The Badlanders

It seems like everybody around here is stealing from everybody else.

A good heist movie is hard to beat in my opinion, there’s considerable potential for suspense and tension in the execution of a complicated robbery, and the aftermath or outcome is generally rife with possibilities too. The heist is typically used as a plot element in contemporary crime movies, both the serious and more lighthearted varieties, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to other genres as well. There’s arguably no more flexible type of film than the western, the setting being able to absorb and adapt aspects almost at will. The Badlanders (1958) is a remake of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, adapted from the W R Burnett novel, moving the action back half a century and shifting from the urban milieu to the dusty Arizona landscape.

In the dying days of the 19th century two men are released from the prison at Yuma, one because his time has been served in full and the other earning early parole because he prevented the former from assaulting a guard. In fact, these two men, Peter Van Hoek (Alan Ladd) & John McBain (Ernest Borgnine) have quite a lot in common: both ended up behind bars either  directly or indirectly due to the treachery of others, and both hail from a similar part of Arizona. While they set off on apparently different paths they’re fated to meet again as their desire to right some of the wrongs of the past lead them to the small town of Bascom. The settlement is the center of a gold mining operation, beneath the land once owned by McBain before he was cheated out of it, and places have a way of calling men back even if they have no logical reason for returning. Van Hoek was a mining engineer and geologist, cheated in a different way, framed for a robbery and keen to get something back for the time he lost when he was wrongly incarcerated. Everything boils down to a plan to blast a rich vein of ore from an abandoned shaft and sell it back to the current owner, Cyril Lounsberry (Kent Smith). You might wonder why a man would buy what rightfully belongs to him – well Lounsberry is only nominally in charge as the mine is actually in his wife’s name, and he’s a man with a wandering and faithless eye. Such a man is obviously going to be drawn to the idea of an independent source of wealth. On the surface, the key to the whole operation is timing and disciplined organization, but there’s also the intangible element to be factored in, as tends to be the case in the affairs of man, and in this instance it’s the question of trust.

Anyone familiar with The Asphalt Jungle will know how things play out on screen, but there are significant enough differences to set the two films apart. Aside from the altered location, there’s the variation in tone and overall mood of the film. Huston’s film was a classic piece of fatalistic noir, where bad luck and the character flaws of the principals led to the ultimate unraveling of the best laid plans. In The Badlanders, however, the weaknesses of the leads in the earlier version are actually transformed into their strengths, and the resolution is upbeat and positive. I think a good deal of that is down to the director; Delmer Daves made films that mainly emphasized the positive characteristics and leanings of people, and you generally come away from his work with an enhanced appreciation of the inherent decency of humanity. If I were to draw direct comparisons between Daves’ and Huston’s take on the source material, something I’m reluctant to do as it seems s bit of a pointless exercise, then I’d have to say The Asphalt Jungle is clearly the superior film. Still, The Badlanders does have certain points in its favor, and those are mainly the touches which bear the characteristic fingerprints of Daves. There’s some strong cinematography from John Seitz too, especially the interiors but also the outdoors location work in Arizona and Old Tucson.

Alan Ladd underwent a noticeable physical decline in his last years, but that hadn’t really set in when he made The Badlanders. He was still vital and looked in reasonably good shape at that point. His role isn’t an especially complex one, there’s the back story of his being fitted up to provide motivation of course but it’s never expanded upon to any extent. While Ladd is the headline star the most memorable performances come from those billed below him, notably Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado. Borgnine was typically a powerful physical presence in movies and got to show off that aspect in a number of scenes, yet it’s another side of the man which has the greatest impact. He had a certain innocence below the surface, although this wasn’t always exploited. The character of McBain is remarkable for the way this vague social naiveté is woven into the plot. And the ever soulful charms of Katy Jurado are ideal for drawing out and playing off that. Despite the fact the heist, which it has to be said is filmed with some style, is the main focus of the plot, the tender and sensitive relationship which develops between Borgnine and Jurado is the living heart of it all. In support Kent Smith, Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Emhardt and Anthony Caruso do all that could be expected of them in their limited roles.

The Badlanders has been released on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and there are European editions available in France (non-anamorphic, I think), Spain and Italy. The Spanish copy I viewed presents the movie in the correct 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the transfer is perfectly satisfactory – colors look accurate and the print is quite clean. There are no extra features included and the Spanish subtitles can be disabled from the setup menu. Speaking as a fan of Delmer Daves’ work, I would say this is a weaker film when stacked up alongside his other westerns. However, just to qualify that evaluation, it’s worth bearing in mind that his westerns rank among the finest produced in the 50s. As such, I think this film deserves to be seen, and is of interest as a rare western heist movie, a remake of The Asphalt Jungle, and finally as a worthwhile frontier drama in its own right.

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37 thoughts on “The Badlanders

    • Cheers, John. I hope you catch up with the movie and I’d be interested in your thoughts whenever you get the opportunity. The basic template is followed but it also veers away from Huston’s version in a number of respects – the different tone, above all, means comparisons are hard to make and don’t serve much purpose. Probably best just to watch the film on its own terms.

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  1. Your analysis of The Badlanders is most interesting. I have not seen The Asphalt Jungle and would not be able to compare. I was drawn to this film by its story, Alan Ladd and Delmer Daves but somehow find it to be an average western. Best regards.

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    • The Asphalt Jungle is highly recommended, Chris, if you’re into crime and noir especially, but it’s also just a fine movie all round. It’s interesting to see how the two directors approached the same source material but it’s not essential to be familiar with any of that to appreciate the film in question.
      I can see how you view this as an average western entertainment and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. Daves other westerns are all of a higher standard of course, and I think this makes The Badlanders feel less substantial.

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  2. I thought I’d seen this one but now I’m not so sure, which is a bit of a shocker as I’m a fan of Daves and Burnett! I’ll definitely get myself the Italian pressing as I assume it will have used the same elements as the Spanish release. Great review, thanks chum.

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  3. Excellent writing as always, Colin. I guess like most readers I’ve seen The Asphalt Jungle and not this, but it sounds intriguing and the presence of Daves, Borgnine, Ladd and of course Katy Jurado are considerable draws.

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  4. Everyone makes for delightful reading. I rate BADLANDERS as a good action western with the heist factor as a nice difference. Ladd’s portrayal of SHANE secures a permanent place for him in the genre as does the film itself. Borgnine is in the higher echelon of lead support characters in westerns and any other theme you want to mention. He, Lee Marvin, Eli Wallach,Dan Duryea. and Richard
    Boone are my choices for first tier “no goods” in western movies. Second tier is headed by Lee Van Cleef, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, Jack Elam and several others. Arthur Hunnicutt goes somewhere and so does Arthur Kennedy who could tackle any role in any format and make a success of it. Before I forget her, Katy Juarado was one of a kind and her appearance usually enhances any film. I imagine the short marriage of her with Borgnine was a bonfire waiting to happen. Delmar Daves deserves his recognition. 3:10 TO YUMA, JUBAL, COWBOY and BROKEN ARROW are enough to garner a recommendation for the top ten, but I suggest the other honorable mentions and a few more are equally as qualified. The other nine I support 100%. Thanks for great work.

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    • Yes, the heist adds a nice twist. That’s an interesting way of categorizing support actors, the first tier being made up of 2nd leads in a number of cases there.

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  5. Anything with Ladd always caught my eye as a kid catching old flicks on TV and Ernie added to the fun. No classic here like the Hayden flick but viewed on it’s own it’s not bad. I have the Warner Archive edition and proudly possess an original release poster as well. 🙂

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  6. Gave The Badlanders another viewing last night. Apparently two things caught my attention. Kent Smith a weak adversary for Ladd. The final confrontation was rather tame and disappoints. Best regards.

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    • Thanks for getting back to me on this. I agree on your observation about the final confrontation. It does peter out after promising more, although the final coda is nicely done I think.
      However, I didn’t mind Kent Smith’s portrayal. The character is a morally weak one and and I feel that comes across well enough – it’s also broadly similar to, if not as nuanced as, Louis Calhern’s in The Asphalt Jungle.

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  7. Thank you very much for your reply. I forgot to add though John Houston was an acclaimed director, somehow I was not fond of his movies. I found them rather dull or not entertaining. I know about The Asphalt Jungle and will look it up some time. Best regards.

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  8. I agree that THE BADLANDERS is the least of Daves Westerns–and I think most admirers of Daves feel that way.

    But that just shows how good his movies in the genre are, because this is a satisfying Western. You’ve certainly hit on some of its strengths. It’s well-cast, and as you say, Borgnine and Jurado are especially affecting as a couple. That brings us to THE ASPHALT JUNGLE because the most interesting thing in the comparison is how this does ring variations, even if one readily sees how most of the characters correspond in some way (Anthony Caruso even plays what is basically the same role in both films), so, for example, the mutually loving way that Borgnine and Jurado relate is a world away from what one sees with Sterling Hayden and Jean Hagen, where he is self-absorbed but tolerates her and she hangs on kind of pathetically (I hasten to add that Hayden and Hagen are great in the roles–I’m just describing how that relationship is realized). In THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the characters are memorably undone but I like the way you say that here “the weaknesses of the leads…are transformed into their strengths.” It is characteristic of both the Western and Daves to let some light in while still making it all feel just as believable. And this movie does this.

    Daves was at his peak then, and I think it does show in his eye for composition and location as well as dramatically. That doesn’t mean that this rises to the heights of the drought-stricken landscape so beautifully captured in black and white in 3;10 TO YUMA (1957) or the magnificently created mining community of THE HANGING TREE (1959), or that one becomes quite so invested in the characters and relationships here. Still, I like it. The last time I saw it happened to fall on my birthday (a Tuesday matinee at the museum in good color 35 print), and was completely happy

    Chrisk’s comment above was intriguing to me as regards John Huston. It happens that I consider Huston perhaps the most overrated American director in classical cinema. There are a lot of reasons for that and won’t try to get into it now. Of course, in a long career, he has good films and among half a dozen that I like pretty well, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is easily my favorite, the only one that I feel unequivocally is great and that I’m always glad to go back to. It’s the best heist movie ever in my view, populated with great characters and perfect in mood. So, sure, taking films one by one and not just being loyal to directors, it’s easily the better of these two movies. But for a body of work and what he means to me overall, I much prefer Daves to Huston, both in style and sensibility.

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    • Good points raised there as usual, Blake. Concerning comparisons, I think the Ladd and Jaffe takes on the mastermind role are quite radically different.
      I haven’t thought about whether or not Huston has been overrated, but I can see how his reputation depends on a handful of great movies, and the also the necessity of glossing over a fair few mediocre efforts. I’d have to say I prefer Daves’ work overall too – the tone and feeling running through it as a body is something I find much more appealing.

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  9. This is a fave of mine of its decade; Ladd is always so good in a western, and yet strangely maginalised (but for the one major exception). I think that the jaded directors of today should look to films like this for the endless potential in westerns. We need more, and there is so much to be done.

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    • Hi, Clayton! Ladd was indeed always good value, and a good fit, in westerns.
      I quite agree on the potential which existed and still does in the western as far as storytelling is concerned. It’s been largely untapped for some time now but I think that, so long as it’s there, it may yet be rediscovered

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      • I’m aching for a herd of new westerns. The major problem now is something that westerns like THE BADLANDERS really understood; westerns aren’t historical dramas, they’re…westerns, if that makes any sense. What really has slowed the western down (in my opinion) is that in the 70s they tried to make them too “real”, something which continues to this day. Westerns never have been about reality, but about truth, which is not the same thing. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder about this fun western.

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        • I know exactly what you mean, Clayton. What you’re talking about is the classical western as an art form, which is the way I view it too. Art is never about reality but always an attempt to express or communicate truth, universal truths that transcend those constraints imposed when we concentrate too much on efforts to portray reality.

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