Martin Sheen in Badlands

Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers in Badlands (1973)

Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers in Badlands (1973)

Vitals

Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers, garbage collector-turned-spree killer

South Dakota through the Montana Badlands, Spring 1959

Film: Badlands
Release Date: October 15, 1973
Director: Terrence Malick
Costume Designer: Rosanna Norton (uncredited)
Wardrobe Credit: Dona Baldwin

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Background

Terrence Malick made his impressive cinematic debut writing, producing, and directing Badlands, the romanticized re-interpretation of the infamously violent crime spree of Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, that left ten dead across the Great Plains during eight brutal and bloody days in January 1958.

The real-life Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather, circa 1957. Starkweather's denim jacket and jeans likely inspired Rosanna Norton's costume design for Kit Carruthers, though it should be noted that Starkweather's jacket does not appear to be Levi's.

The real-life Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather, circa 1957. Starkweather’s denim jacket and jeans likely inspired Rosanna Norton’s costume design for Kit Carruthers, though it should be noted that Starkweather’s jacket does not appear to be Levi’s.

“He projected this very, very disarming image, everybody could kind of relate to him,” spoke Martin Sheen of the real Starkweather in a retrospective interview about the making of Badlands. “His murder spree aside, he was very, very interesting, and he gave us an inside kind of glimpse into the very worst part of ourselves. And yet, it was so engrossing—his character, his image of himself—and it made the country kind of step back a little bit and say we’re more into image than reality, and this guy is a reflection of that.”

Sheen, who had considered Malick’s script to be the best he had ever read, still considers Badlands his finest movie.

“Terry always separated the brutality and the reality of the Starkweather incident from what we were doing,” added Sissy Spacek. “He never said ‘This is that story,’ he didn’t want us to do the research.” Although inspired by these actual events, Malick chooses to tell his own independent “fairy tale”, being sure to change the names of our protagonists, soften the nature of their myriad misdeeds, and shift the action north from Nebraska into Wyoming up to South Dakota into Montana.

Little did I realize that what began in the alleys and backways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.

Though filmed primarily in Colorado, the story begins in Fort Dupree, South Dakota, where teenager Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) is living a life of complacent boredom with her gruff father, a widowed sign painter played by the always-reliable Warren Oates. She soon finds herself under the magnetic spell of garbage “thrower” Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), despite her father’s objections to the ultimately objectionable young man. Holly cites her attraction to the sociopathic Kit to his finely honed likeness—in look and persona—to the late James Dean as well as his proto-philosophical ramblings (“Somebody dropped a bag on the sidewalk. If everybody did that, the whole town would be a mess.”) that no doubt resemble wisdom to an unworldly 15-year-old girl whose sphere of influence had never extended beyond small towns in Texas and South Dakota.

Kit and Holly provide a visual yin to the other's yang on their first meeting.

Kit and Holly provide a visual yin to the other’s yang on their first meeting.

Having procured a cheap revolver, Kit removes the obstacle to life with Holly by killing Mr. Sargis, leaving the underaged girl with no one to guide her through life except Kit. From the start, he provides several opportunities for her to leave him (“If you wanna call the police, that’s fine, just won’t be so hot for me,”), but she “sensed that her destiny now lay with Kit, for better or worse.” The couple then embarks on their nomadic life with a seemingly idyllic start of self-isolation in the woods until they’re forced out to begin leaving their bloody trail across the Great Plains that results in their inevitable capture.

I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess, just not this big of one… takes all kinds, though.

What’d He Wear?

Terrence Malick told Beverly Walker for Sight and Sound in 1975 that he “tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum” to avoid a sense of nostalgia overwhelming the plot, though the film deserves credit for costuming Martin Sheen in the appropriate generation of Levi’s trucker jacket, dressing Kit Carruthers in the “Type 2” pattern introduced in 1953 rather than the modern “Type 3” that has remained the Levi’s standard since its 1967 introduction. Aware of his image, Kit would have been aware that the King himself, Elvis Presley, was often photographed in this style of Levi’s jacket.

BADLANDS

This jacket’s official designation is the Levi’s 507XX as the “Type 2” nomenclature was added retrospectively as enthusiasts sought to explore the history and evolution of this all-American outerwear. Introduced in 1953 alongside the brand’s two-sided “red tab”, this short, boxy-fitting jacket was the first revised issue of the denim jacket that Levi’s had introduced in 1906 as the 506XX, though the earlier jacket went through several design evolutions of its own before the 507XX was developed.

The 507XX maintained the basic structure and style of its predecessor, though it added a second chest pocket for two pointed-bottom patch pockets, each closing through a single-button flap and positioned at mid-chest rather than the higher positioning of the modern trucker jackets. They have five silver-finished iron rivet buttons and horizontal buttonholes. Extending down from the horizontal front yoke to the waistband, there are two forward-facing pleats closely placed on each side of the placket; the pleats are overlaid by three top-stitched rectangles on each side of the placket, all with the signature “lemon yellow” threading present throughout. (By cutting open these rectangles, the outer set of pleats could be expanded to give a wearer even more room inside the jacket.)

"It okay, me leaning on your Willys here?

“It okay, me leaning on your Willys here?

Consistent with the modernization practices of their jeans, the 507XX also did away with the 506XX’s cinch-back and replaced it with the more modern button-tab waist adjusters that are still present on trucker jackets today, including the most recent iteration of the Levi’s jacket. These short tabs fasten to one of two buttons. The back has a deep outward-facing pleat on each side, extending down from the horizontal top yoke to the waistband. Both pleats gently taper toward the center, creating a keystone-like effect on the back of the jacket. Each sleeve also closes with a single button on the cuff.

Clad in his Levi's 507XX jacket, Kit surveys the Montana badlands behind him. Note his revolver, pocketed in the back of his jeans.

Clad in his Levi’s 507XX jacket, Kit surveys the Montana badlands behind him. Note his revolver, pocketed in the back of his jeans.

You can read a comprehensive and well-illustrated history of the 507XX written by Louter for Long John, including references to Badlands. Denim expert Albert Muzquiz also included the Type 2 in his exploration for Primer, adding the insight that the “507XX” refers to its original shrink-to-fit denim construction that had been phased out by the 1960s. Although the 507XX was ostensibly replaced by the “Type 3” 557XX in 1967, this “Type 2” style was revived by Levi’s for their Vintage Clothing line. Heddels also offers a guide for dating and valuing vintage Levi’s denim jackets from across all three generations.

Kit is such a fan of his 507XX that he sometimes wears the jacket as its own shirt, foregoing his undershirt and lounging in his forest hideout wearing just jacket and jeans.

In what would become a signature move for Martin Sheen, seen with his work jackets in Wall Street and even his presidential suit jackets on The West Wing, Kit “flips” the jacket on over his head, a two-second trick that slips both arms into the jacket at once. The actor developed this habit to accommodate the limited movement in his left arm and shoulder, which he explained was damaged by forceps during his birth and left him with a “withered” left arm that grew to be three inches shorter than his right arm.

(Yes, I once tried to do this with a suit jacket and my glasses flew out of my breast pocket and I spent the next three minutes asking my co-workers to be careful while I looked for my glasses, immediately nullifying any potential of looking cool while executing Sheen’s maneuver.)

Evidently a brand loyalist, Kit wears Levi’s 501XX jeans in a dark blue denim just a shade darker than his jacket. These button-fly “Original Fit” jeans have the signature Levi’s red tab along the inside of the back right pocket.

The middle belt loop on the back is centered on the seat seam, suggesting that Sheen’s screen-worn jeans were likely made after 1964 as Levi’s had offset this belt loop to be positioned aside this seam from 1947 until then, according to Mads Jakobsen’s informative guide to the history of vintage Levi’s 501 jeans for Heddels. I hesitate to call this an anachronism as it’s such an esoteric detail in an otherwise period-perfect costume, but it’s nonetheless worth noting in the spirit of comprehensiveness.

Evidently not a sports fan.

Evidently not a sports fan.

Kit wears a well-worn dark brown leather belt with a tarnished brass D-shaped single-prong buckle.

BADLANDS

Kit further cultivates his James Dean image by exclusively wearing a white cotton T-shirt with a crew neck and short sleeves, not unlike Dean’s famous undershirt in Rebel Without a Cause.

"Just thought I'd come over and say hello to you. I'd try anything once."

“Just thought I’d come over and say hello to you. I’d try anything once.”

“Least nobody can get on me about wearin’ these boots anymore,” he comments to Holly about starting his new job as a cowboy after he was fired from the garbage company. Indeed, these distinctive black-and-white boots were part of our introduction to Kit, as he marveled over a dead dog in an alleyway and challenged his pal Cato to eat it for a dollar. I wouldn’t know the best place to start looking for boots like these—though Kit would likely be flattered to know that anyone wants them—other than starting with the “exotic boots” segment at Boot Barn or Country Outfitter.

For some boots in the same spirit at Kit’s, check out these black Corral boots with white python skin inlay, the python Dan Post boots with black stitched shafts, or these Moonshine Spirit stingray boots. If you’re seeking mule ears, your selection is a little more limited but these all-black COWS® “shotgun” boots or these customizable Gladiator “shooter” boots could suit your purposes.

Kit’s boots appear to be constructed in a base of black leather, with white leather overlaid on the toe caps, heel counters, and the shafts, all decoratively stenciled out to reveal the black underneath though they remain black over the insteps. These boots have flapped “mule ears” on the sides, decorated in a coordinating black-and-white stitched design, that hearken back to the days of Old West gunfighters who reportedly would pull on their tall boots by these loose, mule ear-shaped flaps. Kit’s boots are soled in hard black leather with low heels.

Kit's distinctive boots give his dance steps additional flavor.

Kit’s distinctive boots give his dance steps additional flavor.

For one brief scene early in Kit and Holly’s courtship, he wears a light blue classic chambray work shirt, one of the rare times he diverges from his usual daily attire and arguably the “dressiest” thing he wears. The shirt has two flapped chest pockets and white buttons up the front placket and on the cuffs of its long sleeves, worn rolled up his forearms.

Aside from an expertise with firearms and a casual reference to what kids eat in Korea, little about Kit suggests any sort of military experience and it’s likely that he picked up this naval-style work shirt secondhand or from a civilian manufacturer. The unprecedented number of servicemen who returned home after World War II saw a boom in the military work-wear they brought home, and American outfitters began manufacturing garments like leather flight jackets, khaki chinos, and chambray work shirts for the civilian market.

Holly carries Kit's jacket for him as he walks beside her in a rarely seen chambray shirt.

Holly carries Kit’s jacket for him as he walks beside her in a rarely seen chambray shirt.

A strong proponent of denim, Kit spends much of his life in the wilderness with Holly wearing a pair of jeans cut off above the knees to become a handmade pair of the now oft-derided “jorts”. Judging by the arcuate stitching on the back pockets, these were likely modified from another pair of Levi’s 501 jeans.

Gone fishin'.

Gone fishin’.

“Originally, there was a hat involved,” Sheen recalled in a recent interview. “[Malick] wanted me to wear a cowboy hat, a Texan kind of hat. That was the hardest piece of wardrobe to come up with. We went to a lot of different stores… trying to find a hat that would work. We were in a particular store, and Terry was trying on all these kinds of cowboy hats — some of them were straw, some of them were felt, cotton, whatever — and I would try a hat and he’d say, ‘No, no that wouldn’t work, let’s try this, Martin.’ I’d say ‘Okay,’ and I’d put another one on, then another one, and it just wasn’t working, and finally he said ‘I hope you don’t mind, but it seems that your IQ drops considerably when you put on a hat.’ And I said ‘Enough said,’ and I’ve never worn a hat since.”

Despite Sheen’s hesitation in the face of Malick’s criticism, a cowboy hat did make its way into Kit Carruthers’ wardrobe early in the film, seen only twice: once when working as a cowboy (the best time to wear a cowboy hat) and again during a moment of isolation in the woods with Holly. The light natural straw cowboy hat has a cattleman-style crown and a narrow leather band.

Relaxing in cowboy hat and boots in a pose reminiscent of his hero James Dean on the set of Giant, Kit casts a furtive glance around while poring through a National Geographic... as if reading a magazine was the only thing he had to feel guilty about.

Relaxing in cowboy hat and boots in a pose reminiscent of his hero James Dean on the set of Giant, Kit casts a furtive glance around while poring through a National Geographic… as if reading a magazine was the only thing he had to feel guilty about.

After holding the wealthy Mr. Scarborough and his deaf maid hostage for hours in their upscale home, Kit grabs two items from the man’s foyer—a Panama hat and a seersucker jacket that both he and Holly would wear over the course of the film’s final act—before additionally taking the man’s Cadillac as well.

Why are these items so important to Kit and the image he continues to build for himself? The answer makes itself evident in Malick’s below testimony for Sight and Sound:

Kit doesn’t see himself as anything sad or pitiable, but as a subject of incredible interest, to himself and to future generations. Like Holly, like a child, he can only really believe in what’s going on inside him. Death, other people’s feelings, the consequences of his actions—they’re all sort of abstract for him. He thinks of himself as a successor to James Dean—a rebel without a cause—when in reality he’s more like an Eisenhower conservative. “Consider the minority opinion,” he says into the rich man’s tape recorder, “but try to get along with the majority opinion once it’s accepted.” He doesn’t really believe any of this, but he envies the people who do, who can. He wants to be like them, like the rich man he locks in the closet, the only man he doesn’t kill, the only man he sympathizes with, and the one least in need of sympathy. It’s not infrequently the people at the bottom who most vigorously defend the very rules that put and keep them there.

The blue-and-white railroad-striped seersucker cotton jacket has narrow notch lapels, a double white button front closure, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, plain cuffs with no buttons or vents, and a single back vent.

Evidently feeling gentlemanly in his [stolen] jacket and hat, Kit stops to open Holly's [stolen] car door for even with his hands full [of stolen goods].

Evidently feeling gentlemanly in his [stolen] jacket and hat, Kit stops to open Holly’s [stolen] car door for even with his hands full [of stolen goods].

“By the end of the film, Kit’s self-mythology has blended with a full-on celebrity status earned through killing,” wrote filmmaker Michael Almereyda in an essay included with the Criterion Collection edition of Badlands. Carefully cultivating his image when he knows his capture is imminent, Kit dons the Panama hat he liberated from the home of the “rich man”, fires a round into the front tire of the same man’s Cadillac, and awaits the arrival of the police.

The fine straw Panama hat has a grosgrain with seven balanced stripes that alternate between royal blue and white.

"I'll kiss your ass if he don't look like James Dean," remarks the deputy after taking in Kit's appearance. It's just what the young criminal wanted to hear.

“I’ll kiss your ass if he don’t look like James Dean,” remarks the deputy after taking in Kit’s appearance. It’s just what the young criminal wanted to hear.

The swaggering deputy, Tom (Alan Vint), grabs Kit’s Panama hat and flings it out of the car, sending the hat and its striped grosgrain band scattering over the road. “You tossed my hat out the window,” Kit observes. “Wanna sue?” the sheriff responds. “No.”

What to Listen to

Although the world takes their multiple murders and crimes seriously, Terrence Malick sought to portray Kit and Holly’s reactions to their own actions as living in a fairy tale, achieving this effect by generously scoring much of their life in hiding with the light “Gassenhauer nach Hans Neusiedler (1536)”, composed by Carl Orff’s collaborator Gunild Keetman as part of Orff’s Schulwerk approach, a modern arrangement of a 1536 work by German Renaissance ludelist Hans Neusidler.

As performed by George Tipton, Badlands popularized this particular piece, which would find widespread use across other movies like True Romance and Monster as well as on television shows and commercials.

“Gassenhauer” wasn’t the only track that would go on to be prominently used in other movies. A brief vignette depicts Kit and Holly spending their idyllic life in the woods dancing to Mickey & Sylvia’s 1956 call-and-response pop hit “Love Is Strange”. Though the song had also been featured the previous year in Deep ThroatBadlands was likely the first mainstream movie to include “Love Is Strange”, years before it would become famous on the soundtracks of Dirty Dancing and Casino.

“Hey, don’t touch that, it’s Nat King Cole!” Kit admonishes Holly as she moves to change the radio station during their nighttime drive into Montana. Kit pulls the Cadillac over and they dance in ints headlights to “A Blossom Fell”, Cole’s 1955 single. “Boy if I could sing a song like that,” Kit observes admiringly, “it’d be a hit.” (Despite his appreciation for Nat King Cole, Kit later explains to his captors that his favorite singer is Eddie Fisher.)

For additional Badlands flavor:

  • A rare instrumental version of James Taylor’s “Migration” served as a secondary theme throughout the movie.
  • Martin Sheen recalled that he was listening to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” during an early morning drive on the PCH when he knew that he was “going to play the part of my life” by accepting the role in Badlands.
  • Both the movie and the real-life incidents inspired Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska, specifically its leading title track “Nebraska” told from Charles Starkweather’s perspective.

The Cars

Kit’s matte black 1951 Mercury Sport Coupe is a direct extension of his James Dean self-image, a reflection of the ’49 Merc that Dean made famous in Rebel Without a Cause and a stand-in for the blue 1949 Ford two-door sedan driven by Charles Starkweather in real life, which he painted black following his murder of Robert Colvert in December 1957. The 1951 Mercury Eight was the last model year of the same generation that began with the ’49.

The Mercury Eight had launched as the line’s debut model when Edsel Ford introduced the Mercury marque in 1938 to bridge the gap between Ford and Lincoln. As the first Mercury produced following World War II, the distinctive “ponton” appearance of the 1949-1951 generation successfully distinguished the Mercury from its Ford sister model, which offered the same 255 cubic-inch “flathead” V8 albeit with slightly less power than the Mercury. The Mercury Eight would be replaced by the re-styled Mercury Monterey alongside the Mercury Custom fro the 1952 model year. (You can see more of Kit’s Mercury at IMCDB.)

Kit's Mercury.

Kit’s Mercury.

Kit briefly abandons the Mercury at Cato’s home, stealing a 1949 Studebaker Champion Starlight De Luxe from the two teens he locked in the cellar and shot at. Their fate is left unknown, but this incident paralleled Starkweather’s brutal double murder of teens Robert Jensen and Carol King, who had stopped to offer Starkweather and Fugate a ride and ended up shot to death in a Bennet, Nebraska storm cellar, not far from where Starkweather had previously filled family friend August Meyer.

The teal two-door Studebaker is an older but slightly more premium upgraded ride for Kit and Holly with its unique wraparound “greenhouse” rear window. Though stylish in its design, the Studebaker may have disappointed a motorhead like Kit with its underpowered straight-six engine producing only 80 horsepower as opposed to the 112 horsepower generated by his Mercury V8. However, the Mercury was also nearly 1000 pounds heavier than the Studebaker so it’s possible that the lighter car may have sprinted faster even with a less powerful motor. (You can see more angles of this Studebaker at IMCDB.)

Kit greets two teens pulling up to Cato's spread in a Studebaker.

Kit greets two teens pulling up to Cato’s spread in a Studebaker.

Kit acquires his third and final car, a shining black 1959 Cadillac Series 62 coupe, from the home of the wealthy Mr. Scarborough (John Carter), the film’s stand-in for the real-life C. Lauer Ward who was a Starkweather victim in January 1958 in addition to his wife Clara, their maid Lillian Fencl, and the family dog. After Starkweather murdered the residents of the household, he and Fugate drove off in Mrs. Ward’s black 1956 Packard.

Kit and Holly feed the Cadillac with drip gas as they speed out of South Dakota into the Montana badlands. (If you look closely, you can see the Cadillac has an anachronistic inspection sticker that expires in December 1972.) After the cars he’s been used to, Kit had to be impressed by the Cadillac’s 390 cubic-inch OHV V8 engine, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and offering an output of 325 horsepower. (You can see more of Mr. Scarborough’s Cadillac at IMCDB.)

Interestingly, the long black two-door American coupe shares many qualities with Kit’s entry-level Merc, perhaps illustrating that he’s come as close as possible to living his own self-image by the end. Kit’s always had access to the downgraded versions of this lifestyle, but now he’s cruising in a Cadillac wearing a fine Panama hat rather than motoring his Mercury with a cheaper straw cowboy hat. Having achieved his goal and likely aware that he can’t do any better, he’s ready for the ride to be over, engineering his own capture by firing a shot into the coupe’s front left wheel. By calling the game early on his own terms, Kit ensures that he can live by the ethos of living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse, often touted by James Dean as a reference to Nicholas Ray’s cinematic adaptation of the 1947 novel Knock on Any Door. (The phrase itself likely originates to J.M. O’Connor’s 1921 play “These Wild Young People” as etymologized here.)

With his acquired Panama hat and Cadillac, Kit stands beside the pile of rocks to commemorate the place where he was captured, working overtime in the hopes of cementing his own criminal legend.

With his acquired Panama hat and Cadillac, Kit stands beside the pile of rocks to commemorate the place where he was captured, working overtime in the hopes of cementing his own criminal legend.

The 1959 Cadillac exemplifies the dramatic tailfins that symbolized automotive luxury during the latter half of the fabulous fifties. While all prominent American auto manufacturers tossed their own proverbial hats into the tailfin ring, it was Cadillac that’s credited with starting the trend in the late 1940s and it was Cadillac that most famously carried it out, reaching a dramatic climax with its 1959 models with the Eldorado’s soaring 42-inch fins, illuminated by twin bullet-shaped tail lights, and standing tall above the car’s rear as a symbol of the luxurious but oft-exaggerated jet age opulence.

While some manufacturers tried to rationalize tailfins (Plymouth claimed they served the same purpose as the jet stabilizers they resembled, and Mercedes-Benz offered that they were “sight lines” for backing up), the public grew tired of the tailfin race and its associated safety concerns. Manufacturers, too, were growing displeased with the complexity and expense of tailfins and the automotive focus for the ’60s shifted from style to performance with the dawn of true American muscle.

The Series 62 would only last for one more more generation, seceded for the 1965 model year by the Calais that would be Cadillac’s entry-level model through the 1970s.

The Guns

“Got a gun here, sir,” Kit admits as he almost sheepishly pulls his revolver from the back pocket of his jeans. “Always a good idea to have one around.” Mr. Sargis no doubt agrees, having his own top-break revolver that we’ve seen him use to kill Holly’s dog, but it’s not on his person at the moment. “Suppose I shot you? How’d that be?” a crazed Kit asks when Mr. Sargis moves downstairs to call the police. “You wanna hear what it sounds like?” he fires a round into the floor, for once actually shaking the firm father, though this act only strengthens Mr. Sargis’ resolve to get Kit away from him and his daughter.

While the real Charles Starkweather almost exclusively used long arms like rifles and shotguns during his crime spree (aside from a stolen .32-caliber semi-automatic pistol for which he had no ammunition), Badlands‘ Kit Carruthers is primarily armed with a Hi-Standard Sentinel revolver, likely chambered in the smaller .22 Long Rifle round.

Driving with his finger on the trigger is consistent with Kit's reckless personality.

Driving with his finger on the trigger is consistent with Kit’s reckless personality.

The story of these budget-friendly firearms began with Swedish immigrant Carl Gustav Swebilius, who founded his company manufacturing parts for firearms in Hamden, Connecticut, in 1926. Within a few years, Swebilius purchased the Hartford Arms and Equipment Company and begin manufacturing his own .22-caliber target pistols. High Standard rose to greater prominence during World War II, providing training pistols and silenced tactical weapons for Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agents.

Kit fires a round from his Hi-Standard Sentinel into the floor to demonstrate to Holly's father that he means business.

Kit fires a round from his Hi-Standard Sentinel into the floor to demonstrate to Holly’s father that he means business.

After the war, High Standard responded to a request from their partial owners Sears, Roebuck and Company to deliver a lightweight, low-cost “kit” revolver. In 1955, High Standard delivered with a traditional double/single-action, aluminum-framed revolver with a nine-round capacity of .22 rimfire ammunition that would be branded by Sears as the J.C. Higgins Model 88 and by Western Auto as the Revelation Model 99; High Standard would also market the weapon under its own brand as the Hi-Standard Sentinel R-100.

High Standard would continue updating the weapon through the 1970s, changing the designated model number with each variant until reaching R-109. Production of this popular and portable revolver ended in 1984. (You can read more about the history of the Hi-Standard Sentinel from TINCANBANDIT here.)

As a man of limited means, Kit Carruthers would have gravitated toward a budget-friendly revolver like the Hi-Standard Sentinel. Though it’s a double-action revolver (with a reportedly smooth trigger pull), Kit tends to pull back the hammer to fire in single-action any chance he gets, including while “fishing”, giving him greater control over the weapon and thus more accurate shooting… though he still can’t successfully hit any fish.

When Badlands debuted at the close of the 1973 New York Film Festival, Malick described Kit as “so desensitized that [he] can regard the gun with which he shoots people as a kind of magic wand that eliminates small nuisances,” per Vincent Canby in his flattering contemporary review for the New York Times.

Kit sleeps flanked by firearms, his checkered-grip Savage rifle behind his head and his Hi-Standard Sentinel revolver just inches away from his hand.

Kit sleeps flanked by firearms, his checkered-grip Savage rifle behind his head and his Hi-Standard Sentinel revolver just inches away from his hand.

For hiding out in the woods, Kit keeps a Remington Model 870 pump-action shotgun as his primary defense weapon, likely standing in for the budget-friendly .410 bore Stevens Model 59A shotgun stolen from Caril Ann Fugate’s murdered stepfather by the real Charlie Starkweather and referenced in Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”:

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…

Remington had long been seeking a replacement for their aging Model 31 shotgun and hoped to compete against the popular Winchester Model 1912 by introducing its own reliable, modern, and relatively inexpensive shotgun. Introduced in 1950, the Remington Model 870 has become a quickly popular shotgun in all segments from civilian hunters and sportsmen to law enforcement and military use. In 1973, the year that Badlands was released, Remington celebrated the two-millionth Model 870 manufactured, and it’s likely that production numbers has reached at least 11 million as of 2020 including all hunting and tactical variants of the weapon.

Over its 70+ years of production, Remington has offered the Model 870 in countless varieties of gauge, shell capacity, sight configuration, construction and finish, barrel length, and more, but Kit uses a classic 12-gauge Remington Model 870 with a riot-length 18″ barrel, blued steel finish with walnut slide and full stock, and standard underbarrel magazine tube with the distinctive “X” end cap.

Slowly emerging from the ground like Captain Willard from the swamp, Kit guns down three bounty hunters with his Remington Model 870.

Slowly emerging from the ground like Captain Willard from the swamp, Kit guns down three bounty hunters with his Remington Model 870.

Kit’s rifle is a lever-action Savage Model 99R, carried for most of the couple’s crime spree and most memorably used when Kit kills his one-time pal Cato, firing a .300-caliber round straight through the man’s stomach. “Is he upset?” Holly asks of the dying man. “He didn’t say anything to me about it,” replies Kit. (The rifle used by the real Starkweather for most of his murders was a Winchester Model 1906, a takedown slide-action rifle that had been chambered only for .22-caliber rimfire rounds and was often marketed as a youth rifle across its production timeline from 1906 into the 1930s, with more than 700,000 manufactured.)

Introduced in 1899 from a design by Arthur W. Savage, the Savage 99 followed the example of its Model 1895 predecessor, which was the first hammerless lever-action rifle and utilized an innovative rotary magazine with a spring-loaded spool. The Model 99 expanded on the capabilities of this unique magazine by adding technology to see how many rounds remain, though later models replaced this with a detachable box magazine. The Savage was never officially authorized for widespread military usage, despite being an early contender for U.S. Army trials in the 1890s and a number of .303 Savage rifles being issued in “musket” form to the Montreal Home Guard during World War I. Production of the Savage 99 and its variants lasted nearly a century with the last of more than one million Model 99 rifles manufactured in 1998. You can learn more about these popular American rifles at savage99.com.

While making his final dash for freedom in Montana, Kit asks a gas attendant if he can sell him “shells for a .300 Savage,” one of at least a dozen cartridges the Model 99 was offered in, ranging from .22-250 Remington up to .375 Winchester and even including custom rifles that fired a single shot of .410 bore shotgun ammunition. Kit’s screen-used Savage can be identified as the 99R model by its raised-ramp front sight, round-ended forearm, checkered grip, and steel shotgun-style buttplate.

Martin Sheen recalled that this memorable brief vignette of Kit with his Savage rifle was essentially an impulse, captured while Terrence Malick was driving through Colorado looking for filming locations. Malick manned the camera himself, as he reportedly often did during the production of Badlands.

Martin Sheen recalled that this memorable brief vignette of Kit with his Savage rifle was essentially an impulse, captured while Terrence Malick was driving through Colorado looking for filming locations. Malick manned the camera himself, as he reportedly often did during the production of Badlands.

What to Imbibe

For their feast of Spam and beans at Cato’s home, Kit and Cato each drink from bottles of Grain Belt beer. Brewed in Minnesota, this Midwest regional beer also appeared in the hands of the two hapless kidnappers in Fargo (1996) as well as on the pages of William Least Heat-Moon’s fantastic American travelogue, Blue Highways, described as the brew of choice of an aspiring sports announcer in a Bagley, Minnesota, tavern.

Beer, beans, and potted meat. Nothing but the good life for Kit Carruthers.

Beer, beans, and potted meat. Nothing but the good life for Kit Carruthers.

Two years after the merger that created the Minneapolis Brewing Company in 1891, the traditional German-style lager Grain Belt Golden was introduced on the market. During its first half-century in production, the regional favorite encountered many of the same tribulations as American breweries including an extended hiatus due to Prohibition, followed a decade later by wartime rationing, but it enjoyed a postwar boom with the introduction of Grain Belt Premium in 1947. The company fell into decline over the last quarter of the 20th century, but the Grain Belt brand was revived by the August Schell Brewing Company of New Ulm and continues to enjoy popularity across generations in the Midwest.

Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers in Badlands (1973)

Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers in Badlands (1973)

How to Get the Look

Kit Carruthers aims to fit the mold of a rebellious James Dean-type, incidentally creating his own iconic image in the simple but enduring outfit of vintage Levi’s jacket and jeans with boots that establish him as “quite the individual,” in the words of a lawman who brings him in.

  • Dark blue shrink-to-fit denim Levi’s 507XX “Type 2” trucker jacket
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve T-shirt
  • Dark blue denim Levi’s 501XX button-fly jeans
  • Dark brown leather belt with dulled brass single-prong D-shape buckle
  • Black-and-white “mule ear” Western-styled boots

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The actual life and despicable crimes of the real Charlie Starkweather are far worse than the events presented in Badlands, and I recommend Michael Newton’s book Waste Land for those interested in learning about the inspiration for the story.

The Gallery

This post is already loaded with plenty of shots highlighting Rosanna Norton’s memorable costume design, Jack Fisk’s thoughtful art direction, and the sublime cinematography, but I couldn’t help but to add a few more scattered here that didn’t have a place above but serve to further illustrate Kit’s outfit and the overall tone of Badlands.

The Quote

I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m kinda lucky that way.

 

 

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