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The Culpepper Cattle Co.
(1972)

Director: Dick Richards  
Cast:
Gary Grimes, Billy Green Bush, Luke Askew


When I was young, the idea of becoming a cowboy was far from my mind. To me, making a lasso with a rope and throwing it over a cow was much less exciting than playing a game on my Apple II computer where I could simulate running a lemonade stand. But as the years went by, the seeds of how cool it could be to be a cowboy were planted. Probably the first seed that was planted was when I got a copy of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book Deadwood City as a gift. It told me that even if I were a kid back in the days of the wild west, I could have possibly had a lot of fun gambling, prospecting, and gun-slinging. Later in my childhood, when I finally got the chance to ride a horse for the first time, I discovered that those cowboys of yesteryear had a fun way of not having to travel by foot. The seeds that were planted finally bloomed when I was in university and taking a western art course. I got permission to write a paper on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Watching those movies for the first time, I remember seeing action after action from the character that Clint Eastwood played that just oozed cool. Mostly it was Eastwood putting holes in people with his gun, but there was a lot more cool stuff as well. I instantly became a western fan, and it was then that I started to dream of being a cowboy in the wild west. The opportunity to carry a gun everywhere (and possibly use it on someone who deserved it)... every town on your travels having a bordello with a wide range of beautiful women... gambling for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars with every hand of poker... it was ideas like that that made me often wish I lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century in the American west.

But as the years progressed, and I learned more about what the west was like over a hundred years ago, the idea of traveling back in time so that I could experience that place and era started to lose its appeal. Oh, I am sure that every generation feels that life in the long ago distant past was only fit for barbarians - I'm sure that in 2112, people will think that life for people in the twenty-first century was cold and cruel. But looking at the realities of western life, I am sure that many people even then thought it was a hard life. Okay, maybe you got to carry guns everywhere you went. Well, so would everybody else. And if you happened to get into a confrontation with someone that turned ugly, the chance of on of you getting seriously hurt (or even killed) would greatly increase. Bordellos with plenty of beautiful women might be fine if you are mighty horny after riding the range all day, but with plenty of other cowboys feeling the same way it sure seems like an easy way to get a disease. I didn't mention saloons since I don't drink, and it's just as well - I don't relish the idea of going into a saloon and order a glass of water with a bunch of half-drunk tough guy gunslingers staring at me. Gambling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars at a time? I am a lousy gambler. The most I have ever won gambling is ten dollars, and that was from a lottery. When it comes to card games like poker, I am hopeless. I don't know the difference between a full house from a royal flush. And even if I knew the difference, I know that I would not be playing for hundreds of dollars at a time - western screenwriters seem to forget a little thing called inflation, so that would mean most poker hands in that day and age would be playing with just a few dollars, or even just a few cents.

There are other things I've discovered about the wild west that aren't appealing, like those dusty streets turning to mud whenever there is a rainstorm, but enough of that. I just know that if I were The Culpepper Cattle Co.given the opportunity to go back in time to the wild west, I don't know if I would go. Being a man in the wild west was a tough challenge. In my past review of Bad Company, I pointed out that it would be even worse if you were a minor and not a man. I happened to enjoy that movie, so when I came across The Culpepper Cattle Co., which promised to be another revisionist look at the wild west, and one involving a youth, you can be sure that I seized the opportunity to get another look at how it really was back then. The central character of The Culpepper Cattle Co. is played by Gary Grimes (The Spikes Gang). The character is Ben Mockridge, a youth in the wild west who is tired of helping his mother with the town's laundry, and dreams of a more exotic life - to be specific, the life of a cowboy. After secretly getting a gun and a gunbelt to put it in, he decides the time is right, so when cattleman Frank Culpepper (Bush, Monte Walsh) comes to town, he decides to ask Culpepper if he can accompany his cattle drive to Colorado. Culpepper does indeed gives Ben a job, which thrills Ben, even though he is just the assistant of the cattleteam's cook. While Ben is excited when the team starts off on its journey, no one else in the group seems to share his enthusiasm. In fact, the cook quickly tells Ben, "Kid, cowboying's something you do when you can't do nothing else."

As it turns out, the cook is right. Ben soon starts finding out that the idea of the life of a cowboy being a rootin' tootin' good ol' time is in fact a myth. First, Ben is told of the hardships a cowboy can go through, such as the bad weather and the possibility that you'd have to drink your own urine. But soon Ben starts finding out on his own that the life of a cowboy is not one to be envied. Being a cook's assistant, he's lowest ranked of all, and has to live with the nickname "Little Mary", which all assistants of cooks have. Cooking's no easy thing on the range, having to gut and pluck the feathers off chickens. Things get darker the first evening, when cattle rustlers cause a stampede that cause one of Culpepper's men to be trampled to death, and subsequently gets a quick and no-nonsense burial in the middle of nowhere. And with no law in the middle of nowhere, Culpepper and his men have to take the law into their own hands and track down and kill the rustlers, which Ben sees up close, as well as seeing up close several Culpepper men who also die in the shootout. Given the assignment to go to town to get more men, along the way Ben is held up by trappers when taking a bathroom break (wiping with leaves, by the way), and has to make the rest of the journey on foot and with no gun. Ben does get his horse and gun back - when the newly hired men find the trappers and kill them straight away. As the journey progresses, Ben is jumped again (this time by horse rustlers), and is forced to kill a man as Culpepper and the rest of the team get their horses back.

All those things that I have just described are just some of the many awful experiences that Ben goes through during the movie. In fact, if you were to read an entire list of what happens to Ben, you might think that The Culpepper Cattle Co. stretches credibility - all these bad things happen during the entire film? But watching them actually executed one by one in front of me, I could believe what I was seeing. All of these scenes have been given an honest feel to them that makes you accept what you see. This comes in various ways. For example, when Ben is jumped by those trappers, there is absolutely no dialogue in the scene. It's not needed, and you could see in real life it would not be needed. And more than once, when a person is killed, the survivors take advantage of the death and immediately rob the corpse of all its belongings. Everyone in this world is made to seem desperate and out for something, so I could believe this corpse looting. Director Dick Richards also gets the audience to believe this world by making what surrounds these grim events authentic as well. It's probably not a coincidence that when Ben is in civilization in the opening of the movie, he is working in a laundry - a clean and safe place to be. When he leaves town with the cattle drive, one is struck by how suddenly things are dusty and worn out. The men in this uncivilized world are an uneasy bunch even in quieter times, like how one man casually comments to Ben in passing, "Christ, I wish you were a girl." There is never a moment when the actions of the characters come across as heroic, more like desperate and sometimes downright vengeful. This is true even right down to the restrained musical score, which stays quiet even when these characters use their guns to defend themselves.

For the most part, Gary Grimes (what happened to him? He was hot after appearing in Summer Of '42 the previous year) does a good job as the youthful protagonist the movie's events center around. In another actor's hands, his character could have come across as being simply stupid, making the movie tough to bear as a result. Grimes' performance clearly makes the character not stupid, but more correctly as very naive about how things are away from civilization in the west. He correctly shows some fear and panic when his character is suddenly shoved into an uncomfortable situation, though careful not to overdo it. It is odd, however, that his character remains enthusiastic about the cowboy life long into the movie despite witnessing some real bad things. The only other place where Grimes slips up is the scene when his character kills another, something the character subsequently seems to take a lot better than you would think. There is also some fault to be found in the other characters in the movie. I was disappointed that there is not much done to flesh out the character of Frank Culpepper. Even though he's the trail boss, he doesn't get that much of a chance to become a real strong character, frequently staying silent and out of camera range. At least he's not as disappointing as the other characters on the cattle drive. There's no real effort made to differentiate these characters. In fact, they not only act like, but they look and dress alike as well. But overall, The Culpepper Cattle Co. is a fine effort that gives you a real taste as to how it must have been in the wild west. Don't let the fact that Jerry Bruckheimer was one of the producers turn you off - this movie is actually one he can be proud of.

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See also: Bad Company, Dan Candy's Law, The Spikes Gang

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