By the 1980s, western movies weren’t so popular after the massive disappointment that is Heaven’s Gate. By the time Young Guns hit theaters on this date, Aug. 12 in 1988, you could count the number of westerns released following the aforementioned box office and critical bomb on your hand and still have some fingers left over.
Clint Eastwood released Pale Rider in 1985 because, well, he’s Clint Eastwood. Silverado was also released that year and was a modest hit that has gone in popularity over the years. But Willie Nelson had trouble getting funding for Red-Headed Stranger. The only cowboys audiences carried about were space cowboys like Han Solo in the Star Wars movies and the countless imitators.
So, when John Fusco was wanting to retell the Billy the Kid and Lincoln County War story following closer to historical facts, he had a hard time trying to find any studio who would touch it. Then, James G. Robinson, who had made a fortune as an auto import distributor and film producer Joe Roth founded Morgan Creek Productions to finance it on a modest $11 million budget.
Robinson and Roth had worked together on movies like Moving Violations and The Stone Boy. So, they got Stone Boy director Christopher Cain to assemble a young cast of characters to play the Lincoln County Regulators. This story had been told time and time again but what seemed like a gimmick is actually the most accurate production.
Emilio Estevez plays William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, who is taken in by a English cattle rancher, John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) and one of his workers Josiah Gordon “Doc” Surlock (Keifer Sutherland) after Billy gets into some trouble. Tunstall employs young men on his land but is in a dispute with a more well-established and politically connected Irish businessman and rancher named Lawrence Murphy, who wants a monopoly in Lincoln County, N.M.
Their workers clash leading up to Tunstall being murdered. Local lawyer and Tunstall friend Alexander McSween (Terry O’Quinn) gets his workers deputized as the “Lincoln County Reguators” which the sole goal of issuing arrest warrants. Along with Doc and Billy, these include Richard “Dick” Brewer (Charlie Sheen), a religious man, Jose Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), a part-Spanish, part-Apache man, “Dirty Steve” Stephens (Dermot Mulroney) a rough and aggressive rancher, Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko), a simple and somewhat gullible man and J. McCloskey (Geoffrey Blake), who used to work for Murphy before being let go.
Things go bad fast when Billy is wanting revenge instead of justice and shoots one of the cowboys he was sent to serve a warrant. This leads into war as Billy later kills McClosky’s men, believing him to be a spy and Doc backs him up. With tension between Billy and Dick, things take a turn for the worst as a bounty hunter, Buckshot Roberts (Brian Keith), guns down Dick during a firefight.
Tensions arise as the Regulators debate on whether to flee toward California or to return to the county seat of Lincoln to seek justice and stop hiding in the small communities in the counties. And much of this happened as Billy guns down the local sheriff and then a full-on siege at McSween’s Lincoln home takes place between the Regulators, Murphy’s men, bounty hunters and even the U.S. Army cavalry.
However, there are a few liberties taken. There were actually about a dozen Regulators during this period and there was a political debate over where they were lawfully deputized. Also, Tunstall was only 24 at the time of his murder. Murphy was also in his mid-40s not the aging man played by Jack Palance. He was also in poor health and it was James Dolan, another Irish immigrant, who was leading the battle against Tunstall. There’s also no mention of John Chisum, at least in this movie. Chisum does appear in the sequel.
And Billy was never the leader of the regulators. Doc was 31 by the time the Lincoln County War happened and I doubt he would’ve been listening to a 20-year-old. Charlie wasn’t killed at the McSween siege but later. And Dirty Steve was able to leave Lincoln County behind. He didn’t get fatally shot at the siege either.
Dirty Steve is more of an assembly of the other Regulators. Why hire more actors when you can reduce it? Too many characters would lead to a lot of confusion. Over the years between 1878 and 1881, there were many more people who were Regulators involved directly or close to the Lincoln County War.
Since his fatal shooting at the age of 21, some historians have debated that Billy’s exploits were grossly exaggerated as Sheriff Pat Garrett faced extreme criticism for not only shooting Billy unarmed but shooting him in the back.
In 1882, Garrett coauthored the book The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, which reportedly helped increase Billy’s infamous life. Some historians have doubted Billy was ever called “Billy the Kid.” It was just Billy or “Kid” because of his youth at the time of the events of the Lincoln County War.
Doubt has also been raised as to the number of people who were killed by Billy. This is something the movie references as after Billy shoots a cocky arrogant bounty hunter, he asks Doc how many is that, to which Doc replies it’s five. Then Billy says it should be an even 10.
There’s also references to the myth that Billy was left-handed because a popular tintype photo shows Billy holding a gun in his left hand. But tintypes were actually reversed, meaning Billy is holding it with his right hand.
The mythos of the Old West was glamorized in movies before filmmakers started taking a different slant in the late 1960s and 1970s. These were considered revisionist Westerns as they didn’t always portray the good guys as wearing white hats. The characters in Young Guns aren’t exactly good guys but they aren’t exactly bad guys.
New Mexico was just a territory at this time and like many places at the time, money and power was more important than justice and law and order. Tunstall’s murder set off the war. Some could argue the Regulators were just seeking some frontier justice.
Even though Eastwood credited the movie City Slickers with helping revive Westerns, it was this movie. The soundtrack had a rock ‘n’ roll feel to it. And while the casting may look like a Tiger Beat double issue cover, many Regulators were very young men, some in their teens. And the movie’s use of excessive violence was different than westerns of the past. Cain had to tone down the violence out of fear of getting a X rating. Over the years, it’s become a popular video Easter egg of a young Tom Cruise appearing in the film’s climax as a gunslinger shot.
Cruise was visiting his friend, Estevez, for a few days and was able to talk the filmmakers into casting him. You can’t hardly notice him because he’s got a mustache, mutton chop sideburns and a huge hat obscuring most of his face.
But Young Guns‘ biggest legacy came from a line of dialogue Siemaszko says when Charlie describes to Billy what the Regulators do. Rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg would use it in their hit song “Regulate” leading people who had never seen this movie to quote it verbatim.
A sequel came out in 1990 to complete the story of Billy and the remaining Regulators. Christian Slater was added to the cast and Bon Jovi had a hit song, “Blaze of Glory.” Jon Bon Jovi also had a cameo in that movie playing a gunslinger who gets shot, just as Cruise did. That same year, Dances With Wolves became a surprise hit and won Oscars. Westerns were popular once again.
It’s even been rumored the initial name for the 1991 movie Mobsters was originally Young Tommy Guns. That movie, which wasn’t near as successfully as either Young Guns movie was based very loosely on the founding of the Five Mafia Crime Families of New York City during the period of Prohibition.
The effects of Young Guns would be seen later as the success of Lonesome Dove led to many sequels being produced during the 1990s with young actors in the roles. By the turn of the century, hot young actors like James Van Der Beek and Colin Farrell were appearing in westerns Texas Rangers and American Outlaws.
And while the cast is now at middle-aged, the legacy of Young Guns remains with each new viewer.