Rixflix A to Z: Badlands (1973)

Badlands (Warner Bros., 1973)
Dir./Wr./Prod.: Terrence Malick
Crew Notables: Jack Fisk (Art Direction); Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn (cinematography)
Cast Notables: Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates, Gary Littlejohn, Alan Vint, Ramon Bieri, John Carter, Terrence Malick (cameo)
TC4P Rating: 9/9



"I saw her standin' on her front lawn just a-twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died

From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska with a sawed-off .410 on my lap
Through to the Badlands of Wyoming, I killed everything in my path

I can't say that I am sorry for the things that we done
At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun"

To say that Charles Starkweather's murderous rampage through the Midwest in the winter of 1957-58 caught the nation's attention would be a severe understatement. Not only did his desperate flight from Nebraska to Wyoming with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, five years his junior and only 14 years old, become a phenomenon in the headlines and have half the country searching for them, but their flight is still impacting popular culture to this day, fifty years after it happened.

I really did not pick up on the term "Badlands" until I got my copy of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town shortly after its release in 1978. It was my first Springsteen album (though I already knew Born to Run and Thunder Road by heart from a zillion listens on the radio), but it wasn't until I was flipping to our only cable channel a couple of years later that I ran into the movie Badlands. It was only the second half of the film, with a James Dean-like Martin Sheen shooting it out with the cops and working the media like it was his bitch. Even though he is doomed for the electric chair for a string of murders, and is probably a nervous wreck inside, he maintains a cool exterior and has the cops practically eating out of his hands. 


And the film itself was unlike anything that I had seen to that point: slow, methodical, and poetic in its juxtaposition of the eerie calm and emptiness of the landscape with the sudden savagery that sprung from its teenage protagonist's hands. And though I found their acts despicable and hard to fathom, I was then blossoming into the lovable misanthrope that I am today, and so the snotty anti-social behavior of the couple held a strange appeal to me as I devoured the film a few times more during the course of the next couple of months.

It didn't hurt that the two lead actors are terrific in the film. I was already a fan of Sheen from his appearances on television in The Execution of Private Slovick, where he played the lead, and in the Cuban missile crisis docudrama The Missiles of October, where he portrayed Bobby Kennedy. It was because I saw him on the screen immediately when I flipped on the cable that I stayed around to watch Badlands


I had also not seen Carrie yet, so this film was my introduction to Sissy Spacek, and her blank expression through most of this chaos also struck me as weirdly compelling. But I had no idea that they were playing cinematic versions of real people; to me, the film was just a lovers-on-the-run flick. Later, in the library, I looked up Badlands and found out the true story behind the film, and also ran into one of my first run-ins with the Law of "Based on a True Story": that filmmakers, no matter how talented or true in their intentions, have to change details. They don't have to; they just do. Call it "creative license".

I found out that the murders in real life were even more terrible than the ones committed in the film, and that Starkweather and Fugate killed 11 people in all, and that where Sheen's Kit shoots his girlfriend Holly's father, Starkweather also killed Fugate's mother and then strangled her two-year-old sister while she made lunch in the kitchen. Or so Charles claimed. He went to the chair claiming that Caril Ann was involved in most of the murders; she went to prison stubbornly insisting that she was a hostage the entire time. In the movie, Holly gets off scot-free. And characters that Kit lets live, like the rich man and his maid, met their doom at Starkweather and Fugate's hands. I've always wondered why Malick toned down their spree; my guess is that it would make his couple seem a little more sympathetic, even when Sheen is blasting someone with a shotgun. I know myself that if the film played by the real-life rules, that I would probably not have watched the film the same way -- or over again. The violence would have appealed to my teenage self, but I most likely would have truly despised the characters.


I find myself thinking about two other amazing films that played the same way to me at that age: Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger (the one with Warren Oates and Richard Dreyfuss). I was fascinated with the blood and machine guns, and found the Robin Hood antics of the bank-robbing desperadoes to be dangerously "right up my alley", even if I came away from both films, like this one, with the definite notion that crime not only doesn't pay, but that nihilism is a relentlessly stupid pursuit. I may have my problems with our society and government, but I still believe that things can always be changed for the better, and it is far more noble to take a positive stance than to think that life will never get better and that one should strike out violently at the world. For all the negativity that Hollywood withstands over the subject of violence in movies, and while I simply can't turn away from a good gangster flick, consider me one person who prefers the path of non-violence because I am watching films like Badlands.


The film world certainly didn't stop at Badlands in its screen portrayal of Starkweather and Fugate: it found its earliest form in the low-budget schlock thriller The Sadist (with the caveman-faced Arch Hall, Jr., in perhaps his only decent performance), and later inspired numerous other films and TV movies, including the overly famous Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone and written by Quentin Tarantino. I must say that I was shocked at first to see that Peter Jackson included Starkweather and Fugate references in his ghostly Michael J. Fox fantasy The Frighteners, but their name-dropping does add an effectively edgy dose of darkness to an otherwise fun film.

But, it all came around to Springsteen again in 1982 on his solo acoustic album Nebraska. When I dropped the needle on the disc (yes, it was in those days), and I heard the title track begin the record, the images from the film came rushing back into my head, even though at first I had no idea that the song was inspired by the film directly. I will let the remainder of the Boss' lyrics to that song close the show, because after I read them, I feel the same way I did after I heard them that first time, and the way that I feel when I watch Malick's movie: like there is a vengeful chill in the air. Like I am standing in the Badlands, with the cold wind of Justice bearing down on my neck, and with Love and Life ready to betray me for the crimes I have committed. I understand Kit's rage. And then I understand Starkweather's. I don't want to, but I do.


"Now, the jury brought in a guilty verdict, and the judge he sentenced me to death
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest

Sheriff, when the man pulls that switch, sir, and snaps my poor head back
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin' right there on my lap

They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They want to know why I did what I did? Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world"


Lyrics Copyright © 1982 Bruce Springsteen

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