The Starkweather murders have since become mythologized in American pop culture. Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album Nebraska, with its sparsely orchestrated songs about death and despair, conjures up the ghost of Charlie Starkweather. And movies have mimicked the original events again and again. There was an exploitation rip-off entitled Stark Raving Mad in 1983; a made-for-television feature, Murder in the Heartland (1993), which faithfully followed the true facts in the case; and both True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994) were obviously influenced by Starkweather and Fugate's homicidal road trip. But it was Badlands (1973), directed by Terrence Malick, which best expressed the psychological state of the killer as well as the deprived cultural climate of rural Nebraska that produced him. Not only did the film work as an absorbing crime drama but it blended scenes of senseless death with moments of lyrical beauty that were clearly the work of a visual artist.
In Malick's fictionalized account of the Starkweather murders, Martin Sheen plays Kit (Martin Sheen), a twenty-five-year-old garbageman who begins courting Holly (Sissy Spacek), a fifteen-year-old school girl who is obsessed with movie magazines and thinks Kit looks like James Dean. When Holly's father (Warren Oates) forbids Kit to see his daughter anymore, he is gunned down and the couple flee after setting his house on fire. As they make their way toward the badlands of Montana, the fugitives leave a trail of death in their wake, prompting a full-scale police manhunt. All the while their aimless exploits are dutifully recorded by Holly, who narrates passages of the film in a naive stream of consciousness, influenced by her fondness for pulp romance novels and Hollywood fantasies.
Badlands was Malick's feature film debut. Although he had previously worked as a screenwriter (Pocket Money, 1972), he decided to direct his own scripts after Paramount made a complete mess of his Deadhead Miles screenplay, transforming it into a film so bad it couldn't even be released. With his brother, Chris, Malick managed to raise $300,000 for Badlands's pre-production costs. The additional money was raised by independent producer Edward Pressman from personal friends like former Xerox chief Max Palevsky. According to David Handelman in his article "Absence of Malick" for California Magazine, the director shot Badlands "in Eastern Colorado between August and October of 1972. He reportedly gave investors no guarantee of completion or distribution, paid himself no salary and his actors and crew not much more. The costumer, mechanic and Malick himself all ended up acting in the film. As not only director but producer, Malick suddenly found himself dealing with insurance costs, auto maintenance, unionizers, shotgun-wielding landowners and a mutinous crew. His first cinematographer, Brian Probyn, wouldn't shoot what Malick wanted, claiming the scenes wouldn't cut together. Probyn's assistant, Tak Fujimoto, then took over, but also left. Some equipment was damaged by the film's fire sequence. When a special-effects man suffered severe burns, Malick, unable to afford a helicopter, sent him to the distant hospital by car, and many crew members quit in protest. For the last two weeks of the shoot, the entire crew consisted of the director, the director's wife and a local high school student. Then Malick ran out of money while editing and had to take a rewrite job to finish his movie. When shown to the New York Film Festival selection board months later, the print broke, the sound was muddy, the picture was out of focus. Yet Badlands landed the prestigious closing-night slot and drew raves. Warner's paid $950,000 for the distribution rights."
Among the many champions of the film were film scholar David Thomson, who wrote that "Badlands may be the most assured first film by an American since Citizen Kane"; movie critic John Simon, who rarely likes anything, called it "dazzling"; and New York Times reviewer Steven Farber wrote "Badlands is a harshly sardonic film: Malick wants to expose the emotional numbness of his young outlaw lovers, and the influence of the media on their stunted lives. Although set in the past, Badlands says a great deal about the passivity of Americans in the seventies, the enervation of a movie-gorged generation that can only experience life second-hand." Of course, not everyone agreed. Some critics found the film cold and curiously detached. In his book Cult Movies, Danny Peary accused Badlands of pandering "to an intellectual art-house audience" and that Malick treated "his characters with condescension." Mainstream moviegoers weren't enticed to see the film either and it was a box-office disappointment for Warners. Still, it managed to make almost every critics' top ten list in 1973 and has a devoted, ever-growing following today. Among the many mesmerizing highlights are the scene where Kit burns down Holly's home set to Carl Orff's "Musica Poetica," a lyrical interlude with the two fugitives cavorting in nature (scored to "Love Is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia) and a dead-of-night waltz in the headlights of their car to the tune of Nat King Cole's "A Blossom Fell."
After the financial failure of Badlands, it would take Malick another five years to make his next feature, Days of Heaven (1978), which, though well received by most critics, was also a flop at the box office in relation to its cost. After that, Malick, who was never a Hollywood player, went AWOL for eleven years before re-emerging to work on the Jerry Lee Lewis musical bio, Great Balls of Fire (1989), which he never completed; Jim McBride replaced him. He then disappeared for another nine years before resurfacing with The Thin Red Line in 1998. Malick remains an enigma in Hollywood and is famous for avoiding press interviews, but he did once admit to a journalist that he had written Badlands from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl because "he wanted to show a kind of openness, a vulnerability that disappears later when you get a little savvier."
Producer: Terrence Malick, Edward Pressman, Louis A. Stroller
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Art Direction: Jack Fisk
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Film Editing: Robert Estrin
Original Music: Gunild Keetman, James Taylor, George Aliceson Tipton
Principal Cast: Martin Sheen (Kit), Sissy Spacek (Holly), Warren Oates (Holly's father), Ramon Bieri (Cato), Alan Vint (Deputy), Gary Littlejohn (Sheriff), John Carter (Rich Man).
By Jeff Stafford