By the 1970s, the westerns, they were a' changing to quote Bob Dylan. Most directors weren't interested in showing how romantic and iconic the old west was. Movies tended to debunk the myths instead of glorifying them. The change had started in the 60s already with some American westerns but the switch really kicked in with the spaghetti westerns. One of the best American westerns to show how life really was is part of one of my favorite sub-genres, the cattle drive western. Dick Richards directs his first feature film, 1972's The Culpepper Cattle Co.
Fresh off the success of Summer of '42, Gary Grimes plays Ben Mockridge, a teenager who wants to be a cowboy more than anything else. He's in luck as a man named Frank Culpepper is starting a cattle drive north to Fort Lewis, Colorado with 2,000 head of cattle. Culpepper hires him as the cook's assistant where he's named Little Mary, well, just because that's what you call the assistant. Ben figures out right away that the life of a cowboy isn't an easy one. The hours are brutal, the food lousy, the conditions even worse, and there's a good chance you'll end up with a bullet in your gut.
On the trail from south Texas to Colorado, Culpepper's crew tangles with cattle rustlers, horse thieves, infighting amongst the cowboys, and a landowner who doesn't appreciate the herd traveling across his land. It's the quiet moments that work the best in this 1972 western, scenes of cowboys at a campfire talking about all the women they've met in countless towns. The plot sort of meanders along much like the cattle drive. The movie's content to just tell its story, and that's why it works.
Grimes as the lead is a good actor that seemed to fall off the Hollywood radar. He starred in a John Wayne western, Cahill: US Marshal, in 1973 and a sequel to '42 but never starred in any other movies. It's a shame because as the wide-eyed kid here he has a really strong part. Seeing the cowboy life isn't everything it's made out to be, the viewer is right there with Ben. Billy Green Bush is Culpepper, the trail boss who will get his herd to market no matter what it takes. Joining Culpepper's crew is Geoffrey Lewis, Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, Wayne Sutherlin, Matt Clark, Hal Needham, Raymond Guth, and Walter Scott. Lewis and Hopkins give memorable turns as somewhat crazy cowboys, but it's Askew who leaves the best impression as a cowboy who looks out for young Ben. John McLiam is Thorton Pierce, the vengeful landowner who won't allow Culpepper's herd to cross his land.
Some of these westerns try too hard to be different, but this one finds that good middle ground. There aren't good guys vs. bad guys, just men trying to get by in tough times following the Civil War. One scene near the shootout finale really illustrates how ridiculous things can be in the west. Ben and a handful of the crew ride back to help a wagon train of Mormons, not because they agree with the squatters, but because they've been pushed too far. As Pierce's hands charge toward them, they share a bit of maniacal laughing right before the shooting starts. The scene's maybe 20 seconds long, but it's a good one and tells more about the men than a long scene of dialogue could have.
The DVD is a steal at under $10. The disc offers widescreen and fullscreen presentations, a trailer, two photo galleries, and three trailers for other Fox Flic westerns. It doesn't receive the recognition other westerns from the 1970s get, but it's one of the best westerns to come out of the decade.
The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972): *** 1/2 /****