Saturday, June 15, 2013


Good westerns age well. As period pieces they ought not to date. There are exceptions like the singing cowboy films, but those aren't really good. In a different category are the American "revisionist" westerns of the early 1970s. They haven't aged as well as their Italian contemporaries because the American pictures more obviously reflect the political and cultural attitudes of the time when they were made than do the westerns made twenty or thirty years earlier. You can argue that they are more Seventies movies than westerns. Robert Benton's Bad Company is an exception despite its obvious relevance to the time it was made. In some ways, Bad Company seems ahead of its time. In one respect, it's almost prophetic. Harvey Schmidt's austere solo piano score and the occasional narration of actor Barry Brown make the film sound like a parody of Ken Burns's The Civil War nearly twenty years in advance of its appearance. Looking further ahead, you can imagine Jeff Bridges's Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers' True Grit as the older version of the character Bridges plays in Bad Company. The two films seem to take place in the same sardonic west, a wasteland of eccentric encounters and sudden violence. Benton's seems like a very influential movie, yet I get the sense that it's underrated. It doesn't come to mind immediately in discussions of the decade's major westerns. I wonder if that's because Barry Brown's prominence dates it more than anything else. Brown didn't make it out of the Seventies, killing himself in 1978. After seeing him here, I wonder why he didn't do more in the time he had, not to mention what he might have done in later years. See him in Bad Company and you'll want to see more of him, but there isn't much.

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.


Sam Juliano said...

"Benton's seems like a very influential movie, yet I get the sense that it's underrated. It doesn't come to mind immediately in discussions of the decade's major westerns."

Indeed Samuel. And though I haven't seen this film since it played in theaters back in 72, I have very positive reflections on it. The western polling has no doubt inspired you to take another look, and I am not at all surprised at your positive analysis. And what a cogent and perceptive analysis it is! The obvious comparisons to BONNIE AND CLYDE ate there in abundance and you astutely frame (sexual dysfunction for one) and you are so dead-on with the breathtaking cinematography of Gordon Willis. You have definitely whet my appetite to take another look after 40 years. Great review!

Jon said...

Funny I watched this last night. For me it almost played as more of a "road movie" than a western...but that's splitting hairs I suppose. I was reminded a bit of The Assassination of Jesse a small degree and yes the Bonnie and Clyde references do ring true, even if that somewhat elevates my insistence that this is a bit of a road movie/western than a pure western. It's an interesting movie. I didn't love it....but it was interesting.

Jon said...

Although I've seen this film listed as an "Acid Western", I'm not so sure I agree that it is, and am more inclined to think of it as a straight up revisionist western like you've's not nearly as weird and trippy as The Shooting or A Man Called Horse or Dead Man.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I bet those wide-open spaces looked even more impressively desolate on a big screen. And for everyone else's info, Sam is referring to a poll of followers and contributors to his comprehensive movie blog Wonders in the Dark that will result in a greatest-westerns countdown later this year. Keep an eye out for it.

Jon, I'm not sure what makes "road movie" a distinctive category or what makes a road movie less of a "pure western," but I think we can agree that Bad Company is not an "acid western." Maybe critics thought the characters acted as if they were stoned, or assumed that the actors were stoned. It was 1972, after all....

Jon said...

Yeah I guess by "road movie" I mean that characters are traveling and via the odyssey meet various travelers and other encounters along the way....not really a fully formed genre per se....but there are movies like that in many different guises.