If you know anything about me, then you know I have an affinity for the Western genre of film and TV. There's just something so visceral about dudes riding horses across vast plains or through craggy mesas and massifs, their iconic forms dissipating in blood-colored sunsets, pistols blazing. The imagery and themes of the mythic cowboy/outlaw story appeals to something atavistic in my nature, I guess. When my age and personal affinities are taken as factors, it probably isn't surprising, then, that 1988's Young Guns is one of the first #Westerns I ever recall really enjoying.
For those uninitiated, Young Guns is a Hollywood retelling of Billy the Kid and his gang the Regulators. To be fair, and with all due respect to the subject matter, I wouldn't classify YG as a great film, and probably not even a good one. It initially received poor reviews from critics and to this day only holds a score of 42 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Still, critical maledictions aside, audiences loved it. It grossed nearly $45.7 million at the box office, enough to be considered a hit in the '80s. It also managed to spawn a sequel (which actually fared somewhat better, critical review wise), and a double-disc special edition DVD rerelease back in 2003. It would thus appear that Young Guns is one of the many movies where audiences and critics are completely at odds (a phenomenon that isn't unusual, really).
In short, I like the film, despite its poor reviews. It's a fun shoot'em-up, if nothing else. The final salvo/escape is one of the better movie moments of #80s cinema, at least as far as straightforward action scenes are concerned. And Emilio Estevez's portrayal of Billy the Kid may, strangely enough, be some of the best acting of his career (thus begging the question for critics: Is his dramatis personæ enough to carry the rest of the film? In my opinion, the answer is yes. His rabble-rousing fearlessness and gregariousness is scene stealing).
But, both pros and cons of Young Guns aside, the surprising thing about the feature to me is that it is fairly true to history. In a 1990 review in New Mexico Magazine, historian Paul Hutton called YG the "most historically accurate of all prior Billy the Kid films."
This fact is all the more impressive, considering that Young Guns was made way before the internet became ubiquitous. Consider that back in 1988, if you wanted to know how factual a based-on-a-true-story movie was, you'd have to crack open an encyclopedia or read a historical biography — which, obviously, very few people were going to do. Basic point here being that there was no Wikipedia for instant fact checking, and no smartphone with which to find Wikipedia, even if it did hypothetically exist, which it couldn't, because there was no internet. There was literally no reason for a blood-soaked summer blockbuster to be so historically precise. And yet it was.
The Plot Correctly Details Billy The Kid's Descent Into Crime
For starters, let's consider the general framework of the plot: Educated Englishman and cattle rancher John Tunstall (played by Terence Stamp, known to most audiences for his portrayal of #GeneralZod in Superman and Superman II) finds a young criminal (Estevez) wandering the streets of some unnamed town in Lincoln County, New Mexico. It is alluded to that the young man, none other than Billy the Kid, is already guilty of killing at least one individual that used to bully him — a fact which comes in handy for Tunstall who is, unbeknownst to Billy, engaged in a sort of cold war with another beef outfit headed by corrupt crony capitalist Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance).
Murphy is backed by armed thugs and the local sheriff, among others. Coming to Tunstall's aid is local lawyer Alexander McSween and a group of outlaw youths who Tunstall is attempting to somewhat reform (this latter group naturally includes Billy).
The cold war ultimately turns hot when Murphy's thugs assassinate Tunstall. In response to this, McSween has Tunstall's young acolytes deputized and charged with bringing the perpetrators to justice. Since Murphy is well-connected with law enforcement and government officials, it becomes all the more difficult for the Regulators, as they are now known, to do their job legally.
As Billy becomes the de facto leader, events become increasingly violent and the regulators are forced to operate outside of the law — i.e., they become outlaws themselves. In attempting to thwart capture, assassinations and enact revenge, Billy and his cohorts are forced to murder a cavalcade of individuals, culminating in a final shootout and escape which, per the film's final voice-over, leaves a number of Regulators dead and scatters the rest across America.
Generally speaking, the plot outline here is absolutely true to history. Billy was a petty criminal guilty of the singular murder of Francis "Windy" Cahill, a bully who repeatedly pestered him (and ultimately tried to kill him) by the time Tunstall found Bill. Tunstall took him in and employed him on his cattle ranch. Shortly thereafter, Tunstall's archenemy Lawrence Murphy, under the guise of an outstanding debt owed to his business partner James Dolan, sent the nefarious Sheriff Brady to seize Tunstall's assets (and it should be noted, Brady was attempting to seize $40,000 worth of property for a paltry debt of $8,000). When Tunstall rode out to stop the inarguable theft, he was murdered.
Tunstall's lawyer McSween retaliated by deputizing Billy and the other wayward youths in Tunstall's employ, and from there a tumult of revenge killings, assassinations and violence ensued. It is known by historians as the Lincoln County War, and it all ended just as it did in the film. The Regulators return from hiding to protect McSween from a purported killing planned by Murphy loyalists, only to get trapped in a house, forced to shoot their way out. Individuals on both sides are killed (including McSween), but Billy pulls off a daring escape. The remaining Regulators are scattered throughout the country.
The plot isn't the only factual part of the film, however. There are many individual scenes and scenarios in the movie that are surprisingly accurate.
All The Main Characters Were Based On Real People
In the film, the Regulators were played by a group of actors known in the '80s as the Brat Pack. Now, exactly which actors are included under the banner of the Brat Pack is up for some debate, but there are three Young Guns thespians that appear on numerous '80s Brat Pack lists: Estevez, his brother Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland. Aside from these three, at least two other young '80s heartthrobs also co-star: Lou Diamond Phillips and Dermot Mulroney.
The point is, one might be tempted to assume that all these characters were made up by the writers or studio execs and stuffed into the screenplay to try to make a few extra bucks off of people's fandom, but that's not the case. Billy's entire star-studded posse in the film was based on actual, factual, historical people.
And so a general list of who's who would be something like this:
1. Estevez played Billy the Kid, a.k.a William H. Bonney, a.k.a Henry McCarty who, of course, was a real person.
2. Sutherland played Josiah "Doc" Scurlock. Many of Scurlock's subplots in the film are fictitious, but a few things — including some key aspects of the story — were accurate. For one, Doc, much like the actor who portrayed him, was a blond-haired cowboy. He was deputized as a Regulator and fought alongside Billy for the entirety of the Lincoln County War. He escaped the dramatic shootout at McSween's, just like in the film.
3. Lou Diamond Phillips plays Jose Chavez y Chavez. Less is known about this specific Regulator, and some of his backstory in the film is fictionalized. For example, he is portrayed as a Navajo and survivor of the Sand Creek massacre of 1864 — which would be impossible, since the Sand Creek massacre took place against the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Historians deem it more likely that Chavez was of general Spanish descent.
Nevertheless, his escapades with the Regulators as depicted in the film are more or less true. He was deputized and present for the assassination of Sheriff Brady, and took part in the final gun battle as depicted in the film. Like Doc Scurlock and Billy the Kid, Chavez escaped and, as the film's ending narration correctly mentions, his later life was one of obscure wandering.
4. Charlie Sheen as Richard "Dick" Brewer. One of the more accurate depictions in Young Guns, Brewer was the unofficial leader of the Regulators after Tunstall's murder. Just as in the film, he was shot by buffalo hunter Andrew L. "Buckshot" Roberts, after which Billy the Kid took over as the de facto leader of the Regulators.
His death scene in the movie is fairly accurate, though Roberts shot him in the face (not in the chest, as happens in the film), and his killer was hiding in a small house, and not a privy as the relevant scene suggests. Still, Brewer had been hiding behind a pile of logs and, assuming Roberts to be dead or mortally wounded, stood to investigate. When he did so, Roberts fired the fatal shot, all of which the film correctly portrays.
5. Dermot Mulroney as "Dirty" Steve Stephens. Another Regulator and real-life person. He appears to be somewhat of a historical enigma, however. Little is known about him except that he was part of Billy's posse and present for most of the events covered in the plot. Unlike in the movie, however, he did escape the final shootout, but nothing is known of his later life.
6. Casey Siemaszko as Charlie Bowdre. Pretty much everything shown in Young Guns regarding Charlie Bowdre is accurate. He was part of the Regulators, married a young Spanish girl shortly before his death who he hardly knew, and his very memorable and dramatic death scene is pretty much spot on, except for location (he died in a shootout that occurred slightly later than the one at McSween's, at a small rock house near a place called Stinking Springs). Aside from timing and location, his end as highlighted at the film's conclusion is correct. Bowdre died valiantly, continuing to shoot at his enemies even after being mortally wounded.
The Killing Of Frank Baker, William Morton, William McCloskey And Joe Grant
There are two specific scenes in Young Guns that I want to further highlight, not only because they're memorable moments in the film, but also because they are factually documented episodes in the historical record. The first takes place shortly after the regulators are deputized; they come across two of Murphy's thugs, Frank Baker and William Morton, who were tracking the Regulators in the hopes of ambushing them.
Their plan is thwarted and they are discovered. An argument ensues among Billy and his posse regarding whether to arrest the two men legally or execute them extra-judiciously. In the course of the argument, one of the Regulators (identified in the film as J. McCloskey) tries to intervene, ultimately revealing that he is a Murphy loyalist and infiltrator. Billy shoots McCloskey for being a spy and a traitor, causing Baker and Morton to attempt an escape, at which point they too are killed — legally, as fate would have it.
A few minor discrepancies aside, the entire episode really happened and the film depicts the event pretty much exactly as it occurred. There are only two things that differ in the scene from the historical account: It wasn't Billy that killed McCloskey, but rather, another Regulator not depicted in the film named Frank McNab. The other discrepancy, which is much less significant: J. McCloskey is a thinly failed movie pseudonym for the real-life William McCloskey.
The second memorable scene occurs toward the end of the film, just before the epic shootout at McSween's house. The Regulators are, by this time in the movie, total outlaws forced into hiding somewhere along the Texas/Mexico border. While holed up in a tavern, Billy overhears a conversation between "Texas" Joe Grant, an assassin and bounty hunter, and his lady friend, wherein Joe Grant reveals his plan to kill Billy the Kid "if he's man enough to come around here."
Billy takes advantage of the fact that "Texas" Joe Grant doesn't recognize him and under the false pretense of admiration, asks to "touch the gun that's gonna kill Billy the Kid." Grant agrees, and while he bloviates, Billy empties his pistol of ammunition. After returning the weapon to its owner, Billy reveals himself. Surprising exactly no one, Grant pulls his pistol and attempts to shoot him. As the gun clicks through empty chambers repeatedly, Billy pulls out his own pistol and kills Grant.
This is yet another scene that is true to history. The only significant difference between the film and the actual event lies in timing. Billy the Kid killed "Texas" Joe Grant after the shootout at McSween's and not before it. Still, everything else as presented here is correct. Billy hoodwinked an assassin through guile, killing him.
Side note: The prenominate scene also happens to be my favorite three minutes of the entire movie. Naturally, I was thrilled to discover it's historical accuracy. If interested, check it out for yourself:
Where Dramatic License Was Taken
There is, of course, no such thing as a 100 percent historically accurate film adaptation. There will always be a need to interpolate things into a script for the purposes of pacing or to increase the drama. Young Guns is certainly no different. A lot of examples of dramatic license have been mentioned or already alluded to. Still, it can't hurt to mention a few more.
Probably the most important difference between the movie and the historical Lincoln County War is that Billy the Kid never did fully avenge Tunstall by killing Lawrence Murphy. By the time the shootout at Alex McSween's house was happening, Murphy was bedridden with cancer and had already ceded control of his beef outfit to other business associates. It's unlikely that he could have been present at the shootout (as depicted in the film) even if he wanted to be. Still, moviegoers need conflicts to be resolved and so for perhaps very understandable reasons the scriptwriters not only had him present, but showed us his fictitious death via one of Billy's bullets, right between the eyes. And hey, it felt good to see him die, so no complaints, really.
Aside from this, there is a completely made-up subplot involving Doc Scurlock's infatuation with an Asian girl (and Murphy's concubine, apparently). To the best of my research, no such individual existed, and even if she did it wouldn't matter, because the real Scurlock was already married to a Latinx woman by the time he was deputized as a Regulator. I guess the writers felt they had to put a love story somewhere in the screenplay, to sort of soften the brutal violence of the film. It makes sense from a literary standpoint, but that doesn't change the fact that it's entirely made up.
Also, the real Doc Scurlock was missing his front teeth, courtesy of a bullet. Seriously. He was shot at during a card game in Mexico in 1870 and the bullet shattered his two front incisors and exited out the back of his neck. He lived, and promptly shot the culprit. Because he was Doc effin' Scurlock. Still, he was toothless from 1870 onward, including throughout the Lincoln County War. So basically, while they got his hair color right (he was blond, like Sutherland), they neglected that one fairly significant tidbit regarding his appearance: His mouth was busted.
Time To Reevaluate This Film?
The above, rather lengthy article represents just about all of the research I'm willing to do on a 1988 genre Western starring the Brat Pack.
Honestly, I'm surprised it took the effort it did. Really figured this was going to be a short entry. Lo and behold, Young Guns is a much better movie than any of us gave it credit for, apparently. Which, I mean, let's be honest, doesn't reading this kinda make you want to go back and watch it again? I know I want to, and in fact I probably will since I own it on DVD. And if you've never seen it, I'd highly recommend changing that immediately. You might be surprised at just how fun of an experience it turns out to be.
Are you a fan of Young Guns, the '80s or Westerns? Got a favorite moment from one or all? Sound off in the comments below.