The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)
Dir: Dick Richards - Cast: Gary Grimes (Ben), Billy Green Bush (Culpepper), Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Geoffrey Lewis, Matt Clark, Anthony James, Charles Martin Smith
16 year old Grimes thinks life in town sucks, so he joins trail boss Mr. Culpepper, in the hope to become a real cowboy. He’ll soon learn the life of a cowhand is one of humiliation, boredom, random violence and only few moments of relaxation in-between.
At the same time a revisionist western and a coming-of-age movie, The Culpepper Cattle Co is an enjoyable ride all the way – or maybe I should say: nearly all the way. It’s deliberately paced and instead of telling a straightforward story, it seems more concerned with giving us a fragmented (but often incisive) impression of the harsh reality of frontier life. It has a fabulous look - some have noticed that various images look like Remington paintings (1) - but never glorifies the life it depicts. It's also one of a series of westerns related to the Vietnam experience, showing young men being exposed to the corruption of adult life (2).
Phil Hardy typifies the movie as ‘decidedly a post-Wild Bunch western’ (3). True, it has some of the grittiness and slow motion violence of a Peckinpah movie, but the end is introduced by a turn which is closer to Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (or the Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven). When Culpepper moves on with his cattle after a conflict involving a land owner and a Mormon community, some of his men decide to stay with the Mormons, because this land owner (who has ordered both the cattle men and the Mormons to leave), has taken their guns. As one of them puts it: "Nobody has ever taken my gun." In the end they’re all killed, except for Grimes, who forces the Mormons to bury the dead, and then, symbolically, buries his own gun, because he’s appalled by the amount of violence he has witnessed.
Like in Seven (both the Japanese original and the Hollywood remake) the ending illustrates the idea that those who live by the land, are stronger, and will live longer, than those who live by the gun (or sword). But whereas Kurosawa used a subtle stroke to make his point, Richards throws you his message in the face, underlining it with – dear me – the overbearing tones of Amazing Grace.
The fragmented, episodic narrative leads to a certain amount of sluggishness, but overall this is quite an engrossing movie, well-acted by a cast of familiar faces: Luke Askew, Geoffrey Lewis, Matt Clark, Bo Hopkins, Charles Martin Smith (the boy who’s only ‘a little bit’ afraid of Pat Garrett in the opening scenes of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) – they’re all there and they’re all excellent. Billy ‘Green Bush’ is also very fine as the trail boss and Anthony James is terrifying as the stubborn and fanatic leader of the Mormons, Nathaniel . (Pierce, the land owner: “This is my land!”. Nathaniel: “God’s land!”). The action scenes were coordinated by Hal Neednam (who also has a cameo), and the movie was also the first to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who would become one of the most successful movie producers of all time.
Notes: (1) DVD Savant - Review by Glenn Ericsson; (2) Philip French, Westerns, p. 113-114; apart from this movie, French mentions The Cowboys and The Spikes Gang. One could also think of Robert Benton's Bad Company, although the premise is a bit different in that movie; (3) Phil Hardy, The Aurum Encyclopedia of Westerns