A lot of people have a set image of Westerns: horses, cowboys and Indians, gunfights, simple frontier justice. In actual fact, the western is a truly deep and wide-ranging genre. Any type of story can -- and has -- been told in western trappings, from deceptively simple good vs. evil throw-downs (High Noon), to Shakespearean tragedy (The Man from Laramie), to rollicking comedy (McClintock), to brooding meditations on family dysfunction (Track of the Cat), to elaborate con games (A Big Hand for the Little Lady) and biting satire (Little Big Man). The western can accommodate literally any kind of storytelling trope.
Case in point is The Badlanders. Based on the same source novel as classic crime drama The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Badlanders is basically a western riff on the heist movie, and it succeeds on both levels.
Peter von Hoeck, aka the Dutchman (Alan Ladd), gets released from Yuma prison and heads back to Prescott, Arizona, to extract his own particular brand of revenge on the men who set him up. No hardened criminal, he's a mining engineer and geologist, bilked of his share of a gold claim and set up by the corrupt sheriff. He teams up with fellow inmate John "Mac" McBain (Ernest Borgnine), another man cheated out of his gold-rich land by corrupt businessmen, and local dynamite expert, Vincente, to steal gold from a hidden shaft in Cyril Lounsberry’s mine and sell it back to him for a half share of $100,000. And they only have one day to pull off the heist. Needless to say, not everything goes according to plan...
Along the way, the Dutchman gets friendly with Lounsberry's younger mistress, Ada Winton. (Claire Kelly). Lounsberry keeps her in style in the nicest suite in the hotel, but locks her up when he’s not around. She's immediately attracted to the Dutchman, but is refreshingly frank about her clear-eyed, mercenary intentions. Their odd little relationship acts as a light counterpoint to the intensity of the rest of the story, and its resolution caps off the final scene of the film with a nice little flourish.
A much more pivotal romance develops between Mac and Mexican prostitute Anita, played by the handsome, fiery Katy Jurado. He rescues her from being molested by some of Lounsberry's goons, and she invites him to her shack on the wrong side of town. She sees the innate goodness in him, and their blossoming affection for each other is treated tenderly and is touching in a low-key way -- two people ill-treated by life coming together.
A rare case in that period of an actress playing a Mexican who actually is one, Jurado was a veteran performer in westerns, such as High Noon, Broken Lance, One-Eyed Jacks and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Her obvious chemistry with Borgnine must have been real, as the two married in real life shortly after making the film. Their marriage was apparently volatile and didn’t last long. Borgnine famously described her as "beautiful, but a tiger." Jurado has the sort of big, voluptuous and passionate presence that can hold her own on screen with the larger-than-life Borgnine.
This is a good-looking, well-directed film. Besides the big centerpiece of the mine heist itself (quite suspensefully done) and a brief gunfight at the finale, there’s not a not a huge amount of action, but what’s there is good quality.
There’s a well-choreographed brawl early on when Mac rescues Anita. Borgnine tosses the baddies around like rag dolls until one of them pulls a gun on him. Sample, the local deputy, shoots the gun out of the henchman's hand and saves Mac, but the Dutchman is only a microsecond behind.
Ladd and Borgnine play well off each other. Mac is initially distrustful of the Dutchman, but can't resist a $10,000 payday and a chance to get even. The Dutchman's principled behavior eventually wins him over, and their gradual friendship is one of the best aspects of the movie.
Alan Ladd plays the Dutchman as calm and amiable, and not at all bitter, as might be expected given the circumstances. Never the most expressive of actors, Ladd could still pull off a mean, thousand-yard stare when he wanted to (just watch him in the final confrontation with Jack Palance in Shane). In The Badlanders, he keeps a lid on things. He’s cool and professional, never betraying much in the way of strong emotion.
A huge star in the 1940s, Ladd was on a slow decline career-wise. He was only 45 when he made The Badlanders, but looks a bit puffy and tired. In contrast, Borgnine was 40 and looks like he could arm wrestle a grizzly. Ladd would be dead only 5 years and 7 films later, from an overdose of pills and booze. Borgnine is still working at age 94, with 3 feature films and one TV movie in the can in 2011 alone. Nevertheless, Ladd still delivers the goods here, and more than holds his own as the strong, quiet center of the film.
The rest of the cast, as was so common in movies of this era, is full of great supporting players. Israel-born Nehemiah Persoff plays another one of his Mexican characters, and he’s very charming here as Vincente, the "Powder Monkey." Persoff enjoyed a busy career, often playing all kinds of ethnic parts: Mexican, Italian, Eastern European. Like Borgnine, he’s still alive today, although no longer working. Kent Smith, who played Lounsberry, was another busy character actor, specializing in playing smarmy bastards. With his tough looks and burly frame, Anthony Caruso seems a natural for the villainous henchman role. And Robert Emhardt is appropriately menacing as the crooked deputy.
The theme of the town divided along racial lines, with the whites on one side and the Mexican mine workers and their families on the other, is there in the background but never feels forced. More to the fore is a casual cynicism about the embedded corruption of the "civilized" power structure, from law enforcement on up to the rich mineowners. The sheriff who framed the Dutchman is still in charge in Prescott. There's no way the Dutchman can touch him without going back to prison. The best he can do is leave with a smirk, the boss' girl and a fat pile of gold.
Director Delmer Daves isn’t particularly famous but is well-loved by western fans for his strong work in that genre: Broken Arrow, 3:10 To Yuma, The Last Wagon, Cowboy, The Hanging Tree, and Jubal, among others. While The Badlanders doesn’t quite rank with his best, it’s a sturdy, entertaining film and another example of just how diverse the western genre really is.
Note: The Badlanders is available on a bare-bones but nice looking DVD-R from Warner Archives.
Opinionated ramblings about new and old movies (mostly old, as that's the way I like 'em!)
Blogs of Note
Stuart Galbraith IV's World Cinema Paradise
Movie Morlocks (TCM's Classic Movie Blog)
50 Westerns from the 50s
Riding the High Country
Tipping My Fedora
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
Classic TV and Film Cafe
Just a Cineast
She Blogged By Night
Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema
Out of the Past -
A Classic Film Blog
Pretty Sinister Books
They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
In So Many Words...
Greenbriar Picture Shows
My Love of Old Hollywood
Tales of the Easily Distracted
Another Old Movie Blog
Lasso the Movies
Kevin's Movie Corner
Films From Beyond the Time Barrier
Carole & Co.
Rupert Pupkin Speaks
Vienna's Classic Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
ClassicBecky's Brain Food
Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed below, to be informed of new postings!