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Paul Newman's credit above the film's title reads "Paul Newman as Billy the Kid." There are no additional character credits on the film. Although the onscreen credits read "based on a novel by Gore Vidal," The Left Handed Gun was actually based on Vidal's teleplay for the 1955 Philco Playhouse production entitled "The Death of Billy the Kid." Arthur Penn directed the teleplay, which was produced by frequent collaborator Fred Coe and starred Paul Newman. The Variety review mistakenly did not include the name of actor John Dehner or his character, "Pat Garrett," in the cast list of the film.
The real Billy the Kid, who was born Henry McCarty in New York City on November 28, 1859, changed his name to William Antrim when his widowed mother remarried. Traveling West at an early age, he assumed the name William H. Bonney and soon earned a reputation as a "fast gun" and killer, known as "Billy the Kid." After Billy was imprisoned in Mesilla, NM, he escaped but was tracked down by Sheriff Pat Garrett, who shot and killed the outlaw on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, NM. As in the film, Billy's friends, Tom Folliard and Charlie Boudre, died before him. The film altered and fictionalized some of the names, places and details of Billy's life and death. As noted in some reviews, although the real Billy the Kid died at age twenty-one, Newman was in his early thirties when The Left Handed Gun was made.
The Lincoln County War (1878-1881), which was alluded to in the film, was one of the most famous range wars in Western American history. John Tunstall and his attorney, Alexander McSween, were on one side of the war of rival New Mexican cattle barons. Billy the Kid became one of a group of cowboys known as "The Regulators," who fought on the same side as Tunstall and McSween. As in the film, Tunstall, though unarmed, was shot to death by supporters of his rivals, among them members of a sheriff's posse. In late 1878, amnesty was granted to all factions by newly appointed territorial governor Gen. Lew Wallace to all individuals who had not been charged with or convicted of a crime.
Although the film's title refers to the long-held, popular belief that Billy was left-handed, evidence and modern historical research confirms that he was right-handed. (For additional information on this issue, please consult the entry for the 1941 M-G-M picture Billy the Kid, directed by David Miller and starring Robert Taylor in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.) Penn and Coe discussed the issue of Billy's left-handedness in an interview in Los Angeles Times printed just after the end of principal photography. Penn did not take a stand on whether or not Billy was physically left-handed but stated "We believe that, spiritually and psychologically, he WAS left-handed. He saw everything 'through a glass darkly,' and we are using the glass symbolically throughout the film."
Early in the film, Tunstall reads the entire "Through a glass darkly" quotation from St. Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, 13:11-12: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known." Billy repeats the phrase "through a glass darkly" later in the film, and its significance as an explanation of the character's final moments was mentioned in several reviews and in modern sources.
The Left Handed Gun was Penn's first feature film after directing both on Broadway and on television. Penn's direction received praise from some reviews, including Variety, which stated that Penn "shows himself in command of the medium, using motion picture technique and advantages...not available elsewhere, to their fullest value." Some reviews, though, found fault with the more stylistic aspects of the film: in one scene, for example, Billy draws the plans for the first killings on a steamed windowpane overlooking the street where he subsequently kills "Morton" and "Sheriff Brady." Another scene, which has been included in documentaries on film history and Newman's career, shows Billy repeatedly putting coins into a large music box that plays the popular Civil War tune "The Battle-Cry of Freedom (Rally Round the Flag)." Billy manically waves his arm as if leading a band, then marches around the hotel and bar, carrying a broom for a rifle. Modern sources also point to the film as a foreshadowing of Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).
Some modern sources have speculated on a theme of latent homosexuality of Billy, but contemporary reviews did not allude to this. The only hints of this theme are the indication that Billy is too devoted to Tunstall, whom he had only briefly known, and his relationship with Garrett. Modern sources state that portions of the film were shot at the Conejo Ranch in Los Angeles and in Santa Fe, NM, and that Jack Williams was a stuntman.
There have been many films based on the life of Billy the Kid. For information on those films, please consult the aforementioned entry for the 1941 Billy the Kid. Vidal's "The Death of Billy the Kid" was also the basis for the 1989 TNT cable channel movie Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, which was directed by William A. Graham and starred Val Kilmer and Duncan Regehr.