Robert Benton’s first directorial effort, Bad Company, from 1972, is a bad film and a bad Western, too. It’s one of those revisionist oaters from the 70s which takes delight in deconstructing the myth of the frontier, showing it as a sordid and depressing place.
It concerns a gang of young men who light out for the territory during the Civil War, to find fame and fortune and/or evade getting drafted into the Union army. It takes forever to get them moving west, in a long prelude to the actual adventure which mostly involves their cute antics as petty thieves.
It proceeds thereafter in a series of vignettes — robbing farmyards, getting robbed by bandits. Some of these episodes are involving, some repetitive. There’s one really well done scene involving a running shootout in a forest filled with leafless trees.
The dialogue feels synthetic throughout, modeled inexpertly on the vernacular style of Mark Twain.
By the end, the two main protagonists have graduated from a life of petty thievery to a life of armed robbery. So much for the American Dream. So much for the sodbusters who turned the desolate plains into a breadbasket for the world.
The film’s one shining virtue is its cinematography, by the late Gordon Willis, who conveys a vision of the plains that is both beautiful and forbidding. It’s the only real reason to watch the film but, Gordon Willis being Gordon Willis, it’s reason enough.