I can't exactly remember how I old I was when I first saw Young Guns, but I do know that I was a long way off the 18+ rating on the front of the video box. And maybe it because of how naughty it felt, watching a movie that most grown ups didn't think was appropriate for me (clearly my mum didn't care and I thank her every day for it), or maybe it was the fact it was based on a true story, or maybe it was just Emilio Estevez's laugh, but Young Guns would eventually rise through the ranks and occupy a pretty permanent spot in my All Time Top Ten.
Young Guns tells a version of the story of Billy the Kid and his gang and their involvement in the Lincoln County War in 1878. Of course, this is the movies, which means it having a basis in historical fact doesn't really count for much so, here, just enjoy the trailer instead.
In the movie, Billy (Emilio Estevez) is taken in by English rancher John Tunstall (Terence Stamp), who faces stiff competition from another rancher (and crime lord/generally nasty individual) named Murphy (Jack Palance). In response, and also because he's just a nice guy who likes taking in kids and looking out for them, Tunstall educates and arms a group of young men known as Regulators to protect his property. When Tunstall is murdered by a group of Murphy men, the Regulators are deputised by the local government to hunt down and arrest the perpetrators, but, after Billy begins meting out a rather more violent form of justice (you can't take him anywhere!), they become outlaws and are forced to go on the run. Following the gang as they battle bounty hunters, more Murphy men, and each other, the film's grand finale is a stand-off between the vastly outnumbered Regulators and a rather varied collection of villains at the burning home of Tunstall's lawyer Alex McSween (Terry O'Quinn).
Honestly, I've long since given up trying to convince my friends of the wonder of this movie. It could be that there's just something about 1980s movies that weren't written by John Hughes or that don't star Bill Murray that the people I'm surrounded by just don't seem to get. It might be because me yelling about how Young Guns is actually about the Reagan presidency and the genius of framing an attack on his policies as a Western, when he was known for starring in Westerns in his youth, is actually a little off-putting. Or it could just be that Young Guns isn't as a good as I think it is, but that's clearly nonsense, because it's amazing.
What ever the reason, their loss is definitely your gain, as I present to you:
6 Reasons Why The West Was Wild, Or Why You Need To Watch 'Young Guns'
1. Don't like Westerns? It's a teen movie!
So you don't like Westerns? That's totally fine - a dislike of the genre is something that you have in common with 1988 audiences!
The Western was rather out of fashion by the time the movie was made. This was partly due to the older generations, who had loved the genre during it's Golden Age, preferring to stay home and watch television, rather than go to the movies, and partly due to a general disillusionment with certain tropes attached to Westerns. It's fairly understandable that after the atrocities of the Vietnam War a decade before, the stock storylines featuring macho men gunning down Native people in the name of American expansion and progression were no longer acceptable.
But writer John Fusco did something pretty awesome. He took key elements of the teen movie, and used the Western as a framing device. The loss of a father figure, the feeling of the whole world being against them, the struggles within the group - you could take the Regulators from the wilds of New Mexico and drop them in a school gym and Young Guns could almost pass for a John Hughes movie.
Taking up the legend of Billy the Kid was also a pretty strong move. The character exudes a sort of magnetism, particularly for young people, comparable to the legend of James Dean, cut down in his prime in 1955. Pat Garrett, the man who eventually tracked down and killed the Kid (sorry, historical spoiler!), captured the young gunman's appeal (probably unintentionally!) in his book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, first published in 1882:
The fact that he lied, swore, gambled, and broke the Sabbath in his childhood, only proved that youth and exuberant humanity were rife in the child. He but emulated thousands of his predecessors, who lived to manhood and died honoured and revered [...] "The Kid's" career of crime was not the outgrowth of an evil disposition, nor was it caused by unchecked youthful indiscretions; it was the result of untoward, unfortunate circumstances acting upon a bold, reckless, ungoverned, and ungovernable spirit, which no physical restraint could check, no danger appal, and no power less potent than death could conquer.
Okay, so realistically, Billy the Kid and his gang probably had little affect on the war they become involved in, and a lot of historical license was, of course, taken for the film - ageing down several Regulators, ageing up Tunstall, playing with the timeline of events to name just a few - but, by mere association, it still taps into the mythical quality that Billy the Kid now has, one that appeals as a tragedy of the young versus the old, of vibrant youth battling the tyranny of an old regime. That bold, reckless, ungoverned, and ungovernable spirit, so reminiscent of the old 'rebel without a cause' adage, is, speaking as a former teenager who believed the grown up world was firmly against her, very appealing.
Add to that a cast that includes Brat Packer Emilio Estevez, Keifer Sutherland, known for playing bad boy Ace in Rob Reiner's Stand By Me and bad boy vampire David in The Lost Boys, and Lou Diamond Phillips who starred as tragic rock and roll singer Richie Valens in La Bamba, and 1988's young generation had a pretty compelling reason to go see a Western.
And now, maybe you do too. Nope? Okay. Moving on.
2. Don't like teen movies? It's a Western!
Age rating aside, it's understandable if the cast of this movie gives a few people the heebie-jeebies. After all, Brat-Packers and "bad boy" teen icons from the 1980s aren't exactly the expected leads in a Western.
But, Young Guns, despite moving away from many of the genre's tropes, particularly the more problematic ones, is still very much a Western.
The location, the time period, the costumes, the characters, it's all here. The Kid? Check. Wanted posters? You got it. Escape by crossing the border into Mexico? Done. Bounty hunters? Here, have a bunch of them. A stand-off? No problem! Nobles savages? Yeah, okay, there's still some problematic stuff in here.
The point is, Young Guns is still very much an example of the Western. In fact, it was my introduction to Western movies, now a much-loved genre for me. Not The Searchers, not The Magnificent Seven, not even Blazing Saddles. That all came later. And all thanks to Young Guns.
Not convinced? Okay, how about...
3. There's a certain majesty to a film that features Charlie Sheen as pretty much the only person with his shit together.
There's an entire like six minute scene where everyone else gets high as kites on peyote and Charlie Sheen is sober as a judge.
And if that doesn't convince you to watch the movie, maybe this will...
4. Lou Diamond Phillips
This begins with an apology.
I'm sorry, Lou Diamond Phillips, that it took me until my early twenties to realise what a gift you were to this movie and to the world as a whole. I was just a kid, Lou, and Emilio Estevez was still Coach Bombay to me. I was always going to latch onto him. Ducks fly together! But now, Lou, I know better. And I love you. I LOVE YOU.
Phillips plays one of the strongest characters on screen, Jose Chavez y Chazvez. Portrayed as half Mexican, half Navajo, he is accepted without question in the group (initial prejudices from Dirty Steve Stephens notwithstanding), and he's responsible for one of the most emotionally charged moments of the film, giving a brutal account of what happened when his mother's people dared cross the Irish-American Murphy men. Chavez is an integral part of the group, unafraid to stand his ground, even against his friends, and he maintains a firm hold on his identity.
While I'm sure there are problematic elements to this portrayal - and please, feel free to call them out in the comments! - Chavez has become, to me, the real heart of Young Guns. And, no, it's not just because Lou Diamond Phillips is ridiculously attractive (though he is).
The life of the original Chavez is fairly murky, and not much is known about him, but Young Guns' Chavez's experiences are so different to any of the other Regulators. He has more reason than any of them, especially trigger-happy, arrogant Billy who only knew Tunstall for a day or so, to be in this position, and to be involved in such a war. He lost everything to the Murphy men, and it's easy to read this as the movie's acknowledgement of some of the real horrors faced by, in particular, Native American people during (and well beyond) this period of history.
Chavez revealing how Tunstall found him, and convinced him that the best revenge was living well, and keeping his family's legacy alive, is a break from all the fun of the shoot-outs and the chases and, yes, the peyote. It's a stark reminder of how the West was really won, and how the enemies we might usually find in Westerns aren't really the enemy at all.
Got you interested yet? Come on, people, I'm giving you my best work. Alright, try this on for size.
5. There's two of them.
Okay, so Blaze of Glory isn't nearly as good as the original - it's rare to find a sequel that is, after all - but what it lacks in historical accuracy and age certificates (this one was rated 12 in the UK), it more than makes up for in Christian Slater and soundtrack.
Yep, that Jon Bon Jovi song that somehow we all seem to know the words to at the karaoke bar on 2am on a school night (wait, that's not just me is it?) is from the movie Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory. In fact, Jon Bon Jovi did the whole soundtrack, featuring guest artists Elton John, Little Richard, and Jeff Beck. It's pretty good. I mean, it's also pretty solo-Jon-Bon-Jovi-in-1990, but it's good too.
You know, if you watch the prison pit scenes with Doc and Chavez very carefully, Jon's in there somewhere. If you watch them. You should totally watch them. Just watch them.
6. "Ain't easy having pals."
Originally, for my final point, I was going to vehemently defend my decision to read Young Guns as an indictment of the Reagan administration. But, despite how good my university tutor thought my paper on the topic was, I actually found a much more compelling reason for you all.
(Sorry to those of you who'd prefer political theories)
Before any of you start rolling your eyes, I want to say that this isn't some happy clappy adventure about how if we stick together we can achieve anything. Oh, hell no. Not least because I don't think you can call the ending of Young Guns a happy one. But, I do firmly believe that friendship is pretty integral to the plot, and it works in both positive and negative ways.
There are a few spoilers ahead, so skip past if you don't want to read them!
Friendship is depicted in ways that show it is both a good, supportive thing and a bad, dangerous thing. It all depends on who you're shaking hands with at the time.
GOOD: Doc knows enough about the others to write to Dick's mother in Vermont when Dick is killed by a bounty hunter.
GOOD: Everyone throws in a few coins to pay for Charley to 'become a man'. It's set in the 1870s, okay, give me a break. It's meant to be a nice gesture.
GOOD: Chavez ditches the others in the final shoot-out, but only so he can go get horses for everyone, so they can all escape. Not that they do.
GOOD(ish): Charley leaves his new bride to be with his friends. Bad for the bride, good for the friendship. Also bad for Charley in the end.
BAD: Murphy uses the friendship between Alex McSween, Tunstall, and the Regulators as leverage. By attacking McSween, he lures the Regulators out of hiding, and sets up the final shoot-out.
BAD: Billy often uses his friendship to bully people into his way of thinking, including trying to call Chavez out as a coward, without any concern for Chavez's past experiences, and using a pretty horrific pep talk to get Charley fired up the final battle. I used to think it was inspiring. Now it makes me massively uncomfortable.
BAD: Pat Garrett says at the start he's Billy's friend. He's totally not. Like he's so not Billy's friend that he shoots him. In the dark. In the back. When Billy's unarmed. It doesn't happen in the movie, but I'm telling you anyway. Because it happened.
What I can say, without fear of spoiler based reprisal, is that Billy the Kid is a total idiot, who drags his new friends into a total shitstorm, has little to no regard for their safety, and uses that friendship to bully people into doing what he wants.
Counter to that, though, is the experiences of the rest of the group, who know each other a lot better, who talk and plan things through as a group (Doc and Dick in particular), and have a lot of respect for each other - once again, Dirty Steve's early treatment of Chavez not included.
I don't know how much truth there is in the final lines that, when Billy the Kid died, someone scratched the word 'Pals' on the headstone as an epitaph, but I'm sure we can all agree with Charley's statement towards the end of the movie, that it "ain't easy having pals."
Young Guns captures that perfectly. The shit you go through for your friends, and the shit they go through for you. The toxic friends and the absolute bloody angels. The ones you can't do without and the ones you probably should. It's a movie about friendship, yes, but it's not about sticking together no matter the odds (regardless of how the movie ends), but rather the many different faces of friendship, the bad and the good.
And also, it's about Ronald Reagan. I'm just saying.