It’s hard to say exactly when the classic John Wayne-style Western keeled over and died of old age and the new ”anti-Western” was born. But the release of Sam Peckinpah’s ultraviolent, blood-and-guts epic The Wild Bunch in 1969 seems like a solid answer. Others might go back a couple years earlier for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s trilogy of spaghetti Westerns — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Either way, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Old West was no longer a place for white hats, moral certitude, and campfire sing-alongs over baked beans. A few examples: My Name Is Nobody, Once Upon a Time in the West, Jeremiah Johnson, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Death Rides a Horse, and A Bullet for the General. In these revolutionary anti-Westerns, complicated loners who rarely played by the rules were the new cowboys. And Remington rifles were their peace pipes.
Another surprisingly good forgotten flick from that period is 1972’s The Culpepper Cattle Co., just out for the first time on DVD. And while this sepia-hued oater with its jaunty banjo music may not be quite as dark and violent as a ride in Peckinpah’s saddle, it’s worth checking out. Set in 1866, Culpepper focuses on an eager young whippersnapper named Ben Mockridge (Summer of 42’s Gary Grimes) who wants nothing more than to be a cowboy. Needless to say, he has no clue what he’s in for when he signs up with a motley band of cattle drivers as a cook’s assistant (a position on the trail known by the castrating nickname ”Little Mary”).
The Culpepper chuckwagon is full of familiar faces to fans of the genre (even if the actors’ names may not be). There’s Bo Hopkins (The Getaway), Billy ”Green” Bush (Electra Glide in Blue), and, best of all, Geoffrey Lewis (just about any Clint Eastwood movie during the Carter era) as the group’s resident loose cannon. Whenever a gunfight’s about to break out — and in Culpepper they break out often — Lewis gets a psychotic gleam in his eye, like a kid who just woke up and remembered it’s Christmas morning.
On the cattle drive to Colorado, young Ben constantly finds new ways to screw up. And day by day his idealism about being a cowboy gets smashed to smaller and smaller bits. But by the end, it’s Ben who’s the only one willing to make a stand and do the right thing. There are some treacly coming-of-age moments in Culpepper that make it feel like an After School Special — albeit the world’s bloodiest After School Special. But it’s also a forgotten little anti-Western classic that’s really worth rediscovering.
Interesting footnote: In the opening credits, you’ll see a familiar name listed as the film’s associate producer — Jerry Bruckheimer. Yes, it’s the same one who now lords over Hollywood like the town’s zillionaire puppetmaster. Years before Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Flashdance, Culpepper was Bruckheimer’s first movie credit.