Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Culpepper Cattle Company

(Australia: Dust, Sweat, and Gunpowder, 1972)

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we began to see something called “revisionist westerns.” That is, many of the familiar tropes of traditional westerns, which were largely bullshit, were abandoned in favor of a more realistic depiction of what the Wild West was really like. So the saloons are not brightly lighted, populated with gorgeous girls, with a tinkling piano playing. They are stinking shitholes. Good guys don’t wear white hats or shoot the guns out of the hands of bad guys. There are no High Noon or Gunsmoke quick draw smackdowns. Towns are small and dirty. Gunfights are conducted from cover, and shooting in the back is the preferred way to kill someone, if you really had to kill him.

In particular, being a cowboy was in no way glamorous or fun. As the cook says to the not-so-smart young man who joins the cattle drive, “Cowboying is what you do when you cain’t do nothing else.” How true that was. It was exhausting, dirty, dusty, dangerous, poorly paid work. This is one of the best movies like that. Along the way the cowpokes encounter rustlers, horse thieves, killers, and rapacious land owners, and deal with stampedes. And the boss of the drive, Mr. Culpepper, is only interested in getting the cows to market. If they catch a son-of-a-bitching horse thief, they will hang him, but if not, they just move on.

I liked it a lot until the ending, when a “Man of God” and his pacifist flock insist on staying on a piece of land claimed by a really, really nasty man. God told him “This is the place!” by God! (The nasty man is played by Hal Needham, the legendary stunt man.) The stupid kid, who thought being a cowboy would be real exciting, and manages in the course of the movie to fuck up just about every way a boy could fuck up, stays with the settlers, and four of the others decide to stand with him. In the ensuing battle the landowner and all his men are killed, but so are all the cowboys except the kid, who didn’t even have the sand to fire his weapon. So when the stinking man of God sees all the violence, he decides this ain’t the place after all! It’s been stained by blood, and God told him to move on. And we’re going right now. The kid tells him you are going to bury my friends, or your brains are going to be all over the land God told you to settle. Then he throws his pistol away and walks off. It was an awfully unsatisfying ending.

Culpepper is played by Billy “Green” Bush (no relation), who was in a lot of cowboy movies and played the abusive husband who dies at the beginning of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He was a classmate of my ex-wife, who grew up in Long Beach. Bush is a pretty good actor.

At the beginning of the cattle drive the director, Dick Richards, offers up a homage to Red River, the John Wayne classic by Howard Hawks. As the cattle drive started in that one, there was a famous sequence where each cowboy in turn yelled out a yeeeeeee-haw!!!! in close-ups and medium shots. That sequence is recreated almost shot for shot, and it was fun to watch.