Bad Company

Director: Robert Benton                                  
Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown, Jim Davis

It has been said that a woman stuck alone in the west in the days of the cowboy only had two options to turn to to generate a means a support: school teacher, or prostitute. Though the latter choice certainly had its bad side, it was, in its own way, a legitimate way of work in the day and place. And think about this: what if, instead, the person who was alone was someone stuck between that stage of being a boy and being a man? How can such people survive out on the prairie, especially when they have little life experience as to how cruel the world can be? Bad Company isn't based on a specific true story, but it unquestionably gives us a good idea as to what these youths must have gone through - this is far away from the glamorization found in movies like Young Guns. This movie is one of my favorite westerns, and like Your Three Minutes Are Up, is yet another '70s sleeper that still hasn't found its audience after almost 30 years. At least this obscurity is available for rent and purchase, so readers searching for a copy shouldn't find their search very difficult.

It's 1863, and at the beginning of the movie the Union army is seen going door to door to drag into their custody kicking and screaming youths that didn't initially come in when they were conscripted. One boy, the God-fearing and moral thinking Drew (Brown), is successfully hidden by his parents, who are not wanting to risk losing another son in the war. Since he could be hanged if he's later caught, his parents give him money and tell him flee to Virginia City, which is not in Union territory. There he can wait out the rest of the war. But getting there proves a challenge once he gets to St. Joseph, Missouri ("The armpit of America," as it's described);  there is a six month waiting list for the stagecoach to Virginia City, and Drew fears for his freedom with all the Union soldiers around.

Not only is that a problem but the city is currently being repeatedly hit by a gang of thieving youths, who will even rob at gunpoint those younger than themselves. Their leader Jake (Bridges), himself a draft dodger, happens upon Drew and mugs him. In a bizarre coincidence, the two happen to meet again a few hours later, and a fight breaks out. Though he beats Drew, Jake is impressed enough to invite Drew to join his band of fellow thieves on their upcoming journey west of the Union, reasoning to Drew that it's the only way out, and there's safety in numbers. Pressed, Drew quickly agrees, though he promises himself in his journal, "I resolve never to do a dishonest act, or take part in any thieving, robbing, or false undertaking. I will always keep to the straight and narrow, so help me God. It's still a sunny day." He gains the trust of his fellow men by pretending he did a daring daylight robbery (using part of the secret stash of money in his boot.) However, as he, Jake, and the others venture to the west, a number of circumstances, troubling in different ways, severely pressure Drew on this self declaration.

The movie's underlying theme is how "bad company" can influence (for the worst) even the most moral and honest person, though it is actually more complex than that. For one thing, the people Drew travels with are clearly not "bad" people. Yes, they rob from innocent people and even from each other, but they rob as a means to live and to have things that briefly lift themselves from their bleak lives. They do bad things, but they are not without feelings; even the tough Jake admits to Drew at one point that he misses his mother, and wonders how she is doing. The circumstances the youths are in simply leave them no other choice but to steal. Also, the movie suggests that a new environment can also change a person. When the youths leave Union territory, the landscape becomes an endless flat prairie, with almost no trees, rocks, or hills in sight. This is clearly not civilization anymore, and they find out very quickly the rules are different out here. (It's probably not a coincidence that from this point on, almost the entire movie is shot in overcast conditions - few sunny days here.)

It's not just a different set of rules here, but it's also a more violent place. Nobody is safe, and each of the characters gets affected by some degree or another of violence. Although the violence comes only occasionally, it comes quickly and savagely - Drew and Jake's fist fight is short, but grueling and tires them both out very quickly. Someone later in the movie sentenced to hang is seen (in an unbroken shot) having his horse ride out from under him, and we see him silently die before our eyes in a matter of seconds. Though rated PG when first released, the level of violence here (and the ample amount of swearing) would give this movie at least a PG-13 if it were submitted today. None of this is glorified in any way - it simply portrays life as it really was in those days, shattering the glamorization of the wild west Hollywood kept up for many years.

Also, with no rules, the youths don't seem to have a clear plan or purpose once they leave Union territory. All they can do is keep riding, and simply hope they can stay alive. From that point on, the movie is generally a collection of vignettes, each one well done enough to be like one of the pearls on a necklace. Some are funny, like when they meet the settlers who have packed up to go back east, or when they catch a rabbit but only Jake knows how to clean it - and the expressions on their faces as Jake cleans it are priceless. There are also some scary moments, though strangely enough some humor can be found in them. At one point the hungry boys get a chance to eat, though a creepy man keeps a shotgun beaded on them as they eat. Another time when they are robbed of two dollars and some change from a pack of bandits, the bandit leader sighs, "I'd like to get my hands on the son of a bitch that told me to go west." The humor in this movie makes the inevitable tragic moments to come more shocking.

When alone together, Bridges and Brown make a great team, whether they are working together or with their fists flying at the other. The best scene between them is after Jake catches a chicken on his own, and refuses to share it with Drew, who was unable to help. A famished Drew says everything he can to try to get some of that chicken, finally resorting to a wild and seemingly invulnerable "what if" story to try and get to Jake's conscious, and Jake manages to deflate the argument with just a few well chosen words. Each time their love/hate relationship makes a change to one side or another, both actors manage to not only pull it off, but pull it off repeatedly. You really believe the feelings these characters have could change so quickly. The supporting players also do a good job, and also manage to continue this changing of loyalties in their characters as well.

It's a pity Paramount Video did such a substandard job on this particular video transfer, apparently using an older print that gives everything too much of a soft edge. This movie not only deserves to be digitally remastered, but the landscapes of the movie scream for a letterboxed version of this movie to be released. Despite the quality of the print, the photography here is still good enough to suggest to viewers how good this must have looked on the big screen in 1972. What does completely remain good after all these years is the score by Harvey Schmidt. Only using a piano, and playing at a very slow speed, he created one of the most beautiful scores I've heard in a western. It's not only good by itself, but it really helps to suggest the mood of what happens, which is what a score is supposed to do. Director Benton (who also co-wrote the script) gave us a movie where we are not only interested in the characters (whether they are good or bad), but what motivates them as well. When the last action done onscreen ends in a freeze-frame, we are made to think deeply - what will happen next? How did things lead up to this point? For that answer, like viewers might have to do with Your Three Minutes Are Up, you might find you will have to rewatch it to see all that you missed the first time. Bad Company is a rich, thought provoking movie that deserves to be better known.

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See also: Cheyenne Warrior, Goodbye Pork Pie, The Stalking Moon