I was 12 or 13 when I first watched Young Guns. I can’t remember now if that first watch was in the theater or when it came out on VHS tape. Wherever it was, I loved it. I watched it many times after that first viewing as a young teen and even into my college years. It was probably the first western I ever watched. Me and my friends endlessly quoted it.
I remember my uncle, who was a huge western fan (he used to always tell us that we liked westerns too – because Star Wars was just a western in space) did not like Young Guns. He didn’t like it because it wasn’t historically accurate and it portrayed Billy the Kid as a hero and he was really an outlaw and a vicious killer.
At some point, I stopped watching it. Never intentionally, I don’t think, just one of those things. I bought it and the sequel on DVD but let it gather dust on my shelves. Somewhere in my cinephile film snob years I did rewatch them both and decided they were bad, that they were not good movies.
But this being Westerns in March month I decided to dust it off and give it another try. On a technical level, it isn’t great, but it is still a pretty fun ride.
My uncle was wrong. It is surprisingly historically accurate. At least on a plot level. Billy the Kid was taken in by John Tunstall and his regulators. Tunstall was murdered by the Murphy gang and this did cause a war between the two factions. The regulators were deputized for a time and then became outlaws. I’m not a historian and I’m sure there are any number of embellishments, but from what I’ve read it gets the basic story right.
The movie mostly comes from Billy’s point of view which naturally makes us root for him, and Emilio Estevez is too charming an actor to make him a villain. But it doesn’t shy away from his ruthlessness. When Billy and the regulators become deputies and are supposed to arrest the men responsible for Tunstall’s murder, Billy gets his revenge in blood. At one point he shoots a man at point-blank range and the camera moves in close to Charlie Sheen’s face (he plays Billy’s compatriot) as the dead man’s blood splatters all over it. Billy often seems unhinged and takes great glee in violence (his friends periodically note that he seems quite crazy).
As a teenager, I overlooked these things and will admit to finding him heroic. But watching the movie now I recognize the film doesn’t look away from his violent tendencies.
It is avery 1980s western. Some call it the Brat Pack western as it stars the aforementioned Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, plus Lou Diamond Phillips, Keifer Sutherland, and Dermot Mulroney. The soundtrack is filled with synthesizers and big guitars, and there are some bright filters used in the credit sequence. All of this feels quite dated and the writing doesn’t do it any favors (though it is quite quotable.)
So I guess I’ve come full circle on it. I loved it as a teenager, hated it as a younger adult and now I can recognize its flaws but also appreciate it as an enjoyable entertainment.