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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) review


Gary Grimes (Ben Mockridge), Billy Green Bush (Frank Culpepper), Luke Askew (Luke), Bo Hopkins (Dixie Brick), Geoffrey Lewis (Russ), Wayne Sutherlin (Missoula), John McLiam (Thornton Pierce), Matt Clark (Pete), Raymond Guth (Cook), Anthony James (Nathaniel), Hal Needham (Burgess), Royal Dano (Cattle Rustler), Gregory Sierra (One-eyed Horse Thief)

Directed by Dick Richards

"Cover him, kid.... if he moves, kill him."

The Short Version: One of the best of the cynic westerns is this coming of age story about a boy's rite of passage to manhood in becoming a cowpuncher--only to discover prairie life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Another bleak, yet provocative, defeatist western of the 1970s, this one's an oater road movie that trespasses onto territory owned by THE WILD BUNCH (1969) for the finale. Preachy and violent in equal doses, the film may not be palatable for those accustomed to, or expecting, a more linear sagebrush saga. Well acted by a fantastic cast of familiar faces and masterfully filmed by the director and his crew, you will feel the dirt, sweat and funk in this tale of hard life and true grit.

Youngin' Ben Mockridge wants to be a cowboy somethin' fierce so he gets a job on Frank Culpepper's cattle drive headin' out from Texas to Fort Lewis in Colorado. The kid wants to see the world and become a man; only the world ain't quite what he's expectin' after runnin' into cattle rustlers, trappers, horse thieves, and Thornton Pierce--a snivelin', connivin' land baron--a right mean bastard if ever was one. After makin' a stand for a passel o' religious folk, the kid learns a lot about life on a trail paved in a whole lotta blood, violence n' death.

The dust and dirt of the Wild West comes filthily to life in this drab in color, but luminously thematic post-Civil War action-drama about a kid who wants to leave small town life behind and experience what he thinks will be a flashier existence as a cowboy; a career that, as described by the Culpepper Cattle Company's cook, "somethin' you do when you can't do nothin' else". Buying himself a $4 dollar pistol, Ben Mockridge (played with just the right amount of innocence and naivety by Gary Grimes), the kid, has grown up romanticizing the cowboy lifestyle; it's only when he actually experiences it does he grow into a man and learn a lot about life... and death. 

As the movie progresses the kid picks up little attributes of the men around him and occasionally riles up the very man who took him on as a cowboy-in-training. There's no father-son relationship here, it's strictly 'carry your own weight or get carried out... or buried'. At one point, stern trail boss Culpepper, as much an individualist as he is a businessman, has had enough of the kid after their horses are stolen due to another of the kid's screw-ups. He makes up for it a short time later when he identifies the men responsible for the equine thievery (leading to one of the picture's most suspenseful moments) in a cramped saloon. The kid makes his first kill in this scene, too. There's no elaboration on how this affects him--at least not till the end after a fateful crossing of paths with a bunch of Mormons led by Nathaniel (played by the always welcome character actor Anthony James). Refusing to leave after a death threat from the guy who owns the property, one Thornton Pierce, the film becomes THE WILD BUNCH (1969) for a bloody finish that's both powerful and poignant.

Directed by former photographer Dick Richards, he shows a meticulous eye for detail in virtually every frame. Everything looks weathered and lived in as does all the characters. Even with a lack of characterization in some cases, everyone, despite their chosen profession, shows signs of having survived some form of adversity by all the dirt and funk that marks their bodies. The director and his DP's show a striking sense of camera placement, capturing imagery of the actors that looks like it could be a glossy snapshot taken in the 1800s. 

Even the sound design has been carefully handled. The bullet sounds, for example, have an echo in certain shots that make them sound even more powerful heightening the sense of realism.

This was the highly successful Jerry Bruckheimer's first producer credit, and the first of four team-ups with Dick Richards.

Episodic in structure, the script is successful in building several characters the audience grows to care about whether they be good, bad, or ugly. Basically a series of vignettes strung together, all of which involve the kid in some way whether intentionally or inadvertently. It's when the kid is sent on a mini-adventure to bring back gunfighters (including WILD BUNCHer Bo Hopkins and bad guy fave Luke Askew), particularly one named Russ Caldwell (Geoffrey Lewis in his first movie role of substance), that the picture adds an even grittier aura to the remainder of the 92 minute celluloid cattle drive. 

Oddly enough, the cowboy life isn't glamorized, but the outlaw lifestyle is. They might be a quartet of cut-throats, but we come to like Russ and his three-man band with Luke (Luke Askew), Dixie Brick (Bo Hopkins), and Missoula (Wayne Sutherlin). They're a rowdy bunch who kill men with impunity and talk of robbing banks while the others tell tall tales of saloon whore exploits. They are the anti-heroes of the film. The closest to a good guy we get is reformed gunslinger, Frank Culpepper.

Played by Billy Green Bush (ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE [1973]), Frank is all business now. Caring only about his cows, he takes a lot of shit on the trail, but keeps moving towards his destination. Putting his gunslinger past behind him, on two occasions those around him remark, "there are some things in life more important than cattle". Things come to a head after two embarrassing run-ins with a hard ass bully of a land baron, the aforementioned Thornton Pierce; a late-arriving villain, and a catalyst for the transformation of the anti-heroes to unlikely heroes.

Forced off a piece of property being occupied by a group of pitiful Mormons, the kid decides to leave Mr. Culpepper and stay behind to help the passive settlers; assuring martyrdom once Thornton returns, fulfilling his promise to kill'em all. Having left both their guns and their dignity behind, Russ can't handle two insults back to back so he and his Wild Bunch have one of those "Awwww, shit" moments, and ride back to make a stand with the kid. It's in this last "episode" where the film, in showing its Peckinpah influence, paints the wagons red.

Beginning on an upbeat note, the film ends on an expected downbeat one that is familiar to the defeatist western paradigm. Nowhere is this more profound than at the beginning seeing the kid's glow at holding a gun, putting it on and practicing his not-so-quick-draw. By the time the movie finishes, the kid, disillusioned with the whole cowboy life, throws down the gun he was so enamored with, presumably to return home. The trail life failed him as did the Mormons he and the four gunslingers put their lives on the line for.

The Jerry Goldsmith and Tom Scott score is a notable combination of folksy, upbeat cues and somber religious tunes. The use of 'Amazing Grace' is especially poignant. It's a fine selection and both composers would go on to prosperous careers. 

Shot in the sweltering heat of Mexico for around ten weeks in 1971, Dick Richards wrangled an impressive first theatrical feature. Afterward, he was being pitched to direct ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn, but didn't find the script to his liking. He then lost out on JAWS (1975). His insistence on changing Benchley's Great White shark to a whale ensured he didn't get the job. Instead he followed up with another road movie in RAFFERTY AND THE GOLD DUST TWINS (1975) and the crime drama FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975). He helmed a fairly lame slasher movie titled DEATH VALLEY in 1982.

An unconventional western even by downer western standards, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO. is an engrossing, at times exciting, story of a boy who undergoes a grueling rite of passage from adolescence to manhood. Exceedingly polished in its depiction of true grit and a lack of cleanliness, Culpepper and his cowpunchers take the viewer on a journey worth experiencing.

This review is representative of the Fox DVD. Specs and Extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 Side B/Fullscreen Side A; Extras: Production Stills Gallery; Behind the Scenes Gallery; Theatrical Trailer; running time:1:32:28

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