The Cowboys

The-Cowboys-rev The Cowboys  (1972)    Warner Bros./Western    RT: 135 minutes    Rated PG (violence, language, suggestive material, kids drinking)    Director: Mark Rydell    Screenplay: Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.    Music: John Williams    Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees    Release date: January 13, 1972 (US)    Cast: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, Slim Pickens, Alfred Barker Jr., Nicholas Beauvy, Steve Benedict, Robert Carradine, Norman Howell, Stephen R. Hudis, Sean Kelly, A Martinez, Clay O’Brien, Sam O’Brien, Mike Pyeatt, Lonny Chapman, Sarah Cunningham, Allyn Ann McLerie, Charles Tyner, Matt Clark, Jerry Gatlin, Walter Scott, Wallace Brooks, Charise Cullin, Larry Randles, Larry Finley.      Box Office: $7.5 million (US)


 At this point in John Wayne’s career, it made perfect sense for him to play a father figure role rather than the action hero he usually played. Not that he still didn’t have it in him. He was very good in Big Jake the year before. He followed up his role in The Cowboys with Cahill U.S. Marshal and the 1974 big city cop flick McQ. No matter what role he plays, he’ll always be The Duke.

 The Cowboys, directed by Mark Rydell (The Rose, On Golden Pond), is one of Wayne’s best latter day films. In it, he plays Wil Andersen, an aging rancher who finds himself in a bind when all of his ranch hands abandon him in favor of a gold rush. He’s about to embark on a 400-mile cattle drive and can’t do it alone. A friend (Pickens, Blazing Saddles) suggests he hire schoolboys as cowhands. Due to the gold rush, there are no men for miles around. He’s not entirely convinced it’s a good idea but what other choice does he have. A group of boys show up at his ranch in hopes of being hired for the long treacherous journey across rough and rugged terrain. Andersen reluctantly takes them on, warning them first that he won’t coddle them. Joining them on the trek is cook Jeb Nightlinger (Browne, Jumpin’ Jack Flash).

cowboys It’s a difficult journey but the boys rise to the challenge, impressing Andersen who comes to care for them as if they were his own sons. Things take a deadly turn when they encounter a group of cattle rustlers led by ex-convict “Long Hair” (Dern, The Hateful Eight). The boys have to learn to really man up if they want to take back what rightfully belongs to them.

 A long time ago, I read an article about violence in movies in the 70s. It mentioned Dirty Harry, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange and The Cowboys. It criticized the last one for its depiction of kids killing adults. I saw the first three titles several times but I never saw The Cowboys until this past weekend even though I owned the DVD for ten years. I’m on a John Wayne kick right now; I’ve decided I’m going to binge on his movies this summer. As a cinephile and film critic, it’s my duty to be well-versed on one of the most iconic actors in the history of cinema. I’m not watching them in any particular order. I watched The Cowboys before Big Jake this past Saturday. I’m glad I finally saw it; it’s GREAT!

 At 65, The Duke still cut an imposing figure on the big screen. He commands every scene he’s in. He’s the very epitome of tough guy. When he fights Bruce Dern’s character in one pivotal scene, he easily bests his much younger opponent. Wayne also has a tender side as in the scene where he and the boys mourn the accidental death of one of their own. He really is/was an amazing actor. The rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Browne is very good as the cook always with a bottle of whiskey at the ready for after the boys go to sleep. He and Wayne have an easy, unforced rapport between them. There’s also a funny scene in the bunkhouse where he uses the boys’ curiosity about blacks (they’ve never seen one before) to his advantage. Dern excels at playing slimy, psychotic villains and Long Hair is right up there with the best of them. The junior members of the cast include a very young Robert Carradine (Revenge of the Nerds) as Slim, Clay O’Brien (The Apple Dumpling Gang) as Hardy and A Martinez (Santa Barbara) as quick-tempered Cimarron.

 The cinematography by Robert L. Surtees (The Last Picture Show) is top-notch. He makes wonderful use of the natural locations in Colorado and New Mexico. The score by John Williams (Star Wars) is also terrific. Rydell keeps The Cowboys at a nice pace. It’s not a thrill-a-minute shoot ‘em up but it’s not a slow contemplative piece either. It has plenty of drama, a dash of humor and a few nice action set-pieces. The climax where the boys take on Long Hair and his gang is AWESOME! Most importantly, The Cowboys tells a good story. It’s a riveting tale of action, drama, danger, bravery and manhood. It truly is an excellent western.


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