Acid Westerns: Bad Company (1972)

Robert Benton's revisionist 1972 Western "Bad Company" is often included in lists of Acid Westerns. I had thought this was the influence of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who invented the term, but mostly to describe films that seemed antecedents to 1995's "Dead Man."

Both films do share some common elements. Both are about a somewhat prissy character traveling from the East, ill-equipped for life on the frontier. In both cases, the main character experiences a disastrous criminal act that waylays their original plans. In both cases, the character meets up with a stranger who acts as a guide to the West. Both present a travelogue of the West as a slightly surreal land were conventional niceties of behavior have been abandoned and any encounter might end with death.

And, significantly, both films are relentlessly revisionist, so much so that there doesn't seem to be a detail of the classic Western that hasn't been revisited, considered, and abandoned for something stranger.

"Bad Company" is set during the Civil War, and opens with its strangest scene, that of a portable jail cell moving from house to house as youthful soldiers scour the countryside from draft dodgers, many of whom are dressed in girl's clothes to mask their identity.

The film is set during the early scramble to settle the West: Our draft dodger, played with aloof mannerism that threatens to camouflage a genuine bonhomie, by Barry Brown, is headed toward Virginia City, Nevada, which had just been established a few years earlier and was in the middle of a silver rush. He meets with Jeff Bridges, a scappier type who also hails from the east, but has abandoned any pretense of civilization in favor of pure criminality. He's even put together a small gang, almost entirely made up of children, including one who looks to be no older than 10.

They're terrible criminals, and, over the course of the film, it ends badly for most of them. But one also gets the sense that there aren't many other options in the West — the boys repeatedly meet people who have moved to the frontier to try to make an honest living and have failed. One even sells his wife to the boys as a prostitute. And even thought the boys terrify each other with stories of marauding Indians, the part of America they are in — eastern Kansas — has been thoroughly depopulated of Native Americans. It's an almost entirely empty land, often consisting of miles of mud, with an occasional broken-down and deeply suspicious sodbuster along the way.

There is another group that the boys cross paths with, an outlaw played by David Huddleston, who Jeff Bridges would later face off against in "The Big Lebowski," when both were Lebowskis. Huddleston is the only element in the film that feels borrowed from classic Westerns, in that he's a tough-talking fast-draw expert. But he also has a small gang of his own, and, incredible, they are less competent than Bridges' gang. Huddleston tries to give them suggestions for how to be better at outlawing, but he's put together a crew of morons. At one point in the film, Huddleston meets up with a lawman, and you can see Huddleston glowering jealously at the deputies the moment they demonstrate a little intelligence.

The film grows increasingly violent as our characters move further West, and the characters turn violent with it. This was supposed to be a better option than participating in a war, but a clear conflict between North and South has been replaced by a sort of universal conflict, in which anybody might murder anybody at a moment's notice, including children.

It's a terrific film, really, although its legacy mostly seems to be that a London-based hard rock band borrowed the title for their band name. And, upon digging, the film does have two qualities in common with Acid Westerns. Firstly, the film has a subtly pacifist messages. Any story about draft dodgers filmed in the early 70s was inevitably going to seem to comment on Vietnam, and this is a film in which violence is grotesque and brutal, rather than heroic.

The film also presents the settling of the West as a nightmarish undertaking, one in which capitalism has been reduced to pure theft, the supposed development of the West has reduced it to a muddy wasteland, law has been reduced to a brutal frontier justice in which all suspects are executed without trial, and the genocide of the indigenous population is so complete that they are entirely absent from the film.

The film may not be especially acidic in the psychedelic sense. Neither is it acidic in the way "Zachariah" or "The Hired Hand" is, in that both film sort of plop hippies down in the Wild West. But it seems produced by a deeply counter-cultural, deeply cynical worldview that feels like a product of the 1960s. It's as though the filmmaker had placed all his disgust at what America had become and sent it back in time to the Old West, where it took the form of criminal children and murderous farmers in a country where all would die badly.


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