Bad Company (1972)
Director: Robert Benton
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown, Jim Davis
Synopsis: A god-fearing Ohio boy dodging the Civil War draft arrives in Jefferson City where he joins up with a hardscrabble group of like runaways heading west.
Robert Benton’s Western movie Bad Company opens with a boy in a dress being forcibly ejected from a school house by cavalry soldiers and thrown into the back of a wagon with a bunch of other kids, some of whom are also wearing dresses. The year is 1863, and these boys have been rounded up for trying to dodge the draft into the Union army. The wagon next visits the home of young Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) and his family, but the soldiers search in vain for the boy. Once they have departed, Drew emerges from his hiding place and hastily prepares to head West. We never really learn why Drew chooses to avoid the draft, although given that his parents are religious folk it’s presumably on the grounds that he refuses to kill. Drew is certainly a high-minded boy of good moral character, but the events that we see befall him will soon alter that.
It’s not long before Drew comes up against the harsh reality of life on his own. Having arrived in Jefferson City, he learns from young drifter Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges) that he will have to wait weeks to get a place on a stagecoach west, before which the Union soldiers are sure to have caught up with him and either hung him or conscripted him into the army. Although Jake later clubs Drew and steals the change from his pocket missing the $100 Drew has hidden in his shoe), Drew later falls in with Jake and his gang, seeing them as his only chance of making it out West. The other members of Jake’s gang are Loney (John Savage), Arthur Simms (Jerry Houser), Jim Bob Logan (Damon Cofer), and 10-year-old Boog Bookin (Joshua Hill Lewis), all of whose initial mistrust of Drew evaporates when he uses $12 of his own money to convince them he has robbed the local hardware store.
Together, the boys head west. It’s a journey on which all manner of misadventures befall the group, all of whom are ill-prepared for the rigours of such a journey. Only Jake demonstrates any of the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness, but his leadership qualities are poor and the dire conditions mean it’s not long before the boys are fighting amongst themselves. Things get even worse when their paths cross that of Big Joe (David Huddleston) and his gang, who rob the boys of all of their possessions and money.
There’s a lean, sparse feel to Robert Benton’s exploration of the old West which is deliberately at odds with the youthful energy of its young protagonists. This disparity brings with it an inescapable aura of doom that hangs over the ragged group’s misadventures. It’s not just because they are clumsily inept at practically everything they attempt, either; it’s because they live in the kind of relatively raw and lawless society which permits children to wander the plains alone. As their journey continues, so does Drew’s loss of the high-minded principles that defined him in the opening scenes. It’s impossible for goodness to thrive in the landscape in which Drew finds himself, and it’s only a matter of time before that bad company rubs off on him.
Bad Company is a revisionist Western, one that refutes the countless Westerns the studios churned out for the previous five decades. It depicts the West as a lawless land populated by unscrupulous characters lacking any kind of moral fibre. An apparently hard-working farmer who crosses paths with the boys as he heads back East after trying for a few years to make it in the West paints an image of the hardship that awaits them before offering them the use of his wife’s body in return for eight bucks; Big Joe’s gang string up two of the group who decide to go their own way for no good reason, other than they can without much fear of retribution. The gunfight in which his gang members and Jake and Drew engage is, in all likelihood, probably the most realistic Western gunfight ever committed to celluloid. Sharp shooters like Wild Bill and his ilk were few and far between in the real West, and most cowboys were incapable of hitting the side of a barn from twenty paces.
And if the final transformation of Drew Dixon seems a little abrupt come the movie’s end, think back to the fatal incident with the stolen pie about halfway through the movie, and consider the fact that, although Drew possessed the means to feed them all throughout their entire journey, he shows no remorse or regret at the tragedy that arises as a result of his not having done so. Absolute good is an illusion, it seems, an unattainable aspiration of a hypocritical society and the church.
(Reviewed 5th December 2013)