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Young Guns:

More than a Breakthrough Western

Young Guns (1988) Starring Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, Terence Stamp, Jack Palance, Terry O'Quinn, and Brian Keith. Directed by Christopher Cain. Written by John Fusco.

Throughout the 1930s, years of depression-induced escapism, the saintly Billy prevailed. By the 1970s, years of protest and cynicism, the satanic Billy had reasserted himself. With Young Guns in 1988, the more sympathetic Kid began a comeback. ... What society made of the Kid told more about society than about the Kid.
— Robert M. Utley (Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life)

Youth in Action

Before the 1980s, westerns and other action movies had one kind of hero: a white male older than 30. High Noon features a middle-aged Gary Cooper heroically facing the bad guys while a deputy described as too young to be marshal (Lloyd Bridges) spends the film sulking and refusing to be part of the action. Bridges' protest makes him stronger than most young characters in western films, who often serve no function other than to look admiringly at the hero and say lines like, "Gee, Mister! Where did you learn to shoot like that?" or else get killed halfway through the film to illustrate the dangers our older hero heroically overcomes.

If a youth in any action film pulled out a gun himself, he was either a villain (ex. RoboCop 2) or a problem that the middle-aged hero needed to deal with (ex. Chisum). Even to this day, Hollywood has a taboo about young heroes using firearms, an ageist double-standard Young Guns gleefully defies.

Young Guns is a western about six teenagers who strap on their six-shooters and take on an army of hired killers, corrupt lawmen, and an amoral businessman. Even more surprisingly, this film casts most of the villains as older men.

Usually in Hollywood, when heroic youths engage in violence, they can only fight other youths (ex. The Karate Kid, My Bodyguard, or more recently Brick). Hollywood has no problem with older heroes attacking children and teenagers (The Karate Kid among other examples), but the reverse is usually verboten. By giving us this empowering exception, Young Guns ignited enough excitement to revive a dead genre.


In 1988, the western film was considered a thing of the past. There had not been one successful western in the previous decade. Heaven's Gate did so poorly several studio executives were fired. The Long Riders flopped. So did Silverado.

Finally Clint Eastwood himself stepped up. In 1985, Eastwood was still among the top draws at the box office, and he had made his name with westerns. He now directed and starred in Pale Rider.

And the public showed no interest. The western was officially dead.

Young Guns DVD starring Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland
Young Guns changed everything. The film did great at the box office, and that didn't even count all the young moviegoers who bought tickets to different films at the multiplex so they could sneak into this R-rated feature. Young Guns made enough profit to inspire both a sequel and a rip-off TV show ("The Young Riders"). In light of this new excitement, the producers of Back to the Future had their third film send their time-traveling teenager to the Old West. Steven Spielberg made the same decision for his cartoon sequel An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Hollywood was once again eager to invest in horse operas, producing Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill, Bad Girls, Maverick, The Quick and the Dead, Posse, Geronimo and other westerns before the effect finally wore off.

(Not surprisingly, several of these films tried to connect themselves to Young Guns in some fashion. The Quick and the Dead made one of its heroes an adolescent outlaw known only as the Kid. Bad Girls used Young Guns star Dermot Mulroney. In Unforgiven, the hero is heralded as “more cold-blooded than William Bonney,” while Fievel Goes West opens with the perky young mouse announcing himself, “Never fear! Billy the Kid is here!”)

Young Guns' impact demonstrates how hungry young audiences were for action films that empower youth. By feeding that hunger, Young Guns greatly compensated for its cinematic shortcomings. It suffered from cringe-worthy dialogue ("I used to ride with the dirty underwear king out of Liberty, Missouri"), and it suffered from some inexplicable plotting (The heroes charge into open battle against the sheriff and his three deputies, but they flee from a single, elderly bounty hunter? WTF?).

The breakthrough of putting youth in an action film also compensated for much of the film's ageism.

Slandering the Kid

Billy the Kid has become a symbol of youth. Ask any American to name a historical figure who was young when making his contributions to history, and the first name most will think of is Billy.

On American TV commercials, little boys are named "Billy" more often than not. "Jacob," "Ethan," and "Joshua" are actually more common names for American boys, but when professional marketers want a name that says "kid," they choose "Billy."

The hippies building a youth movement in the 1960s embraced Billy the Kid as a symbol, often promising his presence at their rallies and events. Sam Peckinpah's classic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (one of three separate films about Billy the Kid released in the four years following Woodstock) portrayed Billy as a long-haired outsider living in a commune, hanging out with Bob Dylan, and squaring off against The Man, against "sell-outs," against capitalists, and against the religious right while The System struggles to end his freedom. It was Easy Rider on horseback.

Most middle-aged writers have tried to tear the Kid down as a way to show what they think of youth. Chisum recast the Lincoln County War to make businessman John Chisum (played by John Wayne) the hero of the war while portraying Billy the Kid as an unmanageable boy who wants to help but just gets in the way, then foolishly gets in over his head and requires old John Chisum to pull him out.

Joe Ely's popular song "Me and Billy the Kid" (later covered by such country stars as Pat Green and Marty Stuart) imagines the Kid as a drug-addicted sadist who robs banks when not busy shooting dogs. (The real Billy the Kid was a tea-totaller who never harmed a dog nor threatened a bank teller.) The singer then invites us to join him in cheering the Kid's execution.

In the novel Anything for Billy, Pulitzer-winner Larry McMurtry (Brokeback Mountain) depicts Billy the Kid as an illiterate, sexist, cowardly, ugly moron who shoots one man by mistake, kills another under a flag of truce, shoots a 10-year-old Indian because of a prejudice against Indians, and shoots deformed orphans just because a pretty gal asked him to. None of this, need I say, is remotely historical. It's just 408 pages of anti-youth propaganda.

Young Guns, while more youth-friendly than McMurtry's novel (What wouldn't be?), has its own slander of the famous teenager. Young Guns depicts Billy the Kid escalating the Lincoln County War by violating the orders of more reasonable Regulators and giggling as he guns down the defenseless.

  Billy the Kid's only known photo
The only authenticated photo of Billy the Kid
In real life, Billy the Kid was one of the more restrained participants in the Lincoln County War. When the Regulators were under the command of other men, Billy did his share of the shooting, but no more than his share. When Billy the Kid finally took command, he never led the Regulators in a violent attack, choosing instead to hit the enemy economically by stealing their unguarded livestock. Billy the Kid, in fact, was the man who finally ended the war by forging a peace agreement with the opposing faction.

Though you wouldn't guess this from most fictional depictions of Billy the Kid, restraint was the quality that got him killed. The night he ran into Sheriff Pat Garrett, it was so dark the two men could not recognize each other. The Kid suspected he was facing an enemy: he drew his pistol and aimed it at Garrett's heart. But Billy the Kid held his fire, risking his own life to avoid the risk of killing an innocent by mistake. The Kid's final words were "Quién es?" (Spanish for "Who is it?")

Pat Garrett was less restrained: twice before, he had killed innocent men he mistook for Billy the Kid, and he was willing to do it a third time. When Garrett thought he recognized the Kid's voice, Garrett pulled his own pistol and fired twice.

While Young Guns repeats the ageist characterization of Billy the Kid as reckless killer, it mitigates this ageism in at least two ways.

First, it depicts the Kid's fellow Regulators (those trying to restrain the Kid) as being equally young. Most fictions depict older people trying to restrain the young troublemaker, portraying adults as responsible and clear-thinking while portraying youth as reckless and stupid. Here, the youths are as varied as youth in real life.

Second, for better or worse, the filmmakers embrace the nihilism they depict in Billy the Kid. While these filmmakers repeat the slander, they don't seem to view it as defamation. They make Billy the Kid a hero for the same crowd that liked Lethal Weapon and Die Hard and other films where the hero gets a kick out of killing "bad guys."

Uncommon Courage

In most films, young people are depicted as cowardly. Sympathetic youth cling fearfully to adult protectors. Villainous youth back down and flee once the adult hero gets tough with them.

Emilio Estevez in Young Guns  
Emilio Estevez surrounded
It is refreshing, therefore, to see a film in which a teenager is brave. Young Guns depicts Billy the Kid as insanely brave. In one of the best moments, Emilio Estevez (as Billy the Kid) strolls up to four lawmen, gets within a few feet of them, and then starts shooting. Now he's surrounded by lawmen shooting at him, and all of them are surrounded by the other Regulators shooting at the lawmen. With the bullets flying around him, Estevez does not flinch. He just keeps blasting.

This is a third way Young Guns mitigates its slander of Billy the Kid. It portrays him as crazy, but crazy in a way young audiences have to cheer.

The other young guns, while not as reckless as Estevez, are nonetheless braver than most fictional teenagers. They only back down when a reasonable person would.

Young Keifer Sutherland is the voice of reason, urging Estevez to abandon a war they can't win. "It's a hundred against five," he urges. And Estevez ridicules him for finding that intimidating.

Another enjoyable laugh comes in the climax. The young guns, already surrounded and badly outnumbered by lawmen, see a cavalry arrive to back the lawmen. As the other Regulators show understandable concern, Estevez gets charged up and tells Sutherland, "I like these odds." After hundreds of films where teenagers cower from any adversity, how could we not cheer a teenager who relishes such a perilous challenge?

For You, Dad

The filmmakers knew Young Guns was breaking the ageist rules by having young heroes take violent action against older villains. To make this more acceptable to older moviegoers, the filmmakers have these young heroes do so only to avenge the death of an older man.

In real life, the Lincoln County War began when businessman Jimmy Dolan sent a gang of killers to gun down business rival John Tunstall, inspiring Tunstall's employees to join other outraged citizens (forming a group known eventually as "The Regulators") and hunt down the killers. Tunstall was 24 at the time of his death, younger than some of his workers.

  Terence Stamp as John Tunstall in Young Guns
Terence Stamp as Tunstall
But Young Guns not only makes all the Regulators young, it makes Tunstall old, played by a white-haired Terence Stamp. The filmmakers portray him, not as an employer, but as an adoptive father, teaching his young guns literacy and table manners.

This recasts the Lincoln County War not as a quest for justice so much as a quest to be loyal sons.

And Terence Stamp's Tunstall isn't the only father figure drawing this loyalty. In the film's climax, the young Regulators go far out of their way to rescue lawyer Alex McSween (played by a balding Terry O'Quinn). Estevez tells O'Quinn, "If you stay, they're gonna kill you. And then I'm gonna have to go around and kill all the guys that killed you. And that's a lot of killing."

There's nothing wrong, of course, with a story about young heroes avenging the old. What's ageist is suggesting that only the old deserve to be avenged.

Midway through this movie, the Regulators' leader (Charlie Sheen) is shot by a bounty hunter (Brian Keith). The surviving young guns see no need to avenge that death. Instead they fire a few shots and then flee, unclear whether the bounty hunter is still alive.

Young Guns has our heroes obsessed with avenging the deaths of their elders but uninterested in avenging the death of a peer. As if the value of one's life increased with age.

Ageist Clichés

After young Estevez shoots several people, the sensible adult O'Quinn lectures, "What the hell do you think you're doing out there?!"

Estevez mopes, "I don't know. Maybe I'm trying to get some attention." Oh, God. This line is not delivered as sarcastic mockery of the stereotype about youth acting out for attention. It is delivered straight. It is the stereotype itself.

To the film's credit, Young Guns does follow this line with an explanation about Estevez hoping that if he kills enough people, the President of the United States will investigate and bring justice; and the film's concluding voice over tells us this crazy scheme worked. So this cliché might be forgivable if it were isolated. Sadly, such clichés abound.

In the shoot-out with Keith's bounty hunter, Sheen tells Estevez to do something dangerous. When Estevez hesitates, Sheen adds, "I'm daring you." And suddenly, Estevez feels a need to do it.

Then we have the early scene where Estevez's Billy the Kid meets Pat Garrett. Afterward, Estevez tells a friend, "I bet I get to be just as big as him." This sounds like an adult's fantasy of the way a child thinks. Giving Young Guns the benefit of the doubt, the word "big" in this line is never clarified; so maybe it doesn't mean "tall" but rather "famous." If so, it is another stray from historical reality since Pat Garrett did not become famous until he shot Billy the Kid — his sole claim to fame.

Young Guns takes another ageist cliché, however, and spins it around beautifully. Estevez, in a barroom, encounters a bounty hunter bragging that he will kill Billy the Kid, unaware that the teenager standing beside him is his target. Acting like the ego-stroking youth in other westerns, Estevez looks admiringly at the bounty hunter and gushes, "Are you really going to kill Billy the Kid?! ... Sir, I do admire you, and I sure would like to touch the gun that's going to kill Billy the Kid." And the bounty hunter foolishly hands over his gun for the boy to admire. For once, we see an adult's ageism used against him and Hollywood's ageism inverted. Nice.

Bottom Line

For all its faults, this action film is empowering for youth in a way few films are. Even when Hollywood tried to rip off Young Guns, they usually backed down from letting young heroes actually best older villains. Back to the Future III offered only one scene in which the teenaged hero defeats the older, villainous gunslinger — in a fistfight, and only after we've seen the young hero helplessly cornered by adults and rescued by (what else?) an adult coming out of the blue to save him.

Young Guns II, while as violent as the original, virtually erases any age-difference between the protagonists and their enemies. Indeed, the only character in Young Guns II who seems especially young never gets to fire a gun: a 14-year-old whose main function (beside getting killed halfway through the film) is to gaze admiringly at Estevez and gush about how great he is. Estevez's character is still called the Kid, but he no longer encounters condescending bounty hunters nor any situations familiar to young people. Kiefer Sutherland's character is now a schoolteacher — a surrogate father, rather than the surrogate son he'd been in the first film.

The original Young Guns broke ground. But Hollywood failed to plant anything in that ground. Two decades later, Young Guns remains a rarity.

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