Sunday, October 7, 2012

Reflections on Young Guns

There are some movies that are integral to your life story and world view. I wrote earlier about how the movie Krull expanded my perceptions of what we call love.

Another film that resonates deep within my life is Young Guns (both the first and the second). I can't tell you how many times I've watched both movies. I used to walk around with a pair of toy six-shooters in cross-draw holsters, even to public places like the mall (I was a weird child).

I just finished re-watching them and even though they are nearly 20 years old, they still hold up incredibly well.

For those unfamiliar, the first movie is about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Regulators who engaged in a bloody cattle war in 1878.

John Tunstall (played by General Zod himself, Terrence Stamp), was an English Immigrant looking to succeed in the West. He had a soft spot for hard luck cases and took in, employed and educated the people no one wanted. This is one of the best aspects of the script because, like the movie Aliens, the action is intensified because of the well-defined characters and their relationships.

Richard (Charlie Sheen): The leader of the Regulators represents responsible, rational civilization. He is pious, courteous, but he is not a man of action.

Doc (Kiefer Sutherland): A poet who finds himself ever drawn into more violence

Chavez (Lou Diamond Philips): The last survivor of his people, only the care of Tunstall saved him from death

Dirty Steve (Dermont Mulroney): A tobacco chewing hard-case, who's not that bright, but very loyal.

Charlie (Casey Siemaszko): A short coward who acts tough to cover his fear.

And of course there is Billy (Emilio Estevez). A lot of people would be quick to say that he is a psychopath. He isn't. He can have empathy and friendship, he just chooses not to.

The script, written by John Fusco, is a tight narrative that doesn't skimp on character development. By the time you get to Tunstell's assassination at the end of the first act, we know all of the main characters and the trajectory of their arcs (except Chavez who Fusco gives a heart-wrenching soliloquy in the middle).

John Tunstell is killed because he is the main competitor with the local cattle king, Lawrence Murphy (the late Jack Palance). The Regulators are then secretly deputized to serve 11 warrants and expose the conspiracy. When they come to the first name, Henry Hill, all of the other Regulators are afraid to confront him, so they turn to the newcomer Billy. This is where the great mistake begins. Billy is not interested in doing things normally. He wants vengeance He shoots Hill, laughing as he places the warrant in the dead man's mouth saying, “By the way, you're under arrest.”

Billy then kills on of their group he thinks is a traitor and gets the others to kill two of their prisoners. The movie implies that Billy's instincts are correct, but chaos ensues. At this point, we realize that though Billy is the main character, he is too far gone too see things from his perspective. At this point in the film Doc turns out to be the character for the audience to experience the movie. We stare with him at the destruction the Regulators have wrought and are shocked, but resolved.

But it is when Dick is killed that there is no going back. I remember seeing this in the theater and being shocked. Charlie Sheen was as famous as his brother Emilio and I didn't think they'd kill him off first, if at all. But it is also an important development because any hopes of a civilized end to the story dies with the most civilized one in the group.

At this point Doc almost runs away, Chavez decides to head West, taking with him Charlie. Only Billy can hold them together. And he does so with the by citing the main theme of the film: friendship. “You've got yourself three or four good pals, then you got yourself a tribe. There ain't nothing stronger than that.”

Billy is a killer, but he is bonded by true friendship to the Regulators and Tunstall. Billy represents every friend that you've had that has a horrible character flaw, but can never shake him because of your friendship. Despite everything, that bond of loyalty is iron clad. You know that Billy would be an evil enemy. But because of his virtuous loyalty, you want to be on his side. As he says at the end of Young Guns II “If I truly cared for someone, there is nothing I would fail to do.”

And the film pushes you against Billy. He kills people for fun. The Regulators are as scared of him as they are enamored of him. More and more they turn to him because he will act, whereas they are paralyzed by indecision. They follow him into the final trap at the McSween house. When Charlie has a breakdown from mortal terror, Billy has to talk him out of it the only way he knows how: by turning Charlie insane. Charlie literally goes crazy and becomes a violent savage before our eyes. And Billy laughs his boysterous laugh as they shoot wildly at their enemies. It is at that moment I understood Billy. He was someone who embraced violence as a way to overcome fear.

When they make their break, Billy daringly gets pushed out a top floor window in a chest, only to emerge shooting. This scene always gives me chills because of its sheer audacity. Charlie holds on just long enough to kill is greatest enemy and dies with a smile. It always makes me sad that by the time to story comes to an end Charlie's one comfort is taking the life of another. Dirty Steve, who is on his horse and can flee, jumps off and gives Chavez his horse, saving his life. Steve lived out his bond of friendship and died for his pal. Doc escapes with the girl he loves.

The closing voice over is Doc telling us what happened to the survivors. He talks about how Billy is eventually killed. That line is said not with great melodrama but with an understated matter-of-factness that makes it all the sadder. It describes how on his chiseled something on his tombstone. This leads to what might be the best final line of any movie:

“The epitaph read only one word: 'Pals.'”

This movie is ultimately about friendship. Despite all of the trouble that Billy causes, I can't help but be moved by the bonds formed there. After Charlie gets married, the other Regulators try to talk him out of helping save McSween. Charlie silently leaves his wife mounts his horse and says simply. “It ain't easy havin' pals.”

This movie captures that reality. Friendships aren't simple. They're often incredibly messy. But at rock bottom you have a brotherhood that you can base rest your life upon. It's the comfort that you know that someone has your back, and this loyalty is not predicated on affection or money or fear, but on friendship.

When I got married, I got each of my groomsmen a pocket watch. I then individually inscribed inside each watch the word “Pals.” They and a few others are brothers to me. I could ask any one of them to drop everything they're doing at this exact moment and I know that they would come to my aid if I needed it. And I'd do the same for them. Young Guns shows us this loyalty in the context of a wild west shoot 'em up, hut it hits upon the deep human truth of the specialness of being a friend.

And as good as Young Guns is, Young Guns II is better.

The sequel is deeper and darker than the first. John Fusco wrote this script as well, it and it shows. He understands the relationships between the the survivors of the first film and he respects the audience's attachment to them. And it really addresses the evil that was wrought from the first film. As important as friendship is, it does not absolve you from wrongdoing. If I murder someone to help a friends, I am still a murderer.

This movie begins in 1950. An old, dying man named Brushy Bill Roberts talks to a lawyer asking to go before the Governor to receive a promised pardon. The man claims to be Billy the Kid. The lawyer asks if he has any way to prove it like scars. This then leads Billy to tell his story.

Young Guns II is filmed much more like a traditional Western. It loses the heavy electric guitar from the first and instead has Alan Silvestri compose something out of Sergio Leone movie. The plot revolves around Billy's growing legend and popularity among the people and the confrontation that leads with the rich and powerful.

At the beginning, he is with Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) and the man destined to be his enemy Pat Garret (William Peterson). I know that a lot of people did not care for the character of Dave (who I once dressed up as for a history project), but he adds something very important to the story. He is blood-thirsty, like Billy. And he is vain, like Billy. But he doesn't know anything about real friendship. He almost shoots Chavez and has no problem with a local Sheriff hanging him. Even after Chavez saves his life, Dave abandons him to certain death. Dave is the dark side of Billy. He is what Billy would be if he didn't have pals. Billy has some hope of salvation because he actually loves others, whereas Dave does not.

Garret plays the Judas and turns on Billy not for 30 pieces of silver but for $1000. Pat is as responsible for the death that follows as Billy is, but he has made the calculation that he either kills Billy or he dies himself. That is why Pat is the enemy, because he breaks the bonds of loyalty.

The movie revolves around Gov. Lou Wallace gathering all the participants of the Lincoln County War together for trial, including Chavez and Doc. Wallace promises Billy a pardon for testifying against his enemies. But Billy is soon betrayed by Wallace. So the Kid rescues his pals and forms another gang to make a run for the border on a trail called the Mexican Blackbird.

Joining the crew are Hendry William French, a widower and farmer who has nothing to live for. And also joining them is a 14-year-old orphan named Tommy, who idolizes Billy. Together they all head closer to Old Mexico with Garret in pursuit.

Doc, who was the audiences vehicle in the last movie, hates Billy. He hates his past and tries to leave all the death of New Mexico behind. But Billy won't let him. Doc follows him, rides with him, he even kills for him despite his anger at him. This also gets at a great lived truth about friendship. We sometimes hate the bonds we have because of the pain it causes. We think of a friend who has left us or abandoned us and how it sears us to the heart. And yet we hate the fact that we know deep down that we would still do anything for them should they ask. Doc is in that situation too.

But it is only when young Tommy is killed that we learn the truth. There is no trail to Old Mexico. Billy selfishly has been forcing his friends to stay with him. This is where we realize that while friendship is Billy's only saving grace, he has twisted it for his own selfish ends. He really does care about his pals. He just cares about himself more.

In the end, Doc lays down his life for Billy and the others because he can. He is shot out of the blue by Garret. I remember seeing this and being even more shocked than when I saw Dick get killed in the first movie. It would never have occurred to me that they would kill Doc, even after they shot Tommy. And at that point, no one in the film is safe.

Chavez takes a fatal shot and Dave runs away. Hendry saves Chavez and they meet up with Billy at Old Fort Sumner. Billy acts like nothing's changed but when Chavez reveals he's dying, Billy's world collapses. It's telling that his distinctive laugh is never heard again (until right before the end credits). It is only then that Billy realizes what he has done. He looks at Chavez and says, “It shouldn't be you sittin' there. It should be me.” And he's right. If Billy had only brought them to Old Mexico like he promised, his pals would not have died.

This reminds us of the responsibility of friendship. As much at it fills our lives we cannot make it about ourselves. A friend must always look to the good of the other friend. If we look at our friends as a means to something else rather than an end, that friendship will die in some way.

The final confrontation with Garret reminds us of this. If Billy had only not bought into his own hype and had not tried to force his friends to stay with him, the whole tragedy would have been averted. Young Guns I and II is essentially a 2 part tragedy. All hope of a happy ending goes away when Billy refuses to let go.

And Billy is condemned to live out a long, long life tortured by the memory of the friends he lost along the way. His escaping Garrett in the end is not a mercy, but a punishment. He has to spend every day thinking of Doc, Chavez, Dick, Charlie, Steve, Tunstall, McSween, Tommy, Hendry, and Pat. “You asked me if I have my scars,” Billy concludes, “Yes sir. I have my scars.”

And yet here is the craziest thing: there is still something cathartic about these movies. There is value in these friendships. It seems to ask the question “if you knew that your friendship would end in tragedy, would you keep it?” The answer I think many of us would give is yes. Friendships may give us great happiness, but the don't promise it to us. They will cause us pain and loss and leave scars on our lives. But we'd still hold on fiercely to our friends. Or at least I would.

It ain't easy havin' pals.

By the way, if you're on Twitter, I'm going to be sharing some of the great lines from the movie. You can follow me @CatholicSkywalk or look for #younggunswisdom.

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