Essay: Simon Petchon Billy the Kid

Shadowing Billy the Kid

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer . . .

Robert Browning

On the evening of 14 July 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, was shot dead ­by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Garrett wrote his own account of that evening, and of the circumstances leading up to it, in The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest (1882). In 1956 Charles Neider, an American writer, published The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a faux-historical novel about the life and death of an outlaw whose career parallels that of Billy the Kid, and the title of which alludes to Garrett’s book. Five years later Paramount released One-Eyed Jacks, a Western directed by Marlon Brando, the screenplay of which is ‘based on the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider’. The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones was reprinted last year, and so too did Criterion release a new, digitally-restored version of One-Eyed Jacks.

In 1972 Neider complained to Sam Peckinpah, who was then directing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, of the ‘lack of authenticity’ of One-Eyed Jacks. Peckinpah would have been sympathetic. Years earlier he had worked for Brando on a script of Neider’s novel; but he was fired, and Hendry Jones became One-Eyed Jacks, for which Peckinpah received no screenwriting credit, but in which snippets of his script and some of his ideas may have survived. Peckinpah’s own Billy-the-Kid film was released in 1973.  The saga didn’t end there, for 2015 saw the publication of Paul Seydor’s The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film. Seydor’s analysis of the troubled production and post-production of Peckinpah’s film includes discussion of Neider’s book and Brando’s film.

This thickening web of history and fiction is woven around the concept of ‘authenticity’. Garrett’s ‘authentic’ is both legal and historical. The first thing Garrett did after killing the Kid was convene a jury so that his act might be legally validated by an inquest; and while he intended his book as a further justification of his actions, he also offered it as a factual record. Neider complicates these meanings, for by invoking authentic in his title he shifts the word away from the realm of denotational reality into the fluid world of fiction. Neider’s complaint of ‘the lack of authenticity’ of Brando’s film gave a further turn to his own complication. What kind of ‘authenticity’ did his title claim, and to what ‘lack of authenticity’ did he object? To go further, in what may the ‘authenticity’ of Brando’s film consist? This essay will address questions of authenticity in both book and film.


The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones closely follows what is known of the last few months of Billy the Kid’s life, and simultaneously distances itself from that history. The main actions of the novel, Hendry Jones’s escape from jail after his capture by sheriff Dad Longworth, and his pursuit and eventual death at Longworth’s hand, reflect similar events in Billy’s life. The novel’s actions are set in mid-1883, by which time ‘Billy the Kid was already dead’. But although Hendry may not be Billy, he sure is ‘the Kid’, which is how he is habitually referred to by the novel’s narrator, and how he is addressed by most of its characters. The generic moniker ‘Kid’ elides the difference between Billy and Hendry, while also introducing an existential play with identity, timely enough for 1956.  Some of Neider’s characters are fictitious, some are fictionalized versions of actual persons, and historical figures such as Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill take part in fictitious conversations. The novel is precise to the point of pedantry about its internal time-scheme:

It took us eleven days to make that trip south and twelve to make it back. Counting the fifteen days we spent in old Mex, we were away from the Monterey country thirty-eight days. We left on Friday, June third, and returned on Sunday, July tenth.

Historical novels necessarily refer to verified events and facts, but days and dates here function as authenticity-effects rather than historical referents.

Hendry Jones is a first-person narrative. The book’s centre of consciousness is Doc Baker, a former member of the outlaw gang of four that included the Kid. Baker’s white hair suggests that the events he recounts happened some time ago, long enough for the growth of legends that need his corrective touch. He is a confident narrator who refuses to ingratiate himself with his reader, ‘and if it makes you unhappy why write me a letter and I’ll see what I can do about it for you.’ His connection with the people and events about which he writes establishes his authority: ‘That’s the truth of it to the best of my memory . . .  What I’m telling is what I actually know and I’m telling it to set the record straight before it’s too late.’ His closeness to the Kid as his compadre, his last and best friend, the keeper of his flame and the guardian of his grave — ‘I’ll kill the first man who touches his grave with a spade’ — gives Doc his authenticity.

Doc Baker also carries with him the authority of the Old West. He was dubbed ‘Doc’ because he ‘had once assisted a traveling dentist back around Albuquerque.’ To anyone versed in Western lore it is impossible here not to think of another frontier dentist, ‘Doc’ Holliday, who, in the Old West’s most famous gunfight, stood with Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt Earp against the Clantons at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881. Like the Kid, Doc Baker has history on his side.

Neider’s major tweak to his Billy the Kid source material was geographic. He moved the action and the events from their actual historical context in New Mexico to Monterey, California. This would have a major effect on Brando’s film. Billy did his killing in New Mexico, where he was himself killed, and where (in Fort Sumner) his grave can be found. In Hendry Jones the location of the Kid’s grave is on the Monterey coast under a ghost tree ‘just beyond the natural bridge under which the tide roars in and out, on the Punta’s northern side, facing the old gaunt whitened rock rising out of the water like a great ship.’

Such evocative geography shapes history:  ‘I have often felt that you could not rightly understand those days unless you understood the effect of land on a man.’ And so the Monterey landscape shapes Doc’s language: ‘The Punta was like a thumb sticking out into the Pacific, or like a flattened lizard, the head and legs frayed, with countless coves eaten by the sea.’ Its meanings, like its effects, are unstable. The location of the Kid’s grave at Punta del Diablo, the Devil’s Point, is a sacred place, but it’s also a place of death, danger, and organic uncertainty. The fog is isolating and unsettling; and the wind, the barking of the seawolves, the crying of the gulls, the sound of the boiling ocean,  the smell of the rotting seaweed, ‘the crazy cypresses that the poet said look like a witch’s fingers, pale gray, with blue shadows’, the prickling sunlight, and the feel of the sharply jutting rocks, match Doc Baker’s moods, never more so than just after the Kid’s death: ‘I went down to the flat-lying smooth rocks which looked like big aprons tilting into the sea, and I could feel the ripples of their muscles against my feet . . . I heard the wind and the waves and the seawolves snarling and I thought of nothing.’ Punta del Diablo is as much a living part of Hendry Jones as Egdon Heath is a living part of The Return of the Native, as powerful a presence in this novel as the West Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights.

The Punta encapsulates the low-end Monterey demographic: ‘nobody but the very poor would have thought of living there. Indians and greasers and a few Japs and Chinks.’ Billy’s two jailers in Lincoln, both of whom he shot and killed during his escape, were anglos — I follow the novel’s lower-case spelling — but in Monterey one of Longworth’s jailhouse deputies, Pablo Patron, is Chicano. Pablo’s self-perspective is anglo: ‘You’re only a greaser and don’t forget it.’ This is a survival strategy for one who has made his limited way in a foreign world, and his outsider status gives him sympathy for the outlaw. He tells the Kid that the Mexican community won’t be watching his execution, to ‘let the anglos know how we feel about it.’ But when the Kid asks Pablo to help him escape, the answer is ‘No. We have to live with them. What we have in our heart — that’s one thing. We like this country. We want to stay.’ And guarding the Kid heightens his status: ‘Before I was just a greaser with a badge. Now when I go out people look. This is the fellow that’s guarding the Kid. Be nice to this greaser boy.’ To the reader, ‘greaser’ is racially loaded, but for Doc and Pablo it’s a simple descriptive term. The double perspective it focuses, from within the narrative and from outside it, empowers the word. Brando would harness that power in One-Eyed Jacks.

Alongside the Mexican presence is that of the ‘natives’ or Indians. Doc’s concise account of Spanish colonization of the area, first by the Jesuits and then by the Franciscan missions, has Native American authority, for it was ‘an old Indian’ who told him that the price of the salvation of native souls was the loss of ‘the only life that made any sense to them. What they needed was not baptism but guns.’ This cultural history is central to the ethnicity of Monterey, where social stability and political power belong to the anglos, and greasers, Indians, Japs and Chinks are second-class citizens. The outlaws, too, are outsiders, for banditry has a Spanish heritage in Monterey; and the Kid ‘looked like a greaser . . . with his black tight trousers, black high-heeled boots, black sombrero tilted over his face.’

In Mexico ‘you would have thought the Kid was a conquering general the fuss the greasers made over him’, but the Kid’s strongest bond in the novel is with Francesca Zamora, an old Indian woman, who idolizes him. Doc Baker dismisses her stories of the Kid as ‘lies,’ and he particularly resists Francesca’s attempt to cast the Kid as a social bandit ‘because he shared his wealth with the poor.’ The Kid lived hand to mouth, so ‘just what wealth was she talking about?’ As soon as the Kid is dead and buried, Francesca kickstarts the survival myth, the Elvis effect: ‘It’s not the Kid. The Kid’s in old Mex.’ Of course he’s not dead, he’s out there somewhere having himself a time, and so, liberated into legend and transfigured by myth, at least in the Indian imagination, the Kid outsoars the shadow of his grave. But the Kid never did much care for old Mex, and anyway the Punta del Diablo, where the fog protected his fair skin from the sun, was his natural habitat. However much he dressed like a Latino, and however much the Mexicans and Indians claimed him for their own, the Kid’s physical appearance is Anglo-Celtic: pink skin, red-rimmed eyes, sandy head, golden eyebrows, milky freckled fingers, hay-coloured hair. The senoritas went for him because ‘he was so different from the fellows they knew.’ His girls, Nika and Juanita, were both Mexican, and he found it curious that he got mixed up with ‘brown’ girls: ‘weren’t there enough white ones around?’ Part of his tragedy is that the Kid is caught between cultures.

Throughout the Western films of the 1950s the gunfighter is often an alienated figure. The template here is Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950). Neider gives this alienation an existential twist. In the world of Hendry Jones, men become outlaws or sheriffs without intention or volition: ‘I never met one outlaw, including the Kid, who had studied to be one . . . Those things just happened. One fellow went one way and another another.’ One of Doc Baker’s functions in the novel is to relay the existentialism radiated by the Kid. Time and again Doc will break his narrative to tell us what the Kid was wearing, as if he’s trying to find, in the external details, a key to the inner man, by rehearsing a code that he can’t quite crack. ‘Hell I could go on and on about him,’ says Doc, and he does. He also has an epiphanic flash: ‘he’s not all there. By this I meant that his attention, or the main part of it, was somewhere else, somewhere he himself didn’t know where.’ Condemned to a role he didn’t choose for himself, the Kid seems also to be condemned to trying to create meaning in a world governed by a tragic imbalance of chance and determinism.

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones is a book of death, in which no-one dies of natural causes. It’s a doom-laden story, with the Kid, at the beginning of the novel’s action, well established on the downward slope to death. Neider thought of the Billy the Kid story ‘as a modern analogue of the ancient Greek dramas, in which the audience achieves a catharsis even though it knows beforehand what’s going to happen’; and the sense of ‘what’s going to happen’ foreshadows impending doom. The emotional presence of Doc Baker is basic to this strategy, for while the Kid may be long gone, the richness of his life animates Doc’s memory. Incidents and events are introduced as reminiscent moments: ‘I can still remember the first time I saw him’, ‘I can still see him now’, are established, in the book’s opening pages, as rhetorical launch-pads. But narration cannot confine itself to reminiscence; it has to go somewhere: ‘I would not have guessed that I would see that smile on him when he lay dead and that I would be with him at his wake, his last and best friend’, or, less personally: ‘But that would be a different story and everybody knows it didn’t turn out that way’, the very forthrightness of which assumes the reader’s investment in wanting to know how it did turn out, which ‘everybody [but the reader] knows’. By looking forward even as they look back, such sentences forge a bond between narrator and reader by invoking the master-trope of all narrative, brilliantly identified by Peter Brooks as ‘the anticipation of retrospection.’

In the course of his jailbreak the Kid kills deputy Lon Dedrick. Dedrick’s brothers take revenge by killing Modesto Machado, Nika’s sixteen-year-old brother. He’s a carefully-chosen target; for ‘If there was anybody the Kid really cared about, I guess it was this Modesto.’ Three men, heavily armed and liquored-up, arrive at the work-place of Modesto. The boy drops his gunbelt, but it does him no good. He takes a bullet to the stomach, a shotgun blast to the head, then a boot-heel to what’s left of his face. A rock is put beneath his head for a pillow. Adding insult to atrocity, the killers then shoot Modesto’s horse, and put his own hat under the mare’s head.

It is, as Doc says, a blood-freezing incident. But whose blood froze? Not Doc’s, who wasn’t present, and who would surely have intervened. Modesto’s boss, Francisco Romero, is a necessary presence and witness to this murder, and Doc can only have got the information from him: ‘his [emphasis added] blood froze at the horror of it.’ When the killers have left, Francisco rides off to find the Kid. Doc is there too:

I can still see the two of them in front of the Kid’s place, the sea behind them, the Kid looking delicate beside the large Romero, his gun thonged around his thigh. He wore dark woolen trousers and a soft white shirt and black boots and Romero bulked large and dusty beside him in his work clothes, gesturing violently, crossing himself, covering his eyes with his hands, trembling and beginning to sob. The Kid stood motionless with his slightly bowed legs, his pink hands resting on his gunbelt. But then his face looked tired and I can see it now, the weariness that came into it, into the eyes and under the eyes and around the nose, the taut weariness of luck going sour, and I reckon from that moment on things were never the same for him, it was that moment that really began the rolling downhill which ended as it could only end, in his own untimely and mysterious death.

Doc saw Romero talking, without hearing him. This is a tale of a telling, a narrative of an act of narration. At the time of which he writes, the time of Romero talking to the Kid, Doc could not have known what had happened; he can only have learned after this about what happened before this. Neider’s emphasis is on the operation of Doc’s memory. What the Kid was wearing is quite incidental to the substance of the narrative, but crucial to the visual memory of the telling, for properly speaking the action here is the working of Doc’s mind in the creation of a memorializing narrative. We know what has happened because Doc has already told us what he can only have found out later, and so the emphasis is less on the events than how the Kid reacts to them, and as the Kid’s interior life comes into focus, so does his impending death. This memory of looking forward involves a retrospection of anticipation. We know that the Kid was twenty-five when he died, and so ‘untimely’ rings true, while ‘mysterious’ adds anticipation to truth. Everything is focalized through Doc, by a subtle filtering of narrated time through narrating time, and by shifts of viewpoint and register through which time expands even as it collapses.

How does any narrator know what he or she knows? This is an epistemological question central to the authenticity of any narrative. To be a reliable narrator of the novel’s events, Doc must either have witnessed them himself, or got the information from someone who did. The extraordinary departure from this is Doc’s access to the minds of Pablo Padron and Lon Dedrick, the deputies shot by the Kid, while they are in their death throes. In each case about a page of prose takes the reader, from the firing of a gun to the death of the man, into the dying mind. So compellingly written are these anomalous passages that their authenticity, however illogical, is unquestionable. There is no room for disbelief, and Doc Baker’s narratorial presence is elided by the dream-like consciousness of approaching death.

As Pablo and Lon confront death from within their own consciousness of the experience, the necessary narratorial restraint on the first-person narrator is cast aside. Free indirect discourse may well remain embedded within the first-person narration; but it might be more helpful to say that at certain times the narrator stops being a reporter, and becomes an imaginer. To sustain the presence of the narrator we must credit the action of his imagination, the ‘wild imagination’ he shares with the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok.

As narrator in this novel, Doc Baker is akin to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. The function of each narrator is to reveal a protagonist whom he knew better than most, who fascinated his imagination and who lives powerfully in his memory, but whose essence remains elusive. Like Hendry Jones, The Great Gatsby is, as Nick Carraway comes to see, ‘a story of the West after all,’ and it ends with a shoot-out. And like The Great Gatsby, Hendry Jones is a master-class in first-person narration.

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones has been reprinted before. In 1993 the University of Nevada Press reproduced the original 1956 printing, with some additional material, including ‘a new preface [titled The Novel and the Film] by the author.’ The latest reprint omits the 1993 material, some of which is quoted in this review, and is the poorer for that. But it’s good to see this fine novel in print again.


Superficially One-Eyed Jacks has nothing to do with The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones except the coastal setting and a few names. The plot of Hendry Jones is organized around the jailbreak and the Kid’s death. Brando’s film leads up to the jailbreak, and in his story the Kid survives. So far from being a contributing aspect of the tragedy, the love story is the film’s resolution. Rio (Brando’s Kid) isn’t an existential figure, but a bundle of frustrated purpose and confused volition. Doc Baker (Hank Worden) is here a minor character, killed off in the early stages of the film. You can see why Neider thought that the film lacked authenticity.

One-Eyed Jacks refers to the Jacks of hearts and spades, cards that show only one side of the Jack’s face (hence one-eyed). The hidden sides of the face represent deception. In both book and film, Longworth is an outlaw before he becomes a sheriff.  In One-Eyed Jacks, after a bank robbery they have colluded in Mexico, Longworth (Karl Malden) abandons Rio to a lengthy jail-term, and Rio’s quest for revenge drives the plot of the film. This betrayal is Brando’s addition, and in his film Longworth, far from being Neider’s professional sheriff doing his job, is a rat of the lowest order. A void of authenticity, he appears only in fancy dress, either got up like the Mexican bandit he pretends to be at the beginning of the film, or neatly dressed as the anglo sheriff of Monterey he has become, in frock coat, string tie, neatly-groomed mustache and hair.

Rio was young when he was picked up by Longworth, who apparently schooled him in bank robbery. Longworth is the only character in the film who calls Rio ‘Kid’, and the Dad/Kid relationship acquires an Oedipal intensity; for Rio’s quest for revenge is quite as driven as Hamlet’s attempts to catch the conscience of Claudius, and equally complicated by deferral. One-Eyed Jacks is Hamlet goes West, and Rio, obsessive and excessive in his emotions, is the Vacillator of Elsinore with a six-gun, a silk scarf, and (occasionally) a sombrero. This gives the film a more comprehensive soul than we expect from a revenge Western.

In the poetics of the film, the coastal settings develop character and relationship. The Punta de Diablo becomes a fishing village where the gang hide out, and a dangerous space where tensions emerge within the gang. The surging power of the Pacific rollers is a correlative for Rio’s emotion, as he broods by the ocean.

Hamlet by the Sea - Man sitting on rock with ocean waves and white water in the background

And the crazily gnarled cypresses, offset by the foaming Pacific spray, create a Dante-esque frame within which Longworth rides from home to work, the pretend paterfamilias and the showpony sheriff caught in a circle of hell of his own making.

Showpony Sheriff - Man on horse-back beside tree with ocean waves crashing on rocks in the background

In Neider’s novel, the Kid takes Nika Machado to task for marrying her (dying) cousin Miguel while he (the Kid) was awaiting execution in Monterey jail. She assumed that both men would die, and neither of them has. The Kid doesn’t hold back: ‘The padre that married you ought to be ashamed of himself and I’m ashamed of some of the things I’ve done, like bringing that girl [Juanita] here and shaming you, I’m not as ashamed as that padre ought to be and you too.’ This bursting and breathlessly comprehensive condemnation is given creatively focused expansion in the film. Rio takes revenge against Longworth by seducing his step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer). But their night together on the beach undoes Rio’s revenge; as he tells Louisa: ‘I shamed you, and I wish to God I hadn’t.’ Louisa turns his word back on him: ‘You shame only yourself.’ The complication of Rio’s revenge by his shame is the beginning of his redemption.

The Morning After - Man with gun and woman in a white dress on sitting on the beach

In the moral drama of One-Eyed Jacks, Shame is played against its baleful cousin Contempt; if Shame can motivate from abjection to relationship, Contempt requires detachment. Rio may be ashamed of himself, but he holds Longworth only in contempt. Longworth tries to shame Rio in a public whipping, but deep down he holds himself in contempt; and Louisa says of her stepfather here, ‘I was ashamed for him.’ When Longworth’s wife Maria (Katy Jurado) asks him for ‘the truth’ of what happened between Rio and himself, Longworth’s response is textbook evasion and displacement: ‘The truth! Why, he’d choke on the truth.’ The men are bound in a complex of competing emotions, and behind the men stand the women. The emotional parameters of the film shape its moral issues.

The expansion of a detail in the novel’s dialogue to a major motif in the film is the clue to Brando’s method. This is the genius of the alchemist, taking bits and pieces from here and there and turning them into gold. Bob Dylan, fellow practitioner, understands it perfectly: you take what you need and you leave the rest, and by doing what you can with whatever you’ve taken you make it your own. In most cases such details of Hendry Jones as find their way into One-Eyed Jacks are changed utterly, and such transformations give the film its own magnificent authenticity.

In Hendry Jones the Kid enjoys a dance, as do the other members of his gang: ‘We got a little drunk and Harvey set to singing some sailor songs he had picked up around Monterey . . . He got up and did a couple jigs and the Kid began clapping his hands and stomping his feet. I guess Harvey thought he was doing a fandango. Then we all started hopping around but none of us were as good as Harvey.’ Brando reworks this semi-comic, clumsy dance of male-bonding into the Monterey fiesta, where, as Rio literally sweeps Louisa off her feet, a dancing motif is introduced into the film that sets three characters — Rio, Longworth, and Howard (Timothy Carey), who are all defined by the quite different ways they dance at the fiesta — on a collision course. We cannot know this until later; but one of the most remarkable aspects of this film is its insistent invitation to re-evaluate our experience of watching it — a cinematic reworking of the novel’s reminiscent first-person narrative integrity.

Aspects of Hendry Jones are remixed and reworked in Brando’s imagination. The cowardly and brutal violence of the killing of the sixteen-year-old Modesto finds expression in two comparably shocking scenes in the film: the public whipping of Rio by Longworth, which begins with the sheriff ripping Rio’s shirt to expose his back to the whip, and which ends with him smashing Rio’s right hand with the stock of a shotgun; and Bob Amory’s cold-blooded killing of Modesto (Larry Duran), Rio’s jailbreak buddy, and a significant Mexican presence in the film. Amory (Ben Johnson) has taken the cartridges from Modesto’s gun, leaving him helpless in their confrontation, and taunts him by spelling out ‘g-r-e-a-s-e-r’ before shooting him dead.

One significant episode in the film that is not in the novel was prompted by Sam Peckinpah, whose first script for Hendry Jones included a visit by the Kid to Longworth’s home. In this script the Kid goes to Longworth’s home as an invited guest. But in One-Eyed Jacks Rio arrives at Longworth’s beachside home uninvited. He has ridden to Monterey from Mexico as part of Bob Amory’s plan to rob the bank, although his own agenda is to revenge himself on Longworth. Longworth’s current, respectable life as Monterey sheriff is built on the money he and the Kid stole from a Mexican bank, after which Longworth rode off leaving Rio to jail-time. There’s dirt between them. Their reunion is one of the triumphs of Brando’s film. The idea may have been Peckinpah’s, but Brando makes it gold.

Longworth is taking an afternoon nap on his verandah, when his eye is caught by an approaching rider. Brando cuts between close-ups of Longworth’s face, his appalled eyes registering the return of the repressed, and long or medium shots of Rio’s approach to the ranch. These are not point-of-view shots. They reflect Longworth’s emotional response to what he sees; in particular, a low-angle medium shot of Rio sees him through Longworth’s guilt and fear as an avenging angel.

Out of the Past - Man on horse-back with blue sky behind in a field of brown grass

He straps on his holster and steps outside, but the expected confrontation gets, first, deflected by Rio’s ‘Well how you been?’ then delayed as the men go on to the verandah for a drink. Longworth spins an elaborate lie about his abandonment of the Kid five years ago. Because of the aftermath of his own arrest, Rio knows the precise extent of Longworth’s lie, but then, astonishingly, he conceals his arrest and subsequent jail-sentence with his own lie about how he got away. As in Hamlet, revenge is dramatically deferred. Obviously relieved, Longworth holds out his hand, and Rio —who must now be wondering what on earth he’s doing, and after some delay — takes it.

One-Eyed Jacks - Two men stare intently at one another while shaking hands

One-eyed Jacks both, they shake hands on a lie, but Rio has compounded Longworth’s lie with his own.

Janet Frame has marvelled ‘at the richness of meaning within the words “guest” and “host”, with a guest as originally a host, a stranger, hostis, an enemy, a host as a guest, an army, a multitude of men, women, angels; planets, stars; a guest as parasite sheltered by the host, the host a sacrifice and ultimately a blessed food.’ As Rio joins Longworth and his family for supper, each man, host and guest, from a different level of knowledge, tries to take charge of a situation where the roles have slipped into interchangeability. Who will become hostage to whom?

Neider’s Longworth has a Mexican wife, and two sons who ‘spoke Mexican better than they spoke English.’ Peckinpah probed this domestic situation for its possibilities, anglicising Mrs Longworth, and altering the children to a young son and an infant daughter. But Brando turned it all to gold by giving Longworth’s Mexican wife, Maria a daughter, Louisa, whom Longworth, while not her father, claims to love ‘as if she were my own natural child.’

Too easy, as we say, but Rio’s revenge plot is undone by his shame at his own actions, complicated by the reciprocal revenge now planned by Longworth for the seduction of his ‘daughter’, and confused by tensions within the group of bank robbers, particularly between Bob Amory and Rio (in Hendry Jones the Kid eventually kills Emory; I follow the variant spellings of book and film). Now the film comes into its own, for its truly great achievement is a balance between interior and exterior drama, whereby the escalating complications of the external action constituted by the multiple and competing forms of revenge are held in poise with the emotions of shame, contempt, resentment, and love, that now motivate the behaviour of the principal characters. The interiority is focused primarily on Rio, and Brando’s signature performance is a balletic soliloquy of the emotions, alive with gesture, glance, and movement. His acting here is routinely dismissed as ‘self-indulgent’. The extent to which it may be the opposite of that is suggested by the wonderful performances that Brando the director coaxed from his fellow actors: the accomplished Karl Malden may never have been better than he is here as Longworth the living lie; Katy Jurado, as self-contained in her imperious dignity in this film as she was as Helen Ramirez in High Noon (1952); Slim Pickens, a truly loathsome Lon Dedrick; Ben Johnson in the performance of his career as the devious, resentful Bob Amory; Larry Duran (a professional stunt man) as the faithful retainer Modesto; and Pina Pellicer, projecting earnest innocence through Louisa’s tears like the good deeds of which this naughty masculine world is in such need.

Bob Amory on the Edge - Man with cowboy hat leans on a tree with a basic hut in the background

Hendry Jones’s explorations of ethnic identity are reworked with feminine emphases in One-Eyed Jacks. Neider’s Longworth has a Mexican family and is himself ‘part Navaho’, and proud of it. Brando toyed with the idea of making Rio a quarter-breed Indian, but instead brought him closer to Latino culture, partly by renaming him Rio, but also by having Mexican characters —Modesto, and the saloon-girl Red (Miriam Colon) — address him as ‘Chico’, a Latino term of endearment. They speak to him in English, but the film also makes wonderful use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

Spanish is the loving tongue
Soft as music, light as spray
’Twas a girl I learned it from
Living down Sonora way

The loving tongue has a feminine inflection, as, in two superb sequences Maria and Louisa communicate in and beyond their native language: after the night of the fiesta, which Louisa has spent on the beach with Rio; and later, when she realizes that she is pregnant with his child. They are intensely private moments from which men are excluded. On coming home from the beach Louisa is rudely questioned by her stepfather. Maria dismisses him, and the women speak Spanish to establish their personal space. There are no subtitles. The director entrusts his actors to the subtleties of cinematic idiom, the languages of looking, touching and feeling, of maternal and filial emotion. Maria then lies to Longworth, telling him that Louisa is ‘all right’, from which he is intended to infer that she remains a virgin. In a marvellous touch, Maria fiddles with her earring during this conversation, averting her eyes from her husband as she lies to his face.

In the second of these sequences, Louisa is in her room, sitting on her bed, facing away from the camera. Her mother comes into the room, and, again whispered Spanish supports the languages of cinema through which mother and daughter are joined.

Mother and Daughter

Brando’s direction here is ‘soft as music’, Hugo Friedhofer’s score ‘light as spray’, respectful, unobtrusive, refusing to tell us what to think or feel. Even the close-ups keep their distance. Such sequences counter the violent, masculine world of betrayal and revenge with its language of weaponry and money. As integral to the emotional tenor of the film as Louisa’s love and pregnancy are central to its plot, these sequences are quite unlike anything else I have ever seen in any Western.

Louisa, like Nika Machado, is a Mexican girl, but her role in the film is decisively defined by her female capacity to bear a child. So she is almost a counter-version of Nika Machado, who is not only unable bear children, but who ‘also had something murderous’ about her. Louisa lacks the dark side of Nika that so appeals to Hendry Jones. As a figure of love Louisa conditions the comedic ending of One-Eyed Jacks, where, after the death of Longworth, the lovers part, hoping to meet up in the spring. Paramount forced this ending on Brando, who had tragedy in mind — the dying Longworth’s last shot would have killed Louisa, and Rio would give himself up — but the parting scene on the beach among the sand dunes is as good, visually, as anything in the film.

Parting on the Beach - Man on brown horse, woman on white horse shake hands on the beach

One-Eyed Jacks was the last Paramount film shot in VistaVision. When copyright lapsed and the film went into the public domain, poor quality VHS/DVD transfers hit the market. Tim Roberts remembers watching the film ‘projected through porridge’. The Criterion version, restored as it has been from the original VistaVision negative, is a thing of beauty, a Jacks for the ages. The images again have their original depth and clarity (Charles Lang’s cinematography won the film its only Academy Award nomination), and the sound has a crispness that brings out the Latino flavour of Hugo Friedhofer’s score.

There is a caveat here. The Criterion Collection is region-coded, DVD region 1, Bluray region A. Multi-region DVD players are common, multi-region Bluray players less so. Undiscerning buyers could find themselves up the Amazon without a paddle. The extras are a better-than-usual bunch. Martin Scorsese introduces the film, explains the restoration, and usefully suggests that this film may be a bridge between the production values of Old Hollywood, and the emotional values of New Hollywood. In vocal recordings from 1958 Brando anticipates some directions in which the film might go, almost none of which happened, but which reveal, perhaps surprisingly, how script-based his thinking was. Toby Roan offers a comprehensive account of the film’s troubled production history, David Cairns tries to assimilate the film to Hollywood traditions and techniques, and, in an essay printed inside the jacket fold-out entitled ‘Zen Nihilism’, Howard Hampton smothers some interesting points with adjectival overload (‘shatteringly carnal’). Only Scorsese hits the mark: One-Eyed Jacks is unlike anything else.

The Western went every which way in the 1960s, when this film, like Brando’s career, drifted into the wilderness. (He never directed again.) It’s subsequently become a presence in the Western canon. In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the vicious beating that English Bob (Richard Harris) receives at the hands of sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) surely alludes to Rio’s public whipping by Longworth; and in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Sam Peckinpah’s inclusion of Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens in his cast brings Brando’s film to bear on his own. More recently: ‘I’ve always been lucky with one-eyed jacks.’ Thus Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven (2016), the latest remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). For Western aficionados Brando’s film has always been authentic.

Alchemical authenticity is judged by the product rather than by the materials with which the alchemist starts. The product justifies the process, in which the original materials are forgotten in their transformation. It’s even possible that Bill Bonney has never left his grave. The brief notice of Neider’s novel in The New Yorker in September 1956 praised ‘a superbly romantic Western novel’ without mentioning Billy the Kid. Nor, in July 1961, did The Hollywood Reporter’s review of Brando’s film bother with Billy the Kid, instead cutting right to the chase: ‘It might be the best western ever made, and surely a classic that will stand with most of the all-time great motion pictures.’ Neider, who wrote the book, deserves the last word on the film: ‘it has the sea, and the beaches, and Brando’s genius.’ Amen to all that. Criterion is to be congratulated for making available Brando’s vision in its original glory.

I have seen this film on the big screen just twice, as a student in 1966, and fifty years later at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, where the restored version was screened. All I can say is that its loveliness increases. Years ago, while working with Roslyn Jolly on this film, I came across a reference, in the card catalogue of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, to the script of One-Eyed Jacks. The listed authors’ names included Sam Peckinpah. ‘Billy, you’re so far away from home’ — had Dylan’s words come to mind I would surely have known better than to believe my luck. The inevitable library email told me they had no idea how the entry came to be in the catalogue, for there was no such item among the library’s holdings.

Another of Billy’s ghosts.


Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. (OUP, 1984).
Frame, Janet. Living in the Maniototo. (1979; The Women’s Press, 1981).
Neider, Charles. ‘The Novel and the Film.’ Preface to The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. (U of Nevada Press, 1993).
Petch, Simon and Roslyn Jolly. ‘The Radical Vision of One-Eyed Jacks.’ Film Criticism Vol 29 no 1 (Fall, 2004).
Seydor, Paul. The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. (Northwestern UP, 2015).
Sinclair, Clive. Clive Sinclair’s top 10 westerns.