The old saying “they don’t make them like the use to”, especially when related to films, shows etc., is one that fills me with absolute contempt for the sad sack that uttered it. Of course they don’t bloody make them like the use to. The social, cultural and political environment that allowed them to be made has buggered off into the mists of history. Blazing Saddles (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976) couldn’t be made today because the social and cultural environment that made them relevant has been replaced.  Doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching them, it’s just that life has moved on; we have our own social-economic and cultural issues that need addressing. So whining about not being able to make something today from 30 years ago is as stupid as actually making it today and somehow expecting people to have the same reaction.

Anyway here’s Badlands (1973). A film they couldn’t make today.

Set in 1959 and narrated by the impressionable Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek), Badlands is the story of the cross-country crime and road trip of Holly and her violent, greaser, older boyfriend Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen). After meeting by chance while Kit is working, Holly is slowly won over to him by his charm and James Dean looks. When Holly’s Father (Warren Oates) finds out his daughter has been dating a man 10 years her senior, he forbids her to see Kit again and, to show that neither he nor the film is messing around, shoots her dog. Kits attempts to get Holly to run away results in an altercation when he kills Holly’s Father. With a fake suicide to give them a head start, Kit and Holly head into the wide open of South Dakota and into the Bad Lands of Montana, leaving a trail of bullet riddled corpses along the way.

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This movie can be hard to watch. Not because the killing is graphic or wantonly cruel, but because it’s casually done while the suggestible Holly provides a narration that justifies Kit’s actions. After a while you begin to ask how much of it is as it seems and how much is the idealistic Holly seeing it all through rose tinted glasses and romantic clichés. Even films such as Natural Born Killers (1994) didn’t have calm murder. It doesn’t glorify by any means which kind of makes it worse, the way they continue about their lives afterwards. But it isn’t the nonchalant action of killing that means this film wouldn’t be made today.

No for that you’re going to need a little history lesson.

From 1965 till 1975, to give it a rough timeframe, America was at war with teenagers and Youth culture. Public demonstrations, student unrest in support of Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War, underground militant movements and bombing campaigns, new subcultures that were pro sex and drugs, police crackdowns and COINTELPRO, Kent State, Manson family, the list goes on. Americans began to fear the Youth. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) came out six years previous; movies like The Trip (1967) and Wild Angels (1968) were less counter-culture film and more those that played on the fears of Small Town America. Ideas that the Youth of America were only a small step away from rising up and killing all those around them was higher than in the subsequent fifty plus years. That fear, which someone like Kit and Holly could carry out their crimes, is not there anymore, or rather has diminished over time. It doesn’t have the cultural resonance meaning the impact would be wasted. As a result, it couldn’t be made today.

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Which is a shame because despite that, it’s still a good movie. Like I said earlier you can still watch and enjoy films outside of that cultural period; it’s just that we have our own stuff to deal with.

Badlands is often described as a road movie and it sort of is though not to the same level of say Bonnie and Clyde. It style, in cinematography and mise en scene, owes less to The Wild One (1953) and more to The Wild Bunch (1969). Wide angle vista shots of the Montana Badlands and rivers of South Dakota; ambush fights and cross country chases and the occasional shootout, Badlands was very much a modern day Western in style and tone. Even the pre-mentioned casual killing feels more at home in a Western than in a crime or a road trip. The dialogue is few and far between, with only Holly’s narration running over it to give a sense of scope that leaves the film feeling as barren as the landscape, enhancing the wide open flavour of the film.

Spacek and Sheen seem to lack an onscreen romantic chemistry and it’s pretty obvious that it is on purpose. Holly is a 15 year old using romantic platitudes to describe her life on the run while Kit is an anti-social loner. Neither are really attracted to the other and it is a combination of loneliness and melancholy that keeps them both together.

The film comes with a Production Guide and includes a Making Of feature and the Original Trailer.

Badlands still has the same impression as a story today as it did in 1973. It just doesn’t have the same cultural and social impact it did when it came out.

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Dir: Terrence Malick
Scr: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Martin Sheen, Warren Oates
Prd: Terrence Malick, Edward R.Pressman
DOP: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Music: George Tipton, James Taylor
Country: USA
Year: 1973
Runtime: 89 minutes

Badlands is available on Blu-Ray now.

By Pat Fox