"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Culpepper Cattle Company (Fox, 1972)


70s Western with little to say




 
 
You get the feeling sometimes that in the 1970s the Western didn’t really know where to go. Early 70s examples of the genre toyed with revisionism, pictures like Doc, Little Big Man and Dirty Little Billy doing a demolition job on former heroes Wyatt Earp, General Custer and Billy the Kid. Little Big Man, Soldier Blue and the like also experimented with violent pro-Indian, anti-US Cavalry stories. There were some late spaghettis in the early 70s but that genre was pretty well dying, and many US Westerns were showing signs of reverse engineering, i.e. producing American spaghetti (Barquero, Two Mules for Sister Sara, High Plains Drifter and so on).

John Wayne was still making big, commercial Westerns of the old type (Chisum, Rio Lobo, Big Jake et al) but they seemed dated and by the end of the decade Wayne, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Henry Hathaway were all dead. Henry Fonda and James Stewart were virtually retired.

Not the high water mark of the Western movie

In the first part of the decade Sam Peckinpah was making elegiac ‘end-of-the-West’ pictures like Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, but the latter picture, in 1973, was his last ‘proper’ Western. Hell, in mid-decade they even canceled Gunsmoke.

Of course there were exceptions, excellent 1970s Westerns: I’m thinking of such pictures as Monte Walsh (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Blazing Saddles (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (June 1976) and The Shootist (August 1976). But that’s just it – they were exceptions. And can you name a really good 70s Western after The Shootist? At the end of the 70s Michael Cimino’s was filming his elephantine flop Heaven’s Gate and its disastrous performance in 1980 seemed to seal the fate of the Western. It had nothing left to say, it was thought, and no studio wanted to risk big budgets on cowboy films any more. No, the 70s were decidedly not the high point of the Western genre.

It was against this background that Fox came out with a trail-drive picture, The Culpepper Cattle Company. It didn’t augur well that the director chosen, Dick Richards (below), who also co-wrote it, was one who had made his name doing TV commercials. He had never done a Western before (and wouldn’t do another either). Surprisingly (for me) Culpepper’s script earned Richards the Screenwriter's Annual Story Award given by the Writer's Guild of America. There are some good lines, yes (“Don't let your mouth overload your hardware, cowboy.”) but overall it seems to me slow and uneventful to the point of being turgid, and the characters are hardly developed at all.

Dick Richards

Brian Garfield, in his fine book Western Films, says of this movie:

"A pastiche of predictable trail-drive set pieces and occasional raw jokes and shock-value brutality, the film strives for documentary realism but achieves mainly ennui."

He adds:

"It is without suspense and there isn’t any drama in the contrived coming-of-age story. There are gun battles, for example, but since all the characters look alike we have no idea who is shooting at whom."

That is true, and the result of bad directing.

Certainly it is a visually attractive movie. There are some glorious Arizona locations, often shot in dying light (there were two directors of photography for some reason, Lawrence Edward Williams and Ralph Woolsey). But at times that seems to be the only point. The New York Times critic Roger Greenspun perceptively called it “an overly handsome Western”.

Ridin' off into the sunset

As Garfield said, it’s essentially a coming-of-age story, starring young Gary Grimes as a green kid who gets taken on by cattle baron Frank Culpepper (Billy “Green” Bush) on a trail drive, first as a menial cook’s assistant, then, gradually, as a cowboy. Grimes had become famous the year before in Summer of ’42. Culpepper was his first big Western and he would follow it with Cahill US Marshal the year after and The Spikes Gang in ’74, in all three playing a green kid growing up. And as far as Westerns went, that was all she wrote. He’s OK as Ben Mockridge and does manage to convey the wide-eyed astonishment and growing disillusion at life on the Plains.

Green kid (I like the hat)

Bush as gritty, single-minded cattleman Culpepper was probably the pick of the cast. He’d been a cowboy in Monte Walsh in 1970 and he would later be Marshal Joe Belle in Tom Horn but he didn’t so a great number of big-screen Westerns (there weren’t that many to do). Otherwise, you can spot Luke Askew and Matt Clark as cowpokes and a surprisingly convincing Geoffrey Lewis as a tough gunslinger.

Lewis good as killer

Royal Dano is a rustler who foolishly tries to take some of Culpepper’s steers. I liked Raymond Guth as the misanthropic cook. "Kid, cowboying is something you do when you can't do nothing else."

Bushy-bearded Culpepper (right) is tough and single-minded

It’s set in 1866 but of course the guns and hats and so on are 1870s + (they always were).

There’s little or no romance, of either kind. The only women are whores. Ben looks for camaraderie among his fellow cow punchers but finds none. The cowboys are only a team when violence rears its head (at times they seem to kill everyone they meet). The young man finally has enough, symbolically dropping his gun and riding off alone, rather bizarrely with a massed choir singing Amazing Grace.

The boy becomes a man by shooting dead the barman

There’s a good score (Jerry Goldsmith and Tom Scott), in fact also used in an earlier non-Western film, The Flim-Flam Man, and that helps a bit. But the picture meanders, frankly, and though stylish is in the last resort unsatisfactory, or anyway unsatisfying.

 
Murder
 
No choirboys


 

15 comments:

  1. Excellent piece Jeff and I cannot really argue with you or Mr.Garfield.
    I take what you both say on board but I still rather like this film.
    Firstly a wonderful gallery of 70's actors Hopkins,Askew,Green Bush,Clark
    Lewis & friends.
    I also like the end where they face an enemy even more psychotic than
    themselves (John McLain in a chilling performance.)
    Actually the ending is given a sort of reprieve in the excellent HOSTILES (2017)
    Sorry Jeff but I cannot find any love for BLAZING SADDLES or McCABE & MRS MILLER,although the ending of the latter is quite something.
    I certainly endorse your admiration for THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES,THE SHOOTIST
    and ULZANA'S RAID..proof that there were still some fine Westerns made in
    the 70's despite far fewer of them being produced.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, there were some good 70s Westerns, but precious few.
      Jeff

      Delete
  2. Whoops! sorry Jeff,the actor I mentioned above was John McLaim and as
    mentioned he gives a chilling performance.
    Mr McLaim had a whole host of TV appearances from the 50's onwards including
    many classic Westerns.
    He made few cinema Westerns but was in MONTE WALSH and SHOWDOWN.
    The latter not to be confused with the Audie Murphy vehicle but a decent
    Dean Martin Rock Hudson starrer. SHOWDOWN is a film I really enjoyed at
    the time and is one that I intend to revisit soon.
    Cannot say I've ever noticed Mr McLaim before but his turn in Culpepper
    is really something..like an even scarier George C Scott.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. McLiam did a lot of TV work but only 6 Western features. I must re-examine his part in them!
      I don't think I remember the '73 Showdown. I must seek it out.
      Jeff

      Delete
  3. Other 70s westerns I liked, although not as good as some you mentioned, were Lawman and Breakheart Pass.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There we'll have to agree to disagree, Steve. I thought both were dire!
      Jeff

      Delete
  4. Wasn't the trouble with the 70s America's Vietnam experience and loss of self-confidence in it's own values? All of a sudden it seemed more realistic if the bad guys won and decent people get ground down. All the heroes turned out to be bad guys really. The lyrical element got thrown away for an all-pervading moral and physical ugliness. I remember John Wayne being regarded if not a joke at least as a dinosaur. Then I remember 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' coming out and almost single-handedly turning the whole thing round. It had a welcome message of hope and recovery after tragedy. Not long after came 'The Shootist' and everybody remembered that we all loved John Wayne and what he stood for. When he died for real I remember there being a real sense of loss that maybe there wouldn't have been if he had died - say - 6 years earlier.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You've made a very interesting point there, Anon (Paul, is that?). It was the Vietnam negative experience that affected so much round the Western world and it did have a very real impact on movies, and the western was no exception. John Wayne was pretty well the only hold-out against the negative revisionism of the 1965-75 period. I find it impossible to enjoy virtually any western from that period (except Wayne's).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is no doubt that Vietnam and disillusion affected Westerns as they did so many other aspects of popular culture, though I do think also that 'Vietnam' was read into Westerns too much - any late 60s/early 70s violence or brutality was put down to Vietnam, yet it had always been an ingredient of the genre.
      Those 70s Westerns in which the US Cavalry became the bad guys and slaughtered Indian villagers were inescapably Vietnam metaphors, though.
      For me, Josey Wales was a bit different, almost more Anarchist than anything else.
      Jeff

      Delete
  6. The trouble is some of Wayne's later Westerns were rife with "political"
    statements-especially THE TRAIN ROBBERS and CAHIL US MARSHALL (also with Grimes)
    Those two must rate as two of Duke's worst.
    I did however really enjoy Duke's two cop thrillers made round the same time
    McQ and BRANNIGAN both making a welcome change.
    Of the later Wayne films I really liked CHISUM and BIG JAKE.
    Of course it goes without saying we all are glad that he bowed out with
    THE SHOOTIST.
    I know you more or less loathe them Jeff but I find the two "Winners"
    (or in Jeff's book "losers") LAWMAN and CHATO'S LAND decent entertainments.
    Both are enhanced by strong supporting casts.
    I see from Jeff's back pages that he also likes the engaging and unheralded
    CATTLE ANNIE & LITTLE BRITCHES proof that you can make a gritty authentic
    Western without blood splattered gore and violence.
    I am also very fond of THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID.
    The problem is many USA Westerns tried to compete with the Spaghetti's
    and THE DEADLY TRACKERS,THE HUNTING PARTY and THE LAST HARD MEN are
    all equally dire as well as pretty revolting. At least THE LAST HARD MEN
    is not as dreadful as McLaglen's SOMETHING BIG a disaster if ever there
    was one.
    Finally I liked Jeff's description of JOSEY WALES being "Anarchist"
    and I am heartened that it is now considered as a genuine American Classic
    and considered by some to be Eastwood's finest Western.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was a 'political' time and many read 'statements' into the blandest of entertainments. My favorite though was when Duke called the pusillanimous governor character in McLintock! Humphrey.
      Lawman was dire despite (not because of) the great cast: Winner was so bad at Westerns he managed to make even Robert Ryan disappointing.
      Great Minnesota not my cup of tea. The Last Hard Men suffered from Heston but had its moments, with some good writing.
      Josey Wales came out in the centenary year of Bakunin's death. He would have liked it.
      Jeff

      Delete
  7. Hi Jeff Jerry and John. Yes - it was 'anonymous paul'again. I forgot to tag my name on it. Picking up Jeff's point about reading too much Vietnam into late 60s early 70s westerns - would you put down the general cynicism of films like 'Death of a Gunfighter' and/or the downbeat endings of films like 'Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid' to Vietnam or maybe something else going on maybe in the general zeitgeist? I think the popularity of spaghetti westerns did a huge amount of damage. Apparently Leone said to Boeticher at a film festival 'I learned everything from you' but as far as I can see he learned absolutely nothing. Boeticher was about character and coffee around the campfire as much - or more - than a drawn out showdown and when somebody dies in a Boeticher film you usually care about it. Everything lyrical went out of the western and it's never really come back. Even recent films like 'Jan Got a Gun' seem to feel obliged to be set on farms on landscape so ugly nothing could possibly grow and in towns where it seems impossible to sustain an economy. I don't share the acclaim for Eastwood: I think he was usually part of the problem not the solution. As far as I can see the one person (or maybe 2) who has tried to revive lyricism is/are Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. Paul 'The Anonymous Kid'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Too much here to respond to in a small comments box!! We need a round-table discussion at a Western film festival with all of us on the panel.
      Jeff

      Delete
    2. Jeff, I must say for a '70's Western with little to say, the posse of commentators have a lot to say and I enjoyed it. The political and cultural elements of the discussion were intelligently done and as a result didn't turn into a political harangue. You have good readers.

      I had a college English Professor say that many times the writer means just what he writes. I think this is true for the most part and that many so-called critics, with their agendas, read way too much into works of literature and movies. In other words, they see what they want too see as long as it furthers their agendas of whatever stripe that might be. I think that I have muddied the waters enough here.

      I would like to end on a more positive note. Yes, the 1970's didn't see that many great or good Western movies. In 1979 Michael Cimino spent six months out in Montana and Idaho filming the dreadful HEAVEN'S GATE(1980), but at about the same time Clint Eastwood spent six weeks in Idaho and Oregon filming BRONCO BILLY(1980), I think is a minor masterpiece. The 1980's would be a much better decade for Western movies and Western TV.

      Delete
    3. Yes, there was also much Vietname-zeitgeist talk around movies at the time, I recall.
      I totally agree about the Titanic-like Heaven's Gate, and about Bronco Billy, an absolutely charming picture.
      Jeff

      Delete