During the American Civil War, a pious young man (Barry Brown, Daisy Miller) dodges the draft by fleeing west. He joins a gang of young thieves led by a con man named Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges, Starman). But a life of crime isn’t as fun as it seems.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Boys, it was hell on wheels. The worst idea in the world to go west.”
Bad Company is part of a group of films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s that tried to reinterpret the Old American West for a new generation of moviegoers. Like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1968) and Robert Altman McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) before it, Bad Company shows the harsh realities of the Wild West.
Bad Company works on different levels. It’s a buddy movie, a coming-of-age story, an exploration of frontier justice and disenfranchisement in the late nineteenth century, all consolidated into one moody, irreverent and brilliant little western.
This is the exact opposite of a traditional western. Making his directorial debut, writer Robert Benton (Kramer vs Kramer and Places in the Heart) aims for reality. The film’s naturalistic style creates an authentic period flavor rarely seen in movies of this type. Acting, sound, cinematography, sets, dialogue, everything screams authenticity — Bad Company feels almost like a found-footage movie.
Director Benton succeeds in spades in demythologizing the American West. Bad Company shows in overly gritty detail the bad and ugly of the pioneer life. Everything is dirty, violence is everywhere, people die unexpectedly and crudely. There is also hunger and cruelty. Justice is not perfect, crime is prevalent and necessary.
As usual, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s (The Godfather and All the President’s Men) work is low-key, colorless and dark — Willis avoids the kind of picture-perfect shots you see in a John Ford movie. He gives us a frontier filled with muddy grounds, lonesome landscapes and dried-up vegetation. You can almost smell the manure!
This was one of Jeff Bridges’s first starring roles. Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show didn’t really make Bridges a star, but it did help him get bigger roles. Although he had to wait a little longer, Bad Company demonstrated that he was ready for movie stardom. Bridges’s “Old West Artful Dodger” is a cunning characterization. He isn’t the hero nor is he the villain, thus making it impossible to predict his actions.
Barry Brown is also great as the naive draft dodger (sadly, Brown committed suicide a few years after making the film). David Huddleston (Santa Claus: The Movie) is terrific as the pragmatic leader of a gang of desperados. Geoffrey Lewis (Salem’s Lot) and Ed Lauter (Cujo) play Huddleston’s dimwitted accomplices. John Savage (The Deer Hunter) is fine as Bridges’s skeptical co-partner. Jim Davis (Jock Ewing in TV’s Dallas) has a wonderful cameo as a tobacco-chewing, no-nonsense Marshall.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Despite fine reviews, Bad Company wasn’t a big hit. The movie has long since become a much-admired cult favorite among western fans. Bad Company is, in my opinion, a little gem. I admire its technical finesse and intelligent script. The film also has the kind of phenomenal cast that elevates the viewing experience. Bad Company is cynical and ugly, but the end result is compelling and instructive. Color, 93 minutes, Rated PG.