A solid Western built around the familiar theme of a young man proving himself through the rigors of a dangerous adventure, The Culpepper Cattle Co. benefits from journeyman director Dick Richards’ background as a still photographer. Handsomely filmed in Arizona and New Mexico, the picture has a dusty, lived-in feel that makes the odyssey of a motley crew driving cattle through the American West seem credible and dangerous, even though the nonstop hardships the crew encounters represent unimaginative narrative contrivances.
Earnest juvenile player Gary Grimes, working at the apex of his brief semi-stardom following the coming-of-age classic Summer of ’42 (1971), plays Ben Mockridge, a wide-eyed farmboy who talks his way onto a cattle drive because he wants to become a man. The drive is supervised by tough Frank Culpepper (Billy “Green” Bush), who makes it plain that he values his stock more highly than the lives of his employees, so the picture asks whether Ben will find a place for himself among Culpepper’s crew of proven cowboys, and whether the crew will make it to the end of the line alive.
As in most episodic pictures that follow long journeys, some of the incidents in The Culpepper Cattle Co. are more interesting than others. Vignettes of Ben getting razzed by older men are perfunctory, and the picture meanders somewhat until rugged character actor Geoffrey Lewis shows up as Russ, the leader of a gang of replacement cowboys Culpepper hires after a run-in with rustlers.
Lewis’ forceful work gives the movie old-fashioned entertainment value and sly humor, especially when Russ clashes with Pete (Matt Clark), a quiet cowboy who doesn’t feel like getting killed in exchange for a day’s wages. Another vital utility player familiar from countless ’70s Westerns, Clark is memorably vulnerable here, displaying colors he should have been given the opportunity to explore in bigger roles. The picture gains further intensity when Culpepper’s group gets into a hassle with vicious landowner Thornton Pierce (John McLiam), setting the stage for a bloody showdown. And even though the guns-a-blazin’ finale stretches credibility (characters who have only looked out for themselves suddenly develop nobility), the story ends on a strong note, hammering home the film’s humanistic themes.
The Culpepper Cattle Co. isn’t unique, and it suffers because neither Grimes nor Bush are particularly dynamic performers, but it’s a thoroughly respectable entry into the genre of early ’70s Westerns intent on debunking old romantic myths.
The Culpepper Cattle Co.: GROOVY