The Left Handed Gun is a Western that cast a then 33-year-old Paul Newman as real-life outlaw Billy The Kid. The short life and death of Billy The Kid -AKA William H. Bonney – has long been fodder for Hollywood interpretations, with the first silent movie version arriving back in 1911. One of the most famous takes on the story is Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid from director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch). The film told the story of Billy’s complicated friendship with Pat Garrett – the man who eventually killed him. The movie starred James Coburn as Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy. Bob Dylan also starred and he recorded his iconic song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the film.
Young Guns from 1988 featured a cast made up of prominent Brat Packers – including Kiefer Sutherland (24), Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez – and told the early days of Billy The Kid. While the film took a lot of liberties with the real story, it proved to be a surprise hit. This led to Young Guns II, which again retold the story of Billy’s conflict with former friend Garrett, though the movie explores the theory Billy’s death was faked and he lived to old age. The most recent film to explore the topic was The Kid, starring Ethan Hawke (The Purge) and Dane DeHaan as Billy.
Billy The Kid lived to the age of 21, but a recurring theme of films about his life is the actor playing him is typically in their 30s. Dane DeHaan was 31 while Kris Kristofferson was 36. The Left Handed Gun from 1958 cast Paul Newman (Road To Perdition) in the lead, and while he received good reviews for his work, he was considered too old at 33 to convincingly play the role. The Left Handed Gun was based off a 1955 episode of series The Philco Television Playhouse called “The Death Of Billy The Kid,” where Newman also played the lead. Original screenwriter Gore Vidal felt the script was one of the best he’d ever written and adapted it for The Left Handed Gun – and was later angered when it was extensively reworked.
The Left Handed Gun marked the directorial debut of Arthur Penn, who later helmed the famous 1968 version of Bonnie And Clyde starring Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy) and Faye Dunaway. James Dean was originally cast as Billy, but following his death in a tragic car accident, Newman stepped into the part. The title is part of a major misconception about Billy The Kid, with a vintage photo appearing to depict him as left-handed. In the 1980s it was revealed this picture was flipped and Billy was really right-handed.
The Left Handed Gun is a little messy and the acting is somewhat broad, but it’s also a unique take on Billy The Kid’s life. Newman gamely commits and the story explores Billy’s complicated psychology. The film proved to be a flop in the U.S., though it was praised by overseas critics for its unconventional style. Penn wasn’t pleased with the final version, with the studio taking the movie away from him and recutting it against his wishes. Vidal was deeply unhappy with the project too, and 40 years later mounted a TV remake of his original script starring Val Kilmer (Top Gun) – then 30 years old – as Billy The Kid.
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