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  Culpepper Cattle Co., The Bad Ambition
Year: 1970
Director: Dick Richards
Stars: Gary Grimes, Billy Green Bush, Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Geoffrey Lewis, Wayne Sutherlin, John McLiam, Matt Clark, Raymond Guth, Anthony James, Charles Martin Smith, Larry Finley, Bob Morgan, Jan Burrell, Hal Needham, Royal Dano, Gregory Sierra
Genre: WesternBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ben Mockridge (Gary Grimes) is a wet behind the ears sixteen-year-old who wishes he could leave his village life behind and set out on an adventure. To pass the time he races his wagon with his best friend (Charles Martin Smith), but that wagon is actually used to transport the laundry for his widowed mother's cleaning business, and is about as far from any excitement as possible. What he has managed to get his hands on is a pistol and gunbelt, not that he has the courage to show his mother, but he has been practicing with his fancy moves and being quick on the draw, exactly what he believes makes a great gunslinger. Suitably prepared, he hears of Frank Culpepper (Billy Green Bush), a cattle herder, in the area and decides to introduce himself...

After 1969 and the triple whammy of Once Upon a Time in the West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, the Western as a genre was never quite the same, in spite of that trio of groundbreaking hits being very different films. What they did signal was there was change in the air, and audiences were no longer going to be satisfied with Westerns that celebrated frontier spirit and man's gotta do what a man's gotta do macho posturing, they were going to have to present a more nuanced or even cynical variation. Whether those audiences, the majority of them, had asked for such so-called revisionist Westerns was a moot point, but as the Vietnam War raged America was looking less heroic by the day.

Enter Dick Richards whose debut The Culpepper Cattle Co. was. He was one of a number of talents whose path to the big screen would only become more significant and influential over time, for he had started in advertising, gathering a reputation as one of the most inspired directors of commercials around and garnering a wealth of awards for his work in that sphere. But he yearned to branch off into something that could be less ephemeral and even be raised to the level of art, just as TV ads were not regarded in that light, so he settled on a tale of how the Wild West really was, or as the harder-edged new breed these fresh faces in the movie scene were bringing to the silver screen. Alas, Richards found he was not the only one with this idea.

1970 was really the year of the down and dirty, grimy, and meanspirited Western, about as far away from the Roy Rogers white hat vs black hat matinees as it could be, and The Culpepper Cattle Co. was lost in the shuffle to an extent. However, on the plus side it did become a cult movie for selected audience members found its harsh, determinedly anti-romantic offerings difficult to forget, especially those who had been used to those far less morally ambiguous works in this style that had marked it out as family entertainment. Of course, this was revisionism in itself, for there had been plenty of Westerns in this vein throughout the fifties, even back in the thirties and forties, you merely had to watch an Anthony Mann example to see that: what those did not have was a loosening of censorship to allow more vivid violence, swearing and a sexual element.

Indeed, in those past Westerns those who turned to violence were regarded as either weak or somehow psychologically damaged, and it took a more capable if rather hypocritically no less violent man to do the decent thing and restore order, as far as he could at least. Come the seventies, those morals were blurred for the climate of the era put into question all sorts of behaviour by those supposing they had integrity - that damn war in the Far East once again infecting the mood of filmmakers, whether they agreed with the fighting or not. Here Gary Grimes was the equivalent of a new recruit up for the fight who ended up with the tough existence on the frontline slapping him down, so much so that by the end he is utterly disillusioned and what he does was a deal breaker for some Western fans. Surrounded by an excellent cast of genre faces, some better known that others, Grimes looked the part as the naïve youth (his career fizzled not long after), and if Richards was too keen to rub his nose in the awfulness, it did make a strong impression. Music by Jerry Goldsmith and Tom Scott.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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