Screengrab: Of Malick and Men

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Richard Lutz reaches into the TV schedules to find the hidden movie gem in the weekly listings


The actor Martin Sheen has had a good career. He is, of course, known as the Prez in that superb old long running political series West Wing. And mid-career, he rose from the Mekong to kill off Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, the movie that really put the lid on the lies of the Vietnam war.

But the diminutive star kickedstarted his movie life with a beautiful mythic tale called Badlands and this week it is buried late at night (BBC2, Friday, 23.35) when many of us are falling sleep, dancing the night away or just comatose and awaiting for the dreams of the weekend.

Sheen plays Kit, a troubled asocial garbage collector in 1950’s South Dakota who falls for elfin 15 year old Holly (Cissy Spacek).  Together, they take to the Midwest road leaving in their wake a bloody trail of senseless murders.

Martin Sheen: in later years

Martin Sheen: in later years

Sheen is as good as they get in this 1973 movie by Hollywood enfant terrible Terrance  Malick and is a bang-on double for the mythic James Dean. Kit and Holly – based on a real life couple – head for the Badlands, where they duck and dive, profess their eternal doomed love for each other under the endless skies of Montana and the Dakotas (but filmed in Colorado) and are tracked relentlessly by police and bounty hunters.

The script, which Sheen later called the best he’d ever read, is part of an American genre – that of the road. There’s Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, Sugarland Express, Easy Rider and even Paper Moon, all odysseys that encompass what happens to the human spirit when it is chasing something or being chased and where rules and law evolve, transform or are simply ignored.

Malick went on to famously make one film a decade, each either adored or hated. This is his first. A small footnote: it showcased at the 1973 New York Film Festival along with Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Both films became emblematic of American violence , one from the heart of the Midwest and the other from New York’s tough avenues.