Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Writer Robert Benton's first film as a director was a sleeper that went nowhere in 1972, yet was
critically applauded and paved the way for a distinguished career. A story of Civil
War draft evaders who drift West and become outlaws, it's about as anti-Western as a Western can be.
Draft evader Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) gravitates to a midwestern town to catch a
wagon train West. But he runs into petty criminal Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges), who first informs him that
the trains are booked for months and that the Army is scouring the town for evaders, before robbing
the tenderfoot. But Drew joins up with Jake and his small group of starving, thieving runaways, and
they head out for better places. The bunch have it in their minds to become professional stickup
men, living off the land, but they don't even know how to skin a rabbit. They have no success robbing the
wary strangers they meet, while being victimized by more
successful crooks, like Big Joe (David Huddleston) and his mob. Their arrogance dwindles along with
their numbers, and after the betrayal of Loney (John Savage), Jake and Drew are alone ... with Jake
reverting to his basic untrustworthy nature.
Raised in Texas, Robert Benton probably knew a thing or two about Billy the Kid and the old-time
bandits, and offered this film as a contradiction to the various 'revisionist' Westerns on the subject
of youthful gunslingers in the old West. Typical of the early '70s was Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett &
Billy the Kid, which glorified the 21-year-old killer, and the bitter dregs of Dirty Little Billy,
where the leading players spent the entire film ankle deep in mud, even indoors.
Benton and Newman's script is interesting because it starts by demythologizing the West. Drew and Jake are city boys,
fast to fleece the unwary but totally unprepared for the reality of the open plains, where every farmer guards his
homestead with a shotgun, and every other traveller is a highwayman far more ruthless and dangerous than they are.
They steal food here and there, but they're more often defeated by their own arrogance and vanity. A man offers them
the services of his wife for more than half their grubstake, and they foolishly jump on in, as if turning down
sex in any form would be a slight on their manhood. Leader Jake can talk a good
line, but has trouble delivering the easy pickings he promises, and the tougher members of his group (including a
very young John Savage) eventually turn on him.
They're also just plain kids, with their youngest member 11 years old. This doesn't keep them from being mercilessly
plundered by real thugs, nor being shot at by irate farmers. Mistakes can be costly, as when a
bungled heist gets one of them killed outright. And the law is absolutely pitiless ... it's so tough to catch the
murdering, thieving renegades on the loose, that once they're caught, they're hung immediately. The kids get cut
down by gunfire and strung up from trees just as easily as do the adult crooks.
Amidst all the downbeat betrayals are worked in two excellent factors. The civil war practically invented modern-style
draft evasion. Drew's forthright parents give him $100 and a horse and expect him to get to California with it, an
impossible task considering the exodus West that was happening at the time. Drew naturally ends up stranded with
other evaders just like himself, all up to no good.
Secondly, Jake and Drew make a great pretense about a shared code of honor, which is a sham from the start.
Jake stands ready to conk his partner on the head the moment he thinks it might be profitable, and
Drew does indeed hold out from his 'partner' the fact that he still has most of the $100 hidden in his shoe. With
Jake captured and
ready to swing on a rope, Drew tries his best to talk the stern marshall (a third-billed Jim Davis) into a reprieve.
Drew's never yet considered himself a criminal, a 'bad man' ... but now he knows he's finally crossed the line.
Like other Robert Benton films, Bad Company has a sparse look and an economy of framing and action. Clearly not
a big-budgeted movie, a few well-chosen details paint in the 1860's setting. Gordon Willis' stark photography, using
only the light of campfires at night, reinforces the feeling of solitude and desperation. Yet the movie is also
irresistably funny, because of the outrageousness of these foolhardy outlaw wanna-bees. They're so consistently
snookered by every situation they come up against, and yet maintain their pretenses and illusions. You have to love
them even as you know they're walking around with 'shoot me' signs around their necks.
Jeff Bridges went on to great things, of course; he and second-billed Barry Brown play off one another very well.
Brown was building a nice acting resume until the flop Daisy Miller put him back into television movies. He
killed himself only a few years later, here in Hollywood.
Paramount's plainwrap DVD of Bad Company has a beautiful 16:9 transfer, and not much else, but there's no
real reason to complain. The fact that this fairly obscure gem is available at all, is good news.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bad Company rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 14, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson