by Robert Horton
About a decade ago the early 1970s were officially enshrined as the last golden age of Hollywood, especially (probably not coincidentally) by the filmmakers and critics who came of age during that time. This view has some nostalgia attached to it, and at times it distracts people from appreciating some of the important work being done right here, right now.
But an awful lot of good movies came out of that epoch, including smaller movies that — even at the time — were overlooked in the tide of Godfathers and Chinatowns. Here is an absolute gem: Bad Company, from 1972, the directing debut of Robert Benton. Written with Benton’s longtime writing partner and Bonnie and Clyde co-scribe, David Newman, Bad Company is the kind of Western that people were making at the time: revisionist, ironic, modern. Strangely enough, this particular revisionist Western is also full of its own beauty.
There’s not a lot of story. The time is the Civil War, and the hero is young Drew Dixon, an Ohio lad, played by Barry Brown. Hustled from home with his parents’ help (“When you get to a town,” mother advises, “you seek out the Methodist Church”), he is fleeing from conscription in the Union Army by heading west. (So many Westerns from this era were really about the Vietnam War, and draft evasion was a potent issue at the time.) Hoping to hook up with a wagon train in Missouri, Drew lands instead in the company — bad company it is, too — of a group of scalawags, “hand-picked for gumption.” They are led by the scruffy Jake Ramsey, played by Jeff Bridges.
This gang of self-styled outlaws heads west, and stumbles into one miserable situation after another. Most of the film is comically curved around the ineptitude of these supposedly bad hombres, but despite the humor Bad Company does conform to a particular vibe of the era; its de-romanticizing of the Old West is shot through with bracing shock tactics. For instance, a boy runs to an isolated farmhouse to steal a pie from the window sill; all is high spirits as the chickens scatter and he dashes towards safety. It’s plenty funny until, without having been prepared in any way for it, the top of his blond head comes bloodily apart, taken by the discharge from the farmer’s unseen shotgun. (more…)