Teenager Ben Mockridge feels life in a Wild West farm town has nothing better to offer than horse-cart racing with other hicks, so he naively begs cattle company owner Frank Culpepper to engage him as the youngest cowboy for a long cattle trail to a fort. His mother barely notices. Ben doesn’t even seem to get it when he’s told to report as ‘little Mary’ to the old cook, whose words, “Cowboy is something you do only if you have nothing better.” gradually become clear. Instead of an exciting heroic macho life, it’s endless hard work, dumb chores and embarrassment, even getting literally caught with his pants down, robbed of his horse, and witnessing unpunished crimes…
Although a small movie, “The Culpepper Cattle Company” is arguably one of the top ten westerns of all time. It takes a fairly basic but relevant coming of age story and sets it in the American West. But the “been there-done that” stuff gives way to something that has extremely heavy Peckinpah influences. Like “The Wild Bunch” (and Bo Hopkins gets to reprise his Clarence “Crazy” Lee role) this becomes a violent anti-violence film with blurred lines between “good guy” and “bad guy”. As with Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”, moral ambiguity is the theme and it is not until near the end that the four drovers, pressed to finally take a moral stand, redeem themselves with a final act of personal responsibility.
In addition to a good characterization from Hopkins, Geoffry Lewis plays the wrapped a little too tight “Russ” with an over-the-top Gary Oldman-like flare, and Luke Askew does a masterful job as the drover who provides early clues that these are four guys who have had to subordinate their basic goodness in order to survive in this environment. Billy Green Bush plays “Frank Culpepper” who remains focused on business to the exclusion of any lost causes. Bush played the likable “Elton” in “Five Easy Pieces” who was responsible for the classic Nicholson line: “don’t tell me about the good life Elton, the good life makes me want to puke”.
Also exceptional is the cinematography and the production design. Back in the ancient 1970’s, only the high budget pictures had production designers. The others had to rely on the cinematographer to make sure the art director, the set designer, and the make-up/costume people were all on the same page; so that the picture had a consistent look. Ralph Woolsey was one of the better cinematographers at keeping all these elements under control.
It became popular after Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) to replace the well-scrubbed Roy Rogers look and portray the west as dirty, dusty, gritty, unshaven, and tattered. Woolsey eagerly embraced this realism in 1972 and gave us two of the grimiest features we are likely to see; the excellent “Culpepper Cattle Company” and the somewhat lame “Dirty Little Billy”.
The shootout scene in the saloon (midway into the film) is more climatic than the final scene. Not until “The Unforgiven” has there been so much action-so fast-on such a tiny set; yet Woolsey captured it all and the post-production people assembled it into a neat and logically sequenced package. So you can follow the whole thing with very little confusion.
Also Known As (AKA): We Pointed ‘Em North
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