Monday, December 11, 2017

DVR Diary: BAD LANDS (1939)

Robert Barrat is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the Pre-Code Warner Bros. stock company, a versatile character actor who enlivened many of the studio's pictures of that golden period. He only really got started in 1933, recreating his Broadway role as a psychopathic German strongman in Lily Turner but quickly escaping any accented typecasting to portray a variety of types, from the hypocritical Marxist tinkerer in Heroes For Sale to the benign judge in Wild Boys of the Road. It was a pleasant surprise to see Barrat get top billing in Lew Landers' RKO B-western, and Bad Lands is an interesting film in its own right. Reportedly a western remake of John Ford's The Lost Patrol, and a contemporary of Ford's Stagecoach -- and, for what it's worth, featuring the director's brother Francis as one of its posse -- its conceptual DNA makes it a very grim western for its time and a precursor of the next generation's "psychological westerns" in its attention to obsessions and irreconcilable personalities. Barrat plays a sheriff leading a posse in pursuit of the renegade Apache Jack, and as a relatively mild-mannered pipe-smoking authority figure he ends up something of a straight man to the more dramatic personalities in the cast. Rather than the star, Barrat is no more than first among equals in an ensemble cast that includes Noah Beery Jr., Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Columbia comedy star Andy Clyde as Francis Ford's sidekick. The characters aren't copies of the Lost Patrol; there's no counterpart, for instance, to Boris Karloff's religious fanatic. The nearest thing is a Mexican-American (Fred McDonald) obsessed with avenging the wife Apache Jack killed. Instead, the Bad Lands posse clashes over the relative courage and cowardice of its members and over the possible division of a massive "mountain of silver" they discover while tracking Apache Jack. The mine may as well be a trap, since their presence there exposes them to attack from Jack's unseen Indian cohorts. The 70 minute picture details the inexorable breakdown and virtual annihilation of the posse, until Barrat's sheriff is the sole survivor rescued by the cavalry, possible driven insane by his ordeal. It's possibly the most hard-boiled western the genre produced between the advent of Code Enforcement and the emergence of "adult westerns" a generation later, but its lack of star power and its obvious B status have consigned it to obscurity it doesn't really deserve. A money-loser at the box office, Bad Lands may have looked like a dead end in its time, but it shows, in theory at least, what westerns were capable of by the late Thirties, with a little infusion of new elements.

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