Those that differ from Tuska’s perspective he labels “fictions,” a term that I find uncalled for in those instances.
What I was most interested in was Tuska’s analyses of Billy in film, and here he does not disappoint. This chapter is the one that most makes the book worthwhile from my perspective. His analysis of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” directed by Sam Peckinpah and the “Young Guns” franchise is classic.
Finally, whatever your interests in this subject, there is a wealth of information on Billy the Kid contained in this book. It might well be too much detail for most readers, but regardless of how much you want to delve into this topic be sure to read and ponder the chapter on film. It is excellent.