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  Bad Company Stealing Away
Year: 1972
Director: Robert Benton
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown, Jim Davis, David Huddleston, John Savage, Jerry Houser, Damon Cofer, Joshua Hill Lewis, Geoffrey Lewis, Raymond Gouth, Ed Lauter, John Quade
Genre: WesternBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: America in the 1860s and the Union Army are scouring the land for recruits. Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) is one of those who is trying to dodge the draft, and after hiding from the soldiers he kisses his mother goodbye and sets off for a wagon train headed towards Virginia City. When he reaches the town the wagon train is due to embark from, he finds it full of soldiers, and becomes paranoid until he meets Jake (Jeff Bridges) who tells him he knows a shortcut to the local church, where Drew can shelter. But he's lying, knocks Drew out in an alleyway and steals his money. That would have been the end of the story, except chance dictates that they meet again, and this time, after a fight, Jake offers to take Drew with him as he and his gang go west.

Written by David Newman and the director Robert Benton, Bad Company was one of the myth-destroying westerns that arrived during the nineteen-seventies. Those two writers had previously scripted Bonnie and Clyde, but this time they did not seek to glamourise their anti-heroes, here the characters can be funny and engaging but they're living in a bleak world where you could be murdered for what little you had in your pockets. There's no great love affair, and any idealism is suffocated by harsh reality; Drew is a well brought up lad who sets out early on to stay true to his personal code of honour, and part of the story's attraction is seeing how far he can go on his principles.

One of the links between road movies and westerns, this film follows the adventures of Jake's gang of young men and one ten year old boy as they lie and steal their way out in the Old West. The Old West turns out to be an uninviting land of rolling grass plains punctuated by the odd tree or lonely soul, either travelling through or eking out an existence. And some of those making their living are bandits, what Jake's callow gang aspire to be but end up being outclassed by early on in their journey. They catch the odd rabbit, which Jake has to skin for them, and get their other food by trading (one rifle toting man couldn't be less welcoming) or, more often, theft.

The atmosphere feels authentic, with no gloss or sentimentality to be seen: there's no place for it once Drew leaves home. That's not to say that the film is relentlessly depressing, however, there are a number of lighter moments to keep the tone from being too downbeat. A frog down the back of someone's trousers raises a laugh, as does the scene where the gang meet a traveller who offers the services of his wife to them for a fee. Jake takes his turn first, and lasts about five seconds with her before proudly returning to the group, boasting he didn't want to wear her out for the rest of them. Bridges is the star of the show here, bringing the untrustworthy but unworldly Jake to life, sympathetic, but not entirely likeable.

As Drew, on the other hand, Brown is strait-laced and genuinely hurt when he is taken advantage of by the people he meets. But as the tale draws on, he grows wiser and his innocence is corrupted: "Bad Influence" would have been just as good a title. Both Jake and Drew are selfish, and think each other hopelessly self-centred, but by the end of the film they discover they have come to rely on their unsteady friendship. At that point, they have grown alike, or rather, Drew has grown to be like Jake, and the outlaws they have met. Not above shock moments as well as unusual characters to catch you off guard (like the excellent David Huddleston's sardonic bandit leader), Bad Company is a minor but worthwhile gem from a time when the meaning of heroism was being questioned. There aren't any heroes here, that's for sure. Piano music by Harvey Schmidt.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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