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Best of the Badmen is an excellent example of a Hollywood staple -- a rip-roarin' wild west adventure with plenty of horses, conflict and noise. Before every house had two televisions, kids would stampede to the local theater every weekend and devour these pictures by the bushel. The guns and the stunts were usually enough, but when a show turned out as good as this one, it became a personal favorite.
Story writer Robert Hardy Andrews dipped into all genres but, being a native of Kansas, returned more than once to westerns based on the criminal careers of the Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers after the rough days of the Civil War. Best of the Badmen trots them all out -- Jesse and Frank James, Cole Younger and his brothers. Although few movies depicted their guerilla activities during the war, (Ang Lee's great Ride with the Devil is a notable exception), Hollywood must have turned out hundreds of fantasies about the James gang. This is one of the better ones.
We know we're in good hands as soon as we see the cast. Still in Confederate uniform, former Quantrill Raider Cole Younger (Bruce Cabot of King Kong) now leads his brothers Jim (perennial bad guy Robert J. Wilke) and Bob (Jack Beutel) as a gang of thieves, joined by other ex- Bushwhackers and the notorious Jesse James (fave noir thug Lawrence Tierney) and Frank James (ex- Mummy monster Tom Tyler). Causing trouble is the untrustworthy sour apple Curly Ringo (John Archer of White Heat); the lovable, philosophical horse thief Doc Butcher (Walter Brennan) supplies light comic relief.
Surrounded by Union troops, the gang has no choice but to surrender to Yankee officer Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan), who knows most of the men personally and has been authorized to give amnesty to all that formerly wore a Confederate uniform. Clanton does this over the objections of Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), the owner of a private detective agency eager to gain publicity by hanging outlaw Confederates. Thanks to Fowler's corrupt influence, Clanton is arrested and sentenced to hang, for shooting a Fowler Agency thug during the confrontation -- Clanton was technically discharged from the army at the time, and not protected by his commission.
But Clanton is helped to break jail by Lily Fowler (Claire Trevor of Stagecoach), Matthew's estranged wife. Lily and Clanton both end up in a robber's roost in the Cherokee Strip, along with the rest of the outlaws. Fowler has seen to it that their amnesty is revoked. Now an outlaw too, Clanton wants revenge. He takes charge of the bad men and begins a campaign of robberies against banks that subscribe to Fowler Agency protection.
Best of the Badmen's best aspect is its unpretentiousness. It's not fancy enough to be a class 'A' western, yet is also too sophisticated to rank with the forgettable bang-bang shows that Hollywood ground out by the dozen. It's fun to watch all these familiar faces interacting, and to see yet another version of the events that formed the James and Younger gangs. Nobody receives a 'big acting' scene, and the romance is handled without too much emphasis on hearts and flowers -- nobody wants the hoodlum matinee crowds to start tearing up the seats. But the script by John Twist (Annie Oakley) makes sure that a gunfight or other complicated stand-off is never far away.
Twist, or somebody, also infuses Best of the Badmen with a fat subversive streak, an attitude borrowed from older socially conscious westerns like Henry King's Jesse James. The reconstruction could proceed in a fair manner if it weren't for scalawags like Matthew Fowler building big business empires on the backs of the defeated Southerners. Fowler wants Quantril Raider scalps on his belt to build up his company's reputation, and he doesn't mind hanging an honest Union officer that gets in his way. The frontier guerillas are just thieves before Clanton sets them on an orderly program of resistance to Fowler; from that point on they resemble anti-capitalist revolutionaries. The "Fowler Agency" is of course a gloss on the Pinkerton Agency, which made its name capturing famous outlaws but earned its bread and butter by breaking strikes for the big coal and copper miners. Way before the 1960s and Bonnie & Clyde, Younger, James, Clanton & Company are really fighting "the system". When Cole Younger suggests blowing up a passenger train with dynamite, Clanton must intervene to keep the gang from stepping over the line into outright terrorism.
All of this is subtext lying around on the surface: Best of the Badmen is not the original version of The Battle of Algiers. We're really there to enjoy the familiar outlaw movie thrills. Young Bob Younger (Jack Beutel of The Outlaw) can't have Lily's love, but elects to side with Clanton anyway, and becomes a minor hero. The other gang members are just there. Favorites like Lawrence Tierney have only two or three lines and no close-ups. The crooks act as we expect them to, with Curly Ringo an obvious snake in the grass. It's interesting that the film assigns this turncoat role to John Archer, an actor who normally plays rigid FBI-type authority figures. And it's always fun to see Walter Brennan and enjoy his priceless line readings. Holding the rest of the thieves at bay, he reminds them that, unlike most of them, he hasn't any relations in the gang. He doesn't care who he shoots, so watch out!
Best of the Badmen eventually tames down, and uses a lot of screen time racing back and forth across dusty roads in wagons, buckboards, stagecoaches, etc. Leading characters are shot but recover in what seems a matter of days or hours. Claire Trevor gives credence to a role that's never really explained -- does she just not like her husband's greedy politics? -- and together with the stalwart Robert Ryan keeps the show on its dramatic feet. Ryan's always a personal favorite but his effective range isn't always a good fit for action movies. When his Clanton risks his neck defying the locals in the first reels, he couldn't be better. But we never really believe that our hero has become an embittered vengeance-seeker -- the script tries to handle the conversion with a couple of montages, when it needs a solid dramatic scene or two. When we last see Clanton he's on his way to freedom. Perhaps he ended up in Mexico, changed his name to Deke Thornton, and met up with Pike Bishop?
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Best of the Badmen is a good but not exceptional transfer of this RKO picture originally shot in Technicolor. The composite Eastman copy made for normal film duplication is a bit grainy and sometimes soft, as if the three color matrices didn't always align perfectly. But colors are often strong and the movie has that healthy Hollywood Technicolor look just the same. It's the best I've seen the movie, and making anything better would probably involve a multi-million-dollar effort, if the elements still existed and if minor old movies were getting that kind of attention.
Best of the Badmen remains an authentic Saturday afternoon shoot 'em up show, of the kind that no longer exists. To us older viewers, the chance to see a kid movie for us was like a carrot waiting at the end of a long week of school work. Good good guys, bad bad guys and popcorn -- we had everything.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Best of the Badmen rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.