The Dark, True, & Very Real Story Behind Badlands

Neither Charles Starkweather nor his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate would have ever dreamed that the story of their life, though brief, would inspire films that would showcase the rebellious temperament of young people at that time, the emergence of rock n roll, and divergence from traditional values.

Martin Sheen / Caril Ann Fugate, Charles Starkweather / Caril Ann Fugate / Sissy Spacek.
Source: Getty Images

Some criminals draw inspiration from films, and some films are made based on the lives of criminals (The Godfather series is a prime example). What we have in Badlands is the story based on the life of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.

Here’s the story…

The Childhood Days of Charles Starkweather

Charles Starkweather was born in 1938 to Guy and Helen. Guy worked as a carpenter, and Helen was a waitress. Though the family was poor, they managed somehow. Charles was the third in a line of seven children.

A portrait of Charles Starkweather.
Charles Starkweather. Source: Pinterest

Ever since his childhood days, Charles was nearsighted, unable to read the top letter on the eye charts. He was also bow-legged and had a speech impediment. It was believed he was a slow learner, but his poor eyesight was the culprit.

Charles Is Bullied and Then Becomes a Bully

Due to his physical attributes, Charles was often bullied at school. However, he started working out in a gym and improved his physique to good effect, giving him increased self-confidence.

A photo of Charles in prison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

From a bullied child, he became a bully himself, often bullying those who had earlier bullied him. Perhaps the future course of action was laid during these school days. It was only a matter of time until things went awry.

Charles Is Inspired by Actor James Dean and Drops Out of School

At this time, he watched the movie Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. He became obsessed with the actor. He started imitating Dean in his clothes and mannerisms. He even looked a bit like Dean.

A portrait of James Dean.
Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When he was 16, Charles dropped out of high school. He took up a job as a truck unloader at the Western Union Newspaper warehouse. He chose this job because the warehouse was close to where his new girlfriend Caril’s junior high school was located.

Charles Meets and Falls in Love with Caril Ann Fugate

Barbara, Caril Ann’s sister, was the girlfriend of one of his best friends. She introduced Charles to Caril Ann Fugate, who was 13. He was 18. They fell madly in love with each other. She simply adored him and became his partner in his escapades.

A dated picture of Charles and Caril Ann.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He started teaching her how to drive. One day, while driving, she crashed his 1949 Ford. Charles’ father, Guy, the car’s legal owner, came to know of it and threw him out of his house. Charles then left his job at the warehouse and became a garbage collector.

Charles Tries to Buy a Gift for Caril and Is Thrown Out of the Store

Charles was 19 years of age in 1957 when he committed his first murder that year. He went to a gas station owned by Robert Colvert to buy a stuffed dog toy for Caril. He wanted to give her a gift to show his love.

An image of Charles' arrest.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He did not have enough money, and Colvert threw him out of the store. This probably lit a fuse in Charles, who vowed to exact revenge for the refusal.

Charles Kills the Store Manager

He returned to the store at 3 AM the next day with a shotgun. First, he bought a pack of cigarettes, and the second time he bought a pack of chewing gum. The third time he came in dressed in a bandanna and a hat. He held Colvert at gunpoint and forced him to open the safe.

A photo of Charles in prison.
Photo by Carl Iwasaki/Getty Images

He then made Colvert get into his own car, drove him to a remote area, and shot and killed him with the shotgun. He told Caril about the robbery but not about the murder.

Charles Loses His Job and Goes to Caril’s Family

Charles lost his job as a garbage collector, and he could not pay his rent, so he was evicted. This is where fate took its hand. On January 21, 1958, he went to the Fugate family home with a rifle and ammunition. No one knows what his intentions were.

A picture of an investigator at the crime scene.
Photo by Carl Iwasaki/Getty Images

Caril came home to find that Charles had shot and killed her stepfather, Marion Bartlett, and her mother, Velda Bartlett. Charles then went on to kill her infant half-sister, Betty Jean, while Caril watched. She then became an accomplice in this and future crimes.

Charles and Caril Hole Up at the Fugate Family Home

Charles and Caril holed up at the Fugate family home for several days following the killing. They refused to let visitors enter and even put up a sign that the family was infected with flu. The bodies were still inside the house.

A photo of Caril Ann Fugate.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Charles and Caril lived in the house for nearly a week but fled the scene when the Police arrived in response to a call from Caril’s grandmother. They would go on a killing spree from here on, a string of murders that would shock the nation.

Caril’s Grandmother Becomes Suspicious and Calls the Police

Caril’s grandmother became suspicious and called the Police. The Police arrived at the scene of the crime on January 27. What they found was shocking, to say the least.

A picture of Caril drinking from a glass bottle.
Source: Wikipedia

They found the bodies of Marion Bartlett, aged 57, and his 35-year-old wife, Velda, in an outbuilding. Betty Jean, the baby, was stuffed inside a cardboard box. Charles and Caril had evidently fled the crime scene.

Charles and Caril Make Their Way to a Farm in Nebraska and Kill More People

By the time the Police arrived, Charles and Caril had already made their way to a farm in Benet, Nebraska. There, they killed the owner, August Meyer, and fled. Meyer, aged 72, was a friend of the Starkweather family.

An image of Caril's arrest.
Source: Journal Star

The killing came easy to Charles. It was as easy as pointing a gun and pulling the trigger. Next, they hitched a ride with two teenagers, Robert Jensen, 17, and Carol King, 16. They forced the two to drive to an abandoned storm shelter and killed them, after which they fled again using Jensen’s car.

Charles and Caril Kill C. Lauer Ward in Lincoln

The bodies of Jensen and Carol King were found along with the car abandoned by Charles. Charles and Caril went to Lincoln to the home of a wealthy industrialist C. Lauer Ward. However, only his wife and their maid, Lillian Fenci, were at home. Charles stabbed and killed Clara and the household’s two dogs, after which he forced Fenci to make breakfast for them.

A picture of Jensen and Carol King.
Jensen, Carol King. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

When Ward returned home that afternoon, he was shot to death. Fenci, too, was killed. The duo departed in the Packard owned by Ward. This was when things began getting tight for the murderous duo.

A Full-Scale Manhunt Is Launched

The bodies were found, and then the Police launched a full-scale manhunt. They went searching from house to house, and they even called in the National Guard and the FBI.

A still of Sissy Spacek in a scene from Badlands.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

The mayor of Lincoln announced a reward of $1000 for finding the killers. Charles and Caril came to know about this and abandoned the Packard, realizing that it could lead to their being caught.

Charles and Caril Kill Merle Collision

They needed a vehicle to travel, so they zeroed in on Merle Collison, a traveling salesman who owned a Buick, and decided to steal his car when they chanced upon him sleeping in it on the side of the road in Douglas, Wyoming.

A still of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek standing next to a car in a scene from Badlands.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

They woke him, shot him, and attempted to drive away in his vehicle. However, Charles forgot to release the parking brake. The car would not start when he attempted to move it. Things got worse from here on.

An Altercation Attracts the Attention of the Deputy Sheriff

When Charles could not move the Buick, a passerby offered to help. However, Charles threatened him with a knife. This caught the attention of William Romer, the deputy sheriff on duty who happened to be close by.

A close-up portrait of Caril Ann during the trial.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Romer radioed for backup as he went after Charles, who went back to the Packard and started driving it towards Douglas. Caril, meanwhile, got out of the car and was yelling that Charles had killed someone.

The Police apprehend Charles

The police car chased Charles’ Packard, just as it happens in the movies. And, just as it happens in the movies, the Police opened fire at the Packard, which then stopped in the middle of the road.

An image of Charles arriving at court after his arrest.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The bullet had gone through the windshield and had grazed Charles’ ear. However, he believed he was badly hit and needed medical attention, which was why he had stopped. The Police arrested Charles and his girlfriend Caril on the spot.

Charles Gets Sentenced to Death

The duo was tried in Nebraska. Charles changed his statement several times, asserting finally that Caril was a willing accomplice in his murder spree. She claimed she was held hostage, but the jury and judge did not believe her because she had ample chances to escape.

A picture of the jury on Charles' trial.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Charles was found guilty and was executed on June 25, 1959, in an electric chair. Caril received a life sentence. A violent life comes to an end. His body count reached nine.

Charles Shows No Remorse at All

What is so astounding about the entire episode is their attitude toward Charles about everything he had done. It was representative of the culture he had grown up in.

Charles poses for his mugshot.
Source: Nebraska State Penitentiary

Even when he was brought into the courthouse, he was chewing gum and smoking cigarettes. There was absolutely no sign of remorse in him. Shooting someone cold-bloodedly was just one of those things, a progression to the way of life he was attuned to.

Caril Serves Her Sentence and Gets Released

Caril was perhaps the youngest to have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Before she was released on good behavior, she spent 17 years at the Nebraska correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska.

A picture of Caril at the police station.
Source: Pinterest

She was released from prison in 1976 and went on to live in Michigan with a family who had befriended her. Later, she worked in a hospital in Lansing for 20 years as a medical technician and janitorial assistant.

Caril Meets Fredrick Clair and Marries Him

Caril apparently met her future husband, Fredrick Clair, at the age of 63 at a casino while she was working in Lansing. They got married in 2007. Clair was retired but had owned a grocery store and also ran a radio station.

A picture of Caril after her time in prison.
Photo by Denver Post/Getty Images

They lived happily for several years. When she was 70 and Clair was about 81, they were driving in a car when it crashed on August 6, 2013. Her husband was killed on the Northbound Interstate 69 in Calhoun County. She was badly injured but recuperated. She is leading a retired life.

It Is 1972, and Terrence Malick Starts Filming Badlands

The story of Starkweather would have been dead and buried were it not for Terrence Malick, a 28-year-old ex-MIT philosophy instructor and Rhodes Scholar who based the script of Badlands on this story and started filming it.

A movie still of Martin Sheen in a scene from Badlands.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

Terrence raised $250,000 and hired a TV actor, Martin Sheen, to play the role of Kit Carruthers. Sissy Spacek, an untrained, unknown actress and one-time folk singer was roped in to play the role of Holly Sargis. The story was (loosely) based on that of Charles and Caril’s.

The Cast of Badlands

Apart from Sheen and Spacek in the lead roles, other actors played important people’s roles in the real story. Warren Oates starred as her father. Ramon Bieri acts as Cato. Alan Vint is the Deputy. Gary Littlejohn is the sheriff. John Carter is the rich man. Dona Baldwin plays the maid, and Ben Bravo is the gas station manager or attendant.

A still from the arrest scene in Badlands.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

Then there are other minor actors, such as Gail Threlkeld as Girl, Charley Fitzpatrick as Clerk, and Sheen’s sons, Charlie and Emilio Estevez, who appear as two boys sitting under a lamp post outside Holly’s house.

Shooting Badlands Is Not Plain Sailing

Badlands was Terrence’s directorial debut, and it was not plain sailing. He started working on the film after his second year of pursuing a course at the American Film Institute. He prepared a sales kit with slides and videos of actors to persuade investors. Malick put in $25,000 of his own funds, with the rest from doctors and other professionals.

A promotional still of Badlands.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

The shooting was not easy. Malick, usually a mild-mannered man, got into arguments and brutalized his crew which was turned over at least twice. A special effects man was burned in an accident. The shooting ran on, and crew members quit.

Ten Months in the Editing Room for Badlands

Prolonged filming is one thing. Editing was equally time-consuming due to the passionate involvement of Terrence. Terrence Malick spent ten months in the editing room before Badlands was finalized for release.

A still from the film.
Source: Copyright: Warner Bros.

In the end, it went on to become a classic, launching the careers of Sheen, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, producer Edward Pressman, art director Jack Fisk and, of course, Sissy Spacek.

Badlands Stands Out and Wins Awards

Warner Bros bought and distributed the movie for just under $1 million, and it was screened at several theaters. The public’s reception was a bit cool, but there were greater things in store for this Malick masterpiece.

A photo of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek behind the scenes.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The 1973 New York Film festival featured Badlands as the closing feature film, and it overshadowed Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Spacek would go on to earn a BAFTA award nomination for her role as Holly Sargis. Sheen won the best actor award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

An Unusually Creative Approach Earns Rave Reviews for Badlands

Badlands had a very appealing music score. However, what earned it rave reviews was that it was perceived as a film rich in ideas, fusing pop culture with a story of love and death interwoven into the Midwestern community life, banal and breathtaking in the same sweep.

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are standing in an open field in a scene from the film.
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

In what is a departure from the normal, instead of focusing on thrills, chases, and climax, Malick used the canvas to depict a story, show moments of intimacy and the empty vacuum inside the main protagonist. It is also different from a nasal voice-over of Holly.

The Greatest and Most Influential Films of All Time

Malick’s Badlands would go on to be termed the greatest and the most influential films of all time. The Library of Congress chose to preserve Badlands in 1993 for being culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.

A close-up of Sissy Spacek in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

It is wonderful the way Malick depicted Kit and Holly as self-absorbed, cruel, and psychotic children, a product of the age and the times. It is not just Malick’s treatment of the story or the cinematography that stands out; music played a stellar role in the effect of the film on the audiences.

Malick Did Not Make Another Film for Years

After their debut success, other directors would go on to make one film after another. However, Terrence Malick, for reasons not clear, chose to retreat into a shell. His next film, Days of Heaven, premiered only in 1978.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

Thereafter he would go off the horizon for 20 years before returning with The Thin Red Line in 1998, for which he was nominated for the Best Director and the Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. He would go on to win the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival. But what about other members of the cast?

Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez, aka Martin Sheen, the Hero

Martin Sheen was doing bit roles before he was picked to play Kit Carruthers, possibly since he resembled James Dean, an actor that Charles Starkweather admired. Badlands would prove to be the turning point in his acting career.

A still of Martin Sheen in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

Sheen won the Best Actor award at the San Sebastian International Film festival for his role as Kit Carruthers in Badlands. He then went on to act in Apocalypse Now as Captain Willard, for which he earned a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor.

Martin Sheen Gets Into the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Martin Sheen then worked for a number of leading directors with hits to their credit. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989, a Golden Globe, and two Screen Actors Guild awards. He also played the role of Uncle Ben in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Martin Sheen speaks during an interview.
Source: Getty Images

Sheen has had a successful life starring in several films. He also has been active in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience and is a strong public activist in liberal causes. He is an Honorary Trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum.

Sissy Spacek’s Career Takes off after Badlands

After Badlands, Sissy Spacek’s career really took off. She played Carrie White in Carrie, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress award. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

A photo of Sissy Spacek posing backstage at the Oscars.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Spacek went on to play roles that won her Oscar nominations, and she also received Primetime Emmy Award nominations. She also recorded vocals for Coal Miner’s Daughter, which ranked at No. 2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart and won a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

A Successful and Eventful Life for Sissy Spacek

She acted in films, TV shows, and recorded albums, winning accolades. She even went on to publish her memoir, My Extraordinary Life, in 2012, a down-to-earth account of her eventful, event-filled life.

Sissy Spacek attends an event.
Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage/Getty Images

Spacek enjoys the unique distinction of having aced in films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in each of the past four decades. She married Jack Fisk in 1974, and they have two daughters, Schuyler and Madison. The family moved to a farm in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1982, and she still acts, the last role being as Irene York in Night Sky in 2022.

Ramon Bieri, aka Cato of Badlands Fame

Ramon Bieri played the role of Cato, a friend, and co-worker of Kit in the film Badlands. Kit and Holly seek refuge with Cato, but Kit shoots him when he tries to call for help. It was not a big role, but Ramon would go on to act on TV and in films.

A still of Ramon Bieri as Cato.
Source: YouTube

Ramon Bieri played the role of Joe Wabash in the NBC sitcom Joe’s World from 1979 to 1980. He also played in a couple of other TV shows. Apart from Badlands, he also acted in The Sicilian, The Grasshopper, reds, and The Andromeda Strain.

Ramon Bieri Died in 2001 of Cancer at the age of 71

Ramon Bieri had a fairly successful life as an actor and was busy on TV, in films, and as a guest on many TV shows like Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Little House on the Prairie, and others.

A studio portrait of Ramon Bieri.
Source: YouTube

Unfortunately for Ramon, he was never nominated for any awards even though he played interesting parts in films like True Grit: A Further Adventure, The Sicilian, and Ghosts of Mississippi. He died of Cancer at the age of 71 in 2001.

Warren Oates, Holly’s Father in Badlands

Warren Oates was already an established actor when he landed the role of Holly’s father in Badlands, a relatively minor role. He had worked in The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and In the Heat of the Night.

A still of Warren Oates in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

As officer Sam Wood in In The Heat of the Night, Oates’ performance received praises. The Hired Hand, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Dillinger were some of his 1970s films to earn him critical acclaim. Mostly, he worked in Westerns, playing the role of the bad guy.

Warren Oates Passed Away In 1982

Warren Oates got along famously with Peckinpah and starred in several films, of which the 1971 film, Two-Lane Blacktop, went on to become a cult classic, studied in film schools. Critics are of the opinion that he should have won an Oscar for his performance.

A dated portrait of Warren Oates.
Photo by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images

A busy and fulfilling career came to a close in 1982. He came down with influenza and died of a heart attack on April 3, 1982, while having an afternoon nap at his Los Angeles home. Richard Linklater gave the best obituary anyone could wish for: “Because there once was a god who walked the Earth named Warren Oates.”

Alan Vint, the Deputy in Badlands

Alan Vint usually worked as a character actor and played supporting roles in popular films like The McMasters, Two-Lane Blacktop (with Warren Oates), Breakout, The Lady in Red, Breakout, etc. He was born on November 11, 1944.

A portrait of Alan Vint at the time.
Photo by American International Pictures/Getty Images

Long before he landed the role of the Deputy in Badlands, he had worked in films like The McMasters in 1970, The Panic in Needle Park in 1971, Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971, and others. Badlands was a stop along the way in his acting career, with great films to follow.

Alan Vint Passed Away in 2006

Unlike other character actors, Alan was not involved in working in several films simultaneously. For instance, after Breakout in 1975, his next film was Checkered Flag or Crashed in 1977. The next one was The Lady in Red in 1979.

A portrait of Alan Vint.
Source: Pinterest

Alan married Susan Mullen and had three daughters, Kelly, Kate, and Megan, all of whom went on to become actors. The couple eventually divorced. Alan’s final film was Malevolence in 1999. He passed away on August 16, 2006.

Badlands, A Landmark in Filmography

Badlands stands out as a landmark in filmography, possibly because it was the first work of a philosopher and Rhodes scholar who brought his unique gifts to bear on cinematography. Possibly it is his treatment of the film and the character depictions that stand out.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

Whatever the reasons, Badlands will stand out and apart as a film classic. Terrence Malick may not be spoken of in the same breath as the other great Hollywood directors, but his work speaks on its own, and Badlands says it all.

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