Not great art but watchable
Bad Lands was a remake as a Western of John Ford’s WWI drama The Lost Patrol of 1934 (also RKO), itself a remake of the British 1929 film Lost Patrol.
However, Bad Lands had little of the artistry of Ford. Director Lew Landers, earlier known as Louis Friedlander, had made a mark with Universal’s The Raven in 1935 with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but mostly he made low-budget pictures, working for just about every studio in Hollywood during his long career, especially RKO and Columbia. In the 1950s he turned to series television, as many of his fellow directors did, and alternated between that and features for the remainder of his time. He directed 23 feature Westerns but they were distinctly on the B side. He did the job but competence was about his limit.
Bad Lands (you sort of feel it ought to be Badlands) was written by Clarence Upson Young, with no nod to Dudley Nichols or Philip MacDonald (Nichols wrote the screenplay in ’34 from MacDonald’s story). Young co-wrote a couple of Randolph Scott oaters but the other eight feature Westerns he did were also pretty modest affairs.
It was produced by Robert Sisk, who in the world of the Western is probably best known for producing the 1937 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat.
It’s Arizona, 1875. A sheriff’s posse – there is a slight suggestion that they are Arizona Rangers – rides into the desert hunting a murderer and is beset by thirst and Apaches. One by one, they perish.
The picture starred deep-voiced Robert Barrat, then 50, as Sheriff Bill Cummings. Barrat had been a Broadway actor in the 1920s. In film, the IMDb bio says he “He portrayed lawyers, business owners, and officials of all sorts, as well as, detectives, hardened sailors, and various desperate characters.” He was much in demand, doing ten or so pictures a year. This was the only Western he led in, though he did quite a few in character parts. He was Chingachgook in the Randolph Scott The Last of the Mohicans in 1935, Judge Dyer in the 1941 Riders of the Purple Sage and Lew Wallace in The Kid from Texas, for example.
Noah Beery Jr got the second lead, as Chick. We were talking about Noah the other day (click the link for that) and we said that he was usually cast as the decent cowpoke, courageous soldier or loyal sidekick. Here, though, he is a bit of a bad ‘un, a pessimist and a trouble-maker. In the last reel he deserts, making a run for it on the only horse. He was probably miscast but never mind, he’s still good.
Also in the party are Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (though billed without the ‘Big Boy’) as Billy Sweet and, in an usually big part, Francis Ford , brother of The Lost Patrol director John and once a big star and director himself but long since on the downward career path; he often took bit parts as barfly or townsman. Click here for our essay on Frank. He is old-timer Charlie Garth.
Billy and Charlie ‘win’ when the group cuts cards to see who will ride out for help. It’s Charlie who says that Geronimo is “the fightin’est Indian this side of Hades”, though Geronimo does not appear. The leading foe is Apache Jack, played by Jack (not John) Payne. He doesn’t have any lines though. The Apaches are just the usual nameless enemies to be shot down. The director does however use the quite effective ploy of not showing them, at least until six minutes before the end. An unseen enemy is more sinister.
Charlie also adds to the lore that Indians don’t fight at night (see our key essay on that vital subject here). “Apaches don’t do night work,” he tells us. “It’s against the rules of their religion.” Right you are. Or not.
Andy Clyde as Henry Cluff has a running verbal duel with his friend Charlie, and so Andy and Frank share the crusty old-timer roles. When one dies, the other mourns deeply.
Other posse members are Curly Tom (Paul Hurst), the posh Englishman and cashiered officer Eaton (Robert Coote), tough Rayburn (Addison Richards, one of 22 films he appeared in that year so he was earning a crust), Mexican Manuel Lopez (Francis McDonald) driven crazy by grief, and the young greenhorn, Mulford, played by Douglas Walton, the only actor to have appeared in both the John Ford picture and the remake.
There are no women in the film at all, which was quite unusual. They generally managed to get a dame in there somehow, however implausible that was plotwise.
The men discover silver, to underline the futility of worldly wealth: they will not survive to profit from it.
The number of graves slowly increases.
The US Cavalry arrives at the last moment, well, after the last moment, really, because there are now a goodly number of graves. The sole survivor symbolizes that men may come and go but the law remains. Or something.
There were some decent and unusual Mt Whitney and Victorville locations, shot by Frank Redman and an uncredited Russell Metty, so it wasn’t done entirely on the cheap, but most of the tale is shot in the studio and becomes a siege Western. These can be static, and this one is. Better direction and writing might have pepped it up.
MGM’s Bataan in 1943, with Robert Taylor, recycled the story yet again, setting it in the Philippines.
No work of art, Bad Lands is nevertheless watchable. The ensemble not-very-big-name cast is able and there’s an attempt at tension.