Nazi-hunting in the Old West
The concept of the war crime seems to us quite recent, I suppose, and before the Nuremberg trials the old idea that “all’s fair in love and war” seemed to prevail. A Western movie in which an 1870s detective is charged with hunting down war criminals, actually using that term, might therefore seem anachronistic.
However, the notion of governing wartime conduct did in fact date largely from the early 1860s. Union Commanding General Henry W Halleck had been a lawyer before the Civil War and was the author of International Law, or, Rules Regulating the Intercourse of States in Peace and War. It was he who commissioned the jurist Franz Lieber, a professor of history and political science at the Columbia Law School, who had soldiered in both the Napoleonic Wars and the Greek War of Independence, to revise and update the 1806 Articles of War which were still in force. Those articles made no provision for guerrilla fighters, spies, saboteurs, or indeed anyone who did not wear a uniform, and did not concern the treatment of civilian populations. The so-called Lieber Code, more properly General Orders No. 100, April 24, 1863, laid out clearly what was and was not permitted in the prosecution of the war against the Confederacy.
Specifically, it stated that:
Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy, and every enemy of importance to the hostile government, or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy’s country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the Army, and of such deception as does not involve the breaking of good faith either positively pledged, regarding agreements entered into during the war, or supposed by the modern law of war to exist. Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.
Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way, nor of the wanton devastation of a district. It admits of deception, but disclaims acts of perfidy; and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.
There was no such formal code on the Confederate side, though the CSA military routinely punished individual soldiers who committed violations against prisoners. For example, several guards at the notorious Andersonville prison camp were court-martialed by their own superior officers and placed in the stocks or given the ball and chain right alongside the Union prisoners. Nevertheless, major atrocities, such as the Centralia Massacre in Missouri in 1864, which Union General Fisk described as “one of the chief barbarisms of the war”, went largely unpunished.
Not that many “war criminals”, as they would be called now, were punished after the war. Captain Henry Wirz, as commandant of Andersonville, is sometimes thought to be the only one executed for such crimes, hanged as he was in November1865. This is not correct. There were in fact nearly a thousand military tribunals which examined alleged war crimes, some leading to acquittals but others to hangings.
Still, it is rather improbable that a senior operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency would have issued warrants and employed a detective to track down and bring to the gallows (or shoot to death failing that) those who committed atrocities in the Civil War, which is the premise of the movie Badland. This exec is a sort of African-American Simon Wiesanthal ante diem. It is I suppose at least a new twist on the bounty-hunter (there has to be a bounty-hunter in every Western these days).
The detective concerned goes by the Clintish name of Preacher – at least that’s what I thought for the whole of the movie because of the faulty diction of the actors, and that gave a divine retribution tinge to the enterprise, but it turned out when I saw the cast list that the hero’s name was actually Breecher. He is played by Kevin Makely, also a producer, not an actor I knew but that’s normal these days. He is bearded and sad, some sorrow in his past probably causing him to adopt this profession.
The film is divided in chapters but is really a brief prologue, two separate stories and an epilogue. In the first reel (if these pictures have reels these days, probably not), Chapter 1, The General, Preacher/Breecher establishes his tough-guy and (semi)good-guy bona fides by going to arrest cameoing Trace Adkins, a heinous former Confederate war criminal, General Dandridge, and briskly shooting dead said general and his flunkies when they decline to be arrested.
In Chapter 2, titled by some illiterate The Cooke’s, Preacher/Breecher goes in pursuit of Reginald Cooke, another war criminal – it is not stated on which side this one fought but I’m guessing Confederate still – and finds him on a ranch run by his daughter Sarah (third-billed Mira Sorvino). Sarah’s daddy, the aged and now ailing Reginald (he has pneumonia and is like to die) is none other than Bruce Dern, many a Westernista’s favorite bad guy (hell, he even shot John Wayne dead once), and you do have to wonder if Justin Lee, director/writer of Badland, his third indie Western after the direct-to-video titles Any Bullet Will Do and A Reckoning, had seen Dern’s loathsome General Smithers in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight four years before. This Dern too is a white-bearded fairly poisonous old man, though not as over-the-top evil as Tarantino’s, it is true.
It turns out, this being a Western, that the Cooke place, or should I say the Cooke’s, is coveted by a neighboring ruthless rancher, who wants Bruce dead and his daughter gone so that he can lay his greedy hands on the land. Good news, this rancher, Quaid, is played by James Russo, who for me is the bought-and-paid-for Sheriff Poole in Open Range, and also had a Tarantino part, in Django Unchained. Obviously, Preacher/Breecher will take time out from his Nazi-hunting duties to deal with this upstart Quaid, punching out his biggest henchman and thus securing Sarah’s immunity from persecution. However, Quaid reneges on his deal, coming to attack the Cookery, and this leads to a shoot-out which will be enjoyed.
Well, Reginald knows he’s a goner but wants to avoid hanging and suggests that the hero do him in right away, to save his daughter anguish, even proposing poison (in direct contravention of the Lieber Code). Naturally our noble hero declines this base act but luckily Russo will assume the responsibility for this deed in the above-mentioned shoot-out (spoiler alert, oops too late).
I should have said that between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, Preacher/Breecher crossed paths with Wes Studi, another man-hunter and a rival, and they seemed to get on OK but Wes warned darkly that sooner or later they would inevitably “exchange fire”. It’s another cameo but this sets up, presumably, a duel with the hero in the final reel (if these pictures have reels these days, probably not).
Anyway, on to Chapter 3, The Sheriff, in which Preacher/Breecher goes off to the town of Knife Edge to arrest its constable, Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey), a dandy and a bully who committed who knows what horrors back in the war and is now through his henchmen ruling his little empire tyrannically and deserves all he will indubitably get.
Our hero is aided by a sympathetic hotelier, Alice (Amanda Wyss) and he will survive the wicked sheriff’s order to bury him alive as well as a dose of waterboarding, coming finally to an obligatory spaghetti-ish quick-draw showdown in Main Street, compete with close-ups of eyes, in which both will be shot but only one fatally (oops too late etc) so that our hero may Shane-ishly return bleeding to Sarah’s place, Cooke’s, you will recall, for they love each other, you see, but he will be helped by Wes Studi, not harmed, and there will be no “exchange of fire”, as promised or at least suggested earlier on, so that was a bit of a disappointment.
Well, it’s all OK, I guess, in a modest way. I didn’t mind it too much. It was too slow-paced, the narrative is disjointed and at three minutes shy of two hours it was probably too long. Better editing might have pepped it up.
Variety said that it was “a solidly crafted piece of work that, despite its leisurely pacing, manages to infuse a respectable amount of fresh vigor into clichés and conventions common to shoot-’em-ups set during the post-Civil War era.” I guess.