Bad Company (1972) Movie Review

Jeff Bridges as Jake Rumsey
Barry Brown as Drew Dixon
Jim Davis as Marshal
David Huddleston as Big Joe

Rated: PG
Duration: 93 Minutes

Directed by: Robert Benton
Produced by: Stanley R. Jaffe
Screenplay by: David Newman
Photographed by: Gordon Willis
Music by: Harvey Schmidt

One of a number of so-called revisionist Westerns that Hollywood seemed to be so enamoured of back in the late 1960s / early 1970s such as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Little Big Man”, “Bad Company”, released in October 1972, is an occasionally bleak but never boring tale of a young man’s rite of passage from innocence to outright lawlessness within a fairly short time frame.

Set in the early 1860s during the American Civil War, the movie follows the travails of draft dodger Drew Dixon (Brian Brown) as he attempts to evade being conscripted and used as cannon fodder for the Union army, echoing a similar situation going down in a certain authoritarian country right now.

Having already lost his brother to the conflict and taking to heart Horace Greeley’s immortal advice to “Go West, young man”, Drew leaves for Virginia City but quickly encounters homeless rogue Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges) who immediately knocks him out and relieves him of some of the money Drew’s parents gave to help him on his way.

After a failed attempt to get his money back, Drew throws his lot in with Jake’s gang, consisting of brothers Loney (John Savage) and Jim (Damon Coffer), Arthur (Jerry Houser) and Boog (Joshua Lewis).

The gang insists that Drew embrace the criminal life by tasking him to rob a local store which he fakes, handing over some of his own money as ‘proof’ that he actually broke the law and thus ensuring he is accepted as one of the group.

Their journey across the plains is accompanied on occasion by Drew’s voiceover as he writes a journal of their escapades. On the way they find out that no one likes to shoot and then skin a rabbit when it comes to living off the land and that perfect strangers are prepared to offer up their own wives as sexual gratification in return for money, something Drew declines to participate in.

Events start to go south when the boys encounter major villain Big Joe (David Huddleston) and his own gang, a gathering not to be trifled with considering it consists of Geoffrey Lewis, complete with icy blue killer eyes and a thousand-yard stare as Hobbs, Ed Lauter as Orin and John Quade as Nolan.

After a tense stand-off, Big Joe and his motley crew clean out the boys and hit the trail, leaving them with no food.

There’s a welcome moment of levity when Arthur is required to flag down a stagecoach the gang intends to hold up but instead jumps into the vehicle himself never to be seen again.

This moment of farce is then immediately followed by tragedy when young Boog takes a shotgun blast to the head while trying to steal a pie from the window of a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

Boog’s death initiates the disintegration of the group with Loney and Jim taking everything else from Jake and Drew and leaving the two of them with just a mule for transport.

This turns out to be a bad decision on behalf of the brothers, Jake and Drew discovering their corpses hanging from a tree a few days later. It doesn’t take long before they find out their ex-friends were murdered by Big Joe and his gang, both parties, excluding Big Joe, engaging in a shambolic showdown in which Jake and Drew slaughter all four of the opposing gang members.

Drew is now officially a killer in his own right and becomes downright vicious when Jake knocks him out after realising Drew has been hiding his money from everyone, money that could have been put to use to help their gang when they were looking for food and shelter.

Determined to retrieve his money Drew joins up with a posse led by a necktie-partying Marshal (Jim Davis) who is intent on hanging every hornswaggler he can get his hands on.

The posse is on the trail of yet another murderous gang that Jake has joined up with. It also turns out Big Joe has joined it as well and, after a shootout, Big Joe is condemned to hang whilst Jake awaits his fate, his hands tied behind him to a wagon wheel.

In Jake’s eyes, it is now Drew who is the bad guy, pointing out that he had lied to Jake right from the very start about the money he secretly had and trying to fool everyone into thinking he had robbed a store and stolen money for the gang.

Realising there is some truth to this Drew attempts to persuade the Marshal not to hang Jake but the lawman is determined to execute Jake in the morning. 

Drew helps Jake escape, both riding off in the knowledge that it will take quite a while for the posse to catch up with them. Jake then tries to go it alone but Drew is having none of it, telling Jake he’s going to make him pay back every dollar he stole from him.

Director Robert Benton co-wrote the script with David Newman, the duo previously having written the screenplay for the ground-breaking ultra-violent “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967.

“Bad Company” alternates between scenes of farce punctuated throughout with abrupt acts of violence that on occasion stops the audience in its tracks. Instead of ending in a welter of brutality in the manner of “Bonnie and Clyde” and other contemporary movies such as “The Wild Bunch”, the film concludes rather abruptly with the duo riding into the nearest town and holding up the local Wells Fargo office, Drew uttering the final words “Stick ‘em up” before the image is freeze-framed.

A good film that seems to have fallen off the radar over the years but one well worth checking out if you’ve missed the occasional rerun on TV.

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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