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GIVE AMERICAN film makers a drop of truth, and they'll try to expand it into oceans. A decade ago, the West was little more than a prairie or canyon-pitted vista through which beleaguered Wasp heroes played out moral fantasies. Justice was simple, a matter of everyone sticking to the place they could carve for themselves on the land, and ethics were administered with guns.
But no more. Even in today's hack westerns, dynamic forces are at work. The old settler vs. Indians and ranchers crises have been multiplied: brothels vs. churches, robber barons vs. entrepreneurs, California and Texas vs. Mexico (as last outpost frontiers), and one theme above them all-the cussing, whoring, rootless, indomitable old rider (be he gunslinger or lawman) vs. the encroaching complexity of modern society.
However, even more truthful cliches cannot supply the specific historical sense, and sincere point of view which still have to animate these more involved situations. We've been given The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and parts of Little Big Man. But The Culpepper Cattle Co. and Bad Company have also been foisted upon us, and they're bad 'uns.
I wandered into the first hoping to find a sleeper, and was instead treated to a Marlboro commercial cum contemporary sex and violence. Ostensibly, the film is a realistic account of a north-from-Texas cattle drive, as seen through the eyes of a novice cattleman (none other than the Summer of '42 boy, Gary Grimes). But I can't trust it past the costumes and they too look a bit anxiously picturesque.
Director Dick Richards hasn't filmed a story, only a series of along-the-trail anecdotes which illustrate the boy's macho training, boss Frank Culpepper's disciplinary authority over his unruly group (an authority of sheer professional certitude), and the slender code of honor of the four orneriest critters--gunmen Culpepper picks up to replace men shot by cattle thieves.
What makes the film finally obnoxious is the attempt to heroicize these four moral morons by putting them in a situation which demands that they kill for our applause. At one rest stop, they are stripped of their guns by a rancher on whose land they've let their cattle graze. They are considerably teed off by the encounter. A few miles later they happen on a fledgling religious colony which offers water to the entire cattle-crew. When the rancher threatens to drive both groups away, once again claiming the land to be his own, ultimate incorrigibility is aroused. Following the kid's weepy lead, the four turn their back on Culpepper, saying "Some things mean more than cattle." They protect the religious horde and take revenge on their insults. Everyone save the boy and the holy folk is killed. Then I walked out. I can't stand unearned happy endings.
Culpepper may mean to be about Texas, but it's really California history. An orphan leaves a mother who then must make her living by laundry, a disproportionate number of Mexicans drive cattle, and the pilgrims come out of nowhere--and no religion as we know it. Richards attempts to give his film some resonance by using great bit players like Royal Dano and Bo Hopkins, but even these worthies' roles are inflated beyond their acting potential. Both before and behind the camera, everyone's just on some bad kind of trip.
BAD COMPANY, which is finishing up an unexpectedly brief run at the Seck 57, is relatively masterful. At least its action is coherent. It also boasts a predictable nihilistic chic. If you expect a lot from Robert Benton and David Newman, the screenwriters of Bonnie and Clyde, you'll be disappointed. If you've always suspected that Arthur Penn was the real here of that effort, and that the pair never left Esquire far behind, your worst suspicious will be confirmed.
Benton and Newman spin a yarn based on the exploits of the gangs of runaway boys who roamed the western territories in order to flee from the Civil War draft. The two heroes are Drew Dixon, an Ohio boy of sound upbringing, and Jake Rumson, a Pennsylvania wildcat, not only a runaway but a deserter. Jake, contemptuous of all authority and opinion other than his own, leads the gang Drew joins up with. And Drew, for reasons unexplained, becomes his only friend.
Ea route to a Virginia City destination (which they don't arrive at in the course of the film), they discover that they don't really want to live free off the land, only steal from it. Tragedy strikes, and comedy. The youngest foul-mouthed wanderer gets his head blown open for trying to steal a pie off a farmhouse windowsill; a raid on a stagecoach is foiled when the planned decoy enters the carriage and rides away. Except for Jake and Drew, the group breaks apart with several ingenious brands of double-cross.
BUT NONE have been more twofaced than Drew, who has been hoarding $85 for himself--even while his buddies starved. When Drew accepts Jake's view of things, and the two become bona fide bandits in the film's last shot, we almost feel relieved. Drew's materialistic piety has been wearing us down: since cash is all he cares about, we've already wondered why he has scruples about getting it illegally.
Of course, Benton and Newman cheat themselves. The causes of Drew's change are never limned (neither are Jake's, but he's just doing what comes naturally). If the intent is not to study two representative characters, but to recreate some adventure folklore about man-child in the promised land, the failure is just as great. Everyone besides Jake and Drew is even more of a caricature. In fact, the direction is so poor that in any scene which boasts more than a few people and requires some creativity on the part of the director, half the actors' faces are totally blank.
There is one unqualified success: David Huddleston's Big Joe, an aging outlaw with the fight knocked out of him, who is spare in action but effulgent in abuse, and directs his thugs like the Joe Mankiewicz who Benton and Newman once worked for (on whom the character is reportedly based). Still, there's a lot of soggy Harvey Schmidt pianoforte and vacant land-scapes and awkward tries at folksiness to go through before he meets his end. By the time he brags about being "the oldest whore on the block," it's become clear that not only Jake and Drew, but Benton and Newman, are the youngest.
What's most insidious about the enterprise is that the physical authenticity, and the elegiac tone of the music and photography (sepia-tinged by the talented Gordon Wills), persuades people that this is a sincere attempt to recapture history. The case is actually simpler. Once more Hollywood entertainers are projecting their own barren sensibilities on the past.
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