Benton and his writing partner David Newman made their names as the authors of Bonnie and Clyde, and Bad Company is in the same mode. They may still have imagined themselves the American Godard and Truffaut at this point -- don't ask me who was who -- and their western is appropriately ambitious. It opens with the grimmest of ironies. In 1863 Americans are being drafted to fight in the Civil War -- to free the slaves in the imagination of posterity. Benton shows young men being dragged from their homes -- one is disguised in a dress -- and thrown into cages to be carried off to war. Drew Dixon (Brown) is a draft dodger. The war has already taken his brother and he feels his family has given enough. He heads west with $100 in his shoes and a dream of becoming a silver baron in Virginia City. Along the way he blunders into the film's larger irony: Drew and young men like him escape war only to enter a zone of constant war of all against all. This film's west is no land of milk and honey -- nearly everyone we meet regrets having gone west -- but a place where most people prey on each other to survive. Drew himself ultimately joins a posse besieging an outlaw gang in what looks a lot like a small-scale war. The temptation for contemporary audiences must have been to see Benton's picaresque adventure of Civil War draft dodgers as a commentary on Vietnam War draft dodgers. I'm not sure that precise parallels can be drawn, but a broader point is clearly being made: refusing war doesn't mean you renounce violence.
The main storyline of Bad Company is the love-hate relationship that develops between Drew and Jake Rumsey (Bridges), a would-be outlaw who rolls Drew for some pocket change but misses the big bankroll in his victim's shoe. After some misadventures in St. Joseph, Missouri, Drew joins Jake's little gang and heads west to seek their fortune. The young men -- the youngest is just a boy -- are incompetent pioneers. Jake's the only one who knows how to dress fresh kills. After alarming animal lovers by appearing to show the shooting of a rabbit, Benton cleverly keeps the process of dressing the carcass just out of camera range, allowing some nauseating sound effects and Bridges's matter of fact descriptions of his work have their suggestive effect. While he may have marginally more survival skills than his pals, Jeff isn't much of a leader. He sleeps on his watch overnight, allowing the Big Joe Collins gang (led by David Huddleston) get the drop on them. His incompetence is a revisionist motif, a deconstruction of the myth of the hardy pioneers. His gang is rapidly reduced -- one is killed Bonnie & Clyde style while stealing a pie; two more quit, robbing Jake and Drew in the process, only to get hanged almost instantly; another simply hops a passing stagecoach he was supposed to rob. The survivors' haplessness grows blackly comic. In the end, they can survive only by becoming true outlaws. Drew may escape war, but he can't escape violence, and embraces it instead.
Benton and Newman play with notions of sexual dysfunction as they did in Bonnie and Clyde. Jake is strangely offended when virginal Drew refuses to join in the gangbang of a pioneer woman -- she makes no objections when her husband offers her for money and flashes her boobs to prove that the boys aren't getting "a pig in a poke." Jake insists on having the woman first and finishes with unusual quickness (the husband asks "Are you done already?") while boasting of his prowess. Later in the picture, after finally robbing Drew of his shoe money, Jake boasts of spending the loot on whores because that's just what Drew wouldn't have done. The film shows us no more than this but it's enough to make you wonder about Jake. Bridges goes to town with the role, nailing Jake's apparently arrested development and his compensatory arrogance about what little competence he has. Brown complements Bridges by making Drew both self-righteous and cynical, obsessively possessive about his martyred brother's watch yet ultimately and consistently selfish.
If Benton shows considerable narrative confidence as a first-time director -- he blithely jump-cuts past moments we expect to be suspenseful, taking some of his heroes' few successes for granted -- his not-so-secret weapon is the cinematography of Gordon Willis. His work in Bad Company is just about as impressive as his work on The Godfather the same year. He gives Benton's western a pictorial gravitas that alone ought to have elevated the film's standing for posterity. But Bad Company probably suffers for its lack of conventionally likable characters, even if the refusal of likability is part of its point. If you really need to like someone in a movie, Bad Company is not the film for you. I think you can like a film without liking the people in it, and I liked Bad Company a lot.