The Culpepper Cattle Company is a cinematic curiosity that I’m not sure has occurred before or since: a coming-of-age revisionist western. It seems like an odd combination of genres, but it’s not so surprising, especially considering the time of its making. As directors like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn started to demythologize the genre, the audience’s veil lifted just as Ben Mockridge’s (Gary Grimes) does.
Let me explain: Ben is a young farm boy who yearns to be a cowboy. He gets his chance when Frank Culpepper (Billy “Green” Bush) and his men pass through his family farm on a cattle drive from California to Colorado. Ben’s wide-eyed enthusiasm amuses Culpepper, so he gets hired as the crew’s “Little Mary,” the cook’s assistant. Through an episodic storyline, the romance and heroism of cowboy life is stripped away, for both Ben and the audience.
This is a movie full of dust, blood, sweat, and anger—a perfect breeding ground for a boy to become a man. That’s the crux of Ben’s journey, and I think it’s why the film is (unjustly) remembered mainly as a footnote in Jerry Bruckheimer’s career (he served as “associate producer,” his first on-screen credit) instead of an impressive but depressing work. The narrative simply isn’t very strong, focusing as it does on its main character’s emotional growth into reluctant adulthood rather than having a tight plot that leads to the inevitable shootout on Main Street.
Unlike the mildly similar Little Big Man, Ben’s story covers a shorter period of time and lacks epic grandeur and humor. However, this seems to be by design. It has a few well-timed laughs, but director Dick Richards wants this to serve as an intensely focused, dramatic study of one man. It doesn’t use Ben as a metaphor for the entire Wild West experience, nor does it want to portray the time and place as anything but bleak. It portrays a few vital experiences in Ben’s life in a way that’s a bit more realistic than the westerns popular throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Some might complain about the use of brief vignettes (many of which mine the clichés of the genre, in order to turn them on their ear) to tell the story, but oddly, it worked for me. The lack of a strong central narrative to counterpoint Ben’s transformation makes the story less and less predictable as the minutes pass. With only five minutes left, I couldn’t imagine how it would end, but the conclusion is stark, emotional and explains why Gary Grimes was cast in the role. He plays the bright-eyed rube so effectively, he seems like an actor who’s mediocre at best. However, he plays Ben’s slowly altering emotional state so well in the last half hour that I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.
Bush does a decent job as Culpepper, a hardworking but mostly bland character whose most well defined trait is his bushy, black beard. It’s Geoffrey Lewis who adds another dimension of unpredictability to the film as Russ, an experienced cattleman Culpepper hires early in the film. Along with cronies Dixie (Bo Hopkins) and Luke (Luke Askew), Russ brings an offbeat menace and a sense of dread to the drive. They’re clearly insane, possibly psychopathic, and whenever they enter a saloon, it’s anyone’s guess who will make it out alive. This trio, always instigated by Russ, leads the Culpepper Cattle Company into the dangerous situations that test Ben and force him into maturity.
The Culpepper Cattle Company is a good but not outstanding film that should be more firmly entrenched in the public consciousness than it is. A lot of infinitely worse westerns are more well-known (The Oklahoma Kid, anybody?). Despite the excessive violence (its PG rating reflects the time before the 1985 invention of PG-13, so it’s loaded with early-’70s red tempera paint blood), it’s the sort of film I could imagine watching and enjoying as a family, assuming you have “tween” kids who have open enough minds not to scoff at anything not branded with the Hannah Montana logo.