Most of the best movies were made in the 1940's, and that includes most of the best Westerns. 1946, a particularly good year for Hollywood pictures, saw the production of a number of spectacular, top-dollar "A" Westerns which have since become classics, such as My Darling Clementine, Duel In The Sun, and Canyon Passage. While the more modestly produced Badman's Territory starring rugged second-tier leading man Randolph Scott was not designed to compete with those aforementioned blockbusters, it was tremendously popular in its own day, spawned a sequel, attained a durable popularity, and is now a minor classic in its own right. It also set Scott on the trail to greater stardom and top box office drawing power as a Western only specialist.
I first saw Badman's Territory in the edited-down re-release version when I was a kid in the early to mid-1950's. They didn't waste a good Western back in those days, and this picture was shown repeatedly as a Saturday matinée. The same 79-minute version started showing up on television also in the 'fifties. For this reason, I suppose, it has come to be thought of as a low-budget "B" movie for kiddies. The overly cute plot device of having a large number of notorious real-life old West outlaws anachronistically thrown together in the same place and time may bolster that impression. Actually Badman's Territory was more of a medium budget production with authentic, well turned out sets and costumes, with a large cast, and assigned to reliable medium budget director Tim Whelan. The original 98-minute running time tells you it was not a "B" picture in the context of a programmer. Though Scott was a second magnitude star, he was near the top of that class. He was billed ahead of John Wayne in the two pictures they made together in the 'forties.
Though this was apparently his first Western, Whelan handles the project nimbly, getting one of Scott's best performances out of him. He likewise skillfully manages Gabby Hayes, as marshal Scott's outlaw likable sidekick. Gabby is as cantankerous and amusing as ever but not quite so over-the-top and distracting. Badman's territory is fast paced, precisely edited, colorfully scored by Roy Webb, handsomely filmed in beautiful, old nitrate black and white by Robert De Grasse with lots of starkly shadowed night scenes giving the picture a touch of the noir mood. The cinematography may be difficult to appreciate now. The Warner Archive DVD version is far from perfect with lots of "snow" spots showing up from time to time especially in the night scenes. But it is pretty good over all and as good as we are likely to get. Since the original prints and reprints were shown over and over again as already mentioned, its not likely a completely clean copy can be economically reconstructed. I can remember watching films just as beat up in the movie house as a kid, especially with those re-releases. By the time they made the rounds to the theater in the small town where I lived, they had been run through many projectors.
Too much has been made of the James Boys, the Dalton gang, and Sam Bass all impossibly getting together in one picture. Such time and place compression to get historical personages together in a fictional setting is a time honored, if dubious, literary device going back as far as Homer's Iliad. But no one has even bothered to mention that the evil U. S. Marshal (Morgan Conway) persecuting Scott started out as a captain in the "Texas State Police" with the time being about 1890. Only a Texan up on his state history would know, but Texas has not had a state police since the late 1870's. But it was appropriate in the context of this movie to make the, brutal bloodthirsty marshal a member of that much despised organization, which was regarded as a gang of repressive bully boys enforcing scalawag Governor E. J. Davis' brutal dictatorship. His police force was disbanded as soon as he was voted out. But that's another story, and you'll have to watch another movie if interested -- try Wild Bill Elliot opus, The Fabulous Texan (1947). None of this is worth fretting about in any case. Only the hopelessly literal-minded care about a Western dotting its historical P's and Q's. This is a fiction, for entertainment purposes, and most of us when wanting to be entertained by a movie, do not let a small matter like a character (Jesse James in this case) actually being dead for ten years get in our way.
And Badman's Territory does answer in the entertainment department. Scott and love interest Ann Richards seem to have good chemistry. This was when he was still young enough, his leading ladies didn't look like his granddaughters. Solid supporting cast includes, as well as Hayes, Ray Collins of Perry Mason fame, tall James Warren as Scott's wavering brother, and pretty Isabel Jewell as Belle Starr. Outstanding are movie and real-life bad boy Lawrence Tierney as a tough but gentlemanly Jesse James, the ubiquitous Nestor Paiva as Sam Bass, and Andrew Tombes as a boozy, absent-mined doctor.
Intelligent script, engaging story, sharp, colorful dialog, fast moving with lots of action, though not overly violent, Badman's Territory is a top-notch Western in every way. Slick, smooth, satisfying entertainment from one of the platinum years of Old Hollywood's Golden Era.