Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Culpepper Cattle Co. is definitely a revisionist western. Just as film critics were reassessing the western genre and lauding the work of John Ford and others, the contemporary western experienced a mini-upsurge traceable to the impact of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Everybody decided that the time was ripe for dirtier, politically pessimistic oaters, re-interpreting Billy the Kid (Dirty Little Billy), Jesse James (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) and Wyatt Earp Doc. The Culpepper Cattle Co. has no political axe to grind with its take on the standard cattle drive story -- unless one reads the title literally. De-mythologized, the glorious cattle cowboy life comes down to some unpleasant realities: As the miserable chuck wagon cook says, "Cowboyin' is something ya do when you can't do nothing else."
Eager kid Ben Mockridge (Gary Grimes) leaves home and mother to join the cattle drive run by businessman Frank Culpepper (Billy "Green" Bush). He's accepted as a "little Mary" ... a cook's helper. The work is rough and the living mean, and the main problem faced by the cowboys are the thieves and highwaymen they meet on the way. Culpepper loses some men retrieving stolen cattle, and Ben is sent to hire replacements, that turn out to be an even meaner foursome under the leadership of a troublemaker, Russ (Geoffrey Lewis). It seems Ben can't move without making one costly mistake or another, and he isn't aggressive enough when horse thieves attack. But the real challenge comes when they cross the land of an avaricious rancher (John McLiam) who charges exorbitant easement fees and humiliates Culpepper's men. Cowboys like Dixie Brick (Bo Hopkins) don't take well to having their guns confiscated. Ben motivates the cowboys to defend the rights of a religious group being persecuted by the same land baron .... that leads to even bigger trouble.
Philip French's book Westerns uses an image from The Culpepper Cattle Co. on its cover to represent the state of the genre in the early 1970s. The film has no standard western hero. It takes place in beautiful vistas and its images look like Remington paintings, but its people and communities are selfish and venal. As French states, "the state of a cowboy's bowels is of crucial dramatic importance."
Young Ben Mockridge's romantic notions about life on the trail are soon to fade. The cowboys don't really behave as the ideal male unit he imagines. They're employees of a stern taskmaster who pays a dollar a day, and not a cent more. Solidarity is an illusion, as the cowpokes are liable to shoot each other over trivial matters. The friendliest guy in camp (Matt Clark) simply gets up and leaves after being bullied by one of the meaner gunslingers. Nobody comes to his aid, not even the boss -- although he certainly blames Ben for the loss of a good man.
Delmer Daves' 1958 "revisionist" cattle drive movie Cowboy seems idyllic compared to this show. There's no happy finale to the drive and no lovely señoritas waiting to be wooed. Romance comes in the form of a "$60 whore" kept by a saloon owner, a "former virgin" that the boys send Ben in to visit. All he does is sit the bed with her and play patty-cake.
Ben keeps looking in vain for glory and camaraderie. The humorless Frank Culpepper has his eyes on the payoff when he delivers his herd, and can't be turned from that goal. Cowboys keep saying that there are some things more important than cattle, but none of them have a better candidate. Ben tries to befriend his buddies, but they're only a team when violence threatens. Otherwise, it's every man for himself.
Frank Culpepper soon decides that the very un-aggressive Ben is a liability, but can't find a way to get rid of him. Ben loses his horse and his gun by literally getting caught with his pants down, and is easily tricked by highwaymen. Frank continues to offer Ben opportunities to step up to the plate and prove his worth, and the kid eventually shows some aptitude for decisive thinking. Unfortunately, when he's inspired with noble thoughts like defending Anthony James' ragged band of persecuted pilgrims, Ben is even more dangerous to the group. His example motivates the rougher gunmen in the drive (in a scene patterned from The Big Country) to fling themselves in a battle that only seems worthwhile before the bloodshed. (spoiler) Ben is even robbed of the thought that the sacrifice has done some good, as the unappreciative pilgrims decide to move on anyway!
(spoiler) Ben finally has enough when he realizes all he's gained is his own survival. He symbolically drops his gun and rides off. That's a rather frustrating finish, as we've learned that nobody gets very far alone and unprotected in this very unforgiving version of the west. Just the same The Culpepper Cattle Co. is one of the best of the revisionist westerns of the early 70s, just behind Bad Company and Robert Aldrich's searing Ulzana's Raid.
Gary Grimes is fine as the farm boy turned eager cowboy-to-be. Director Dick Richards fumbles Ben's farewell to his mother but gives him an envious pal (Charlie Martin Smith) to admire his new gun. The cowboys are nicely differentiated: Bearded, no-nonsense Billy "Green" Bush, Luke Askew's knife thrower, joker Bo Hopkins and borderline psycho Geoffrey Lewis. Matt Clark tells tall tales about French girls and glass ceilings, and Raymond Guth is the joyless cook who tells Ben, "I sure wish you was a girl." Anthony James' grim preacher is so sinister, that we know he's not going to bring good news.
Fox's DVD of The Culpepper Cattle Co. is a great enhanced transfer of this very handsome western. The cinematography uses muted colors and telephoto lenses for a dusty feel ... every time the cook is stewing dinner we're aware of the clouds of dirt drifting over his pot.
The only extra is a trailer that tries to connect the film to Gary Grimes' breakaway hit of earlier the same year, The Summer of '42. Unfortunately, the good actor wasn't a big draw; The Culpepper Cattle Co. came and went rather quickly. The package illustration is another barely-identifiable image from the movie, with a lame new tag line: "How many men do you have to kill to be the great American cowboy?" .... Huh?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Culpepper Cattle Co. rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson