MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Western/ Stars: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, Slim Pickens, Lonny Chapman, Sarah Cunningham, Allyn Ann McLerie, Alfred Barker Jr., Nicolas Beauvy, Steve Benedict, Robert Carradine, Norman Howell, Stephen R. Hudis, Sean Kelly, A Martinez, Clay O’Brien, Sam O’Brien, Mike Pyeatt, Charles Tyner, Matt Clark, Jerry Gatlin, Walter Scott, Wallace Brooks, Charise Cullin, Larry Randles, Larry Finley, Jim Burk, Ralph Volkie, Lonny Chapman, Maggie Costain, Dick Farnsworth, Wallace Brooks, Collette Poeppel, Norman Howell Sr., Rita Hudis, Margaret Kelly, Fred Brookfield, Tap Canutt, Chuck Courtney, Gary Epper, Tony Epper, Kent Hays, J.R. Randall, Henry Wills, Joe Yrigoyen/ Runtime: 134 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that anytime one thinks of the iconic actor that is John Wayne, one will usually paint him as a person who, more often than not in the films he acted in, was the poster guy for what people think of when they think of rough and rowdy Americana at its finest. Indeed here is a guy who was, among others, a man’s man, and a tough, to the point, and iconic guy who always required nothing but the maximum amount of respect possible. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Wayne is, a fair argument could be made, the most familiar actor in the history of movie magic in the United States and without a doubt one of the faces of that time honored genre that is the Western. To that end, the film that I am reviewing today, 1972’s The Cowboys, is an example of Wayne’s latter time in the genre and not only is the film a top-flight example of the genre to say nothing of a wonderful showcase for the elegance, style, and class that the genre can bring, but it is also a first-class example of the skill Wayne brought to the screen even if its narrative is not the typical Wayne Western narrative. I say that because in many respects the narrative is one that seems like an allusion to the steady flow of time and change, not just of how America as a country began to change during the Gold Rush during the latter part of the 1800s, but also in how time began to change how slices of cinematic pie were being made, a time incidentally where the Golden Western Era (an era with such dignitaries as Wayne himself, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Gary Cooper among others) was quickly fading and in its place new people were coming in with their own unique take on the genre (Clint Eastwood). At the same time this movie is also a terrific representative of the era in Wayne’s career in which it was made since the narrative hook of the rugged older guy having to come to depend on a younger generation to aid him could not have been timelier. Ultimately though, this is also a film that, despite being overshadowed in a lot of ways by both Wayne’s work before it and for his work in The Shootist 4 years later, and that is unfortunate because taken on its own merits this really truly is a well-helmed and performed film that was proof that not only did “The Duke” still have what it took to make this genre his own, but that he was a truly one-of-a-kind icon that the world still hasn’t had another quite like and most likely never will.
The plot is as follows: The Cowboys tells the tale of a rough and tumble rancher living in Montana around the time of the gold rush by the name of Wil Anderson who has found himself in a bit of a pickle when our story opens. It seems that darn near every single capable and seemingly dependable guy who could aid him on a 400-mile cattle drive has contracted gold fever and taken off in pursuit of their proverbial “greener pastures”. Thus it is that we see out of a sense of sheer desperation to get the herd moved to market, our intrepid hero finds himself seriously pondering and then subsequently acting on his friend, and town bar keep, Anse Peterson’s ingenious idea to recruit a group of boys from the town school to assist him. Having done so, and the boys in turn proving that at least they are competent on a horse, we soon watch as Wil, the boys, and their trail drive chef by the name of Jebediah Nightlinger set out on their long and quite grueling odyssey. Unbeknownst to any of them though, our group is being stalked by a gang of scorned men that has recently been let out of prison and who Wil had not permitted to work for him due to them lying about their situation during an impromptu interview. Suffice it to say then that with a group of rowdy cattle in front of them and these despicable desperados at their rear, it’s going to take all of Wil’s skill to not only get the cattle to market in one piece, but to also protect the youth in his charge whilst also helping them start the inevitable transition from boys to men and in the process give them a journey that they will remember for the rest of their lives…
Now right off the bat I should throw out there that this film manages to be a wonderful showcase for some fantastic helmsmanship from veteran in the land of movie magic Mark Rydell. Indeed Rydell manages to ensnare both the mood and vibe of this movie brilliantly from the most low-key elements all the way to the assorted potent and pathos-driven ingredients on display. Indeed there are a pair of moments that I can think that best showcase both Rydell’s terrific work at the helm, but also the message the movie is trying to get across. The first one is where we see a boy who has been christened “Stuttering Bob” cursing out Wil and in the process losing his stutter and this is important because it manages to function as a moment that, in addition to being moving, defiant, and integral all in one, also manages to set things up for Anderson to become a surrogate father to these young men through a mixture of tough love, understanding, decency, and genuine integrity. The other scene in question has to be the quite pathos-driven conclusion and it is how Rydell chooses to handle it that also manages to operate as a terrific example of how riveting he is as a film helmer. In addition, it is quite difficult not to find yourself in the shoes of the boys during the duration of this movie and the fury, anguish, sadness, and other emotion brought out near the end of the movie as a result manages to come roaring to life in a way you might not expect. Indeed make no mistake reader: The Cowboys really is an immersive movie that only deals with a cattle drive on a superficial level. Rather this is a film that deals a lot with such ideals as honor, fulfilling one’s duty, respect for yourself and for others, and also love. Finally, on a technical level, it should also be noted that the work done by the cinematography department in this film is downright amazing as it was with so many entries in the Western genre. Indeed I cannot honestly think of that many genres that possessed as much in the way of riveting and arresting images as much as the Western has and when mixing it together with iconic performances and soundtracks to name but a few key ingredients, it really doesn’t surprise me that so many see the Western as a definitive American genre of movie magic.
Yet as incredible as the helmsmanship by Mark Rydell is to the overall quality of the movie, I don’t think it would have been nearly as effective had the cast not given us as wonderful performances as they do in this. Of course it should come as no surprise to learn that it is the group of boys who are the real shining stars in this and their comprehension of the material they are working with, not just the horseback riding or the pistol shooting, but instead all of the subtle complexities that is what is showcased brilliantly in this. Indeed they manage to make the movie to the point that them giving anything less than 100% would have been to the movie’s detriment. As for John Wayne, he may get billed first and foremost, but he is most assuredly playing second fiddle to the cast of boys. Indeed his role in this is of a surrogate father of sorts that is insightful and steady, and firm yet also considerate. Indeed as the movie goes on, the boys are able to start see who he is truly emerge and as a result they are able to come to not only respect him as a man, but love him as the dad they wish they had. Indeed it is the steadiness of Wayne throughout the entirety of the movie that operates as the adhesive keeping things together and for as integral as the performances given by the boys in this are, it is the role being played by Wayne and his execution of said character that is the true cornerstone of the themes at play in the movie. With all of that said though, I think it is the character of Jebediah Nightlinger, played by the great Roscoe Lee Browne, who is perhaps the best-rounded individual the film has to offer. Indeed not only is the dialogue given to his character top-notch, but his delivery of said dialogue is just as wonderful and his portrayal is the best mix of kind and courageous imaginable.
All in all I am pleased to tell you all that the iconic slice of cinematic pie that is The Cowboys is a truly iconic and riveting entry in that legendary film genre known as the Western that manages to come saddled, pun intended, with quite a bit in the way of integral concepts and thematic material including the bonds that we as people come to form, and the true value of those integral ideals that we should all try to possess some degree of including trust, integrity, loyalty, and above all honor and respect. At the same time however, this slice of cinematic pie is one that also functions as a riveting coming-of-age saga that works as beautifully as it does because the thespians involved from the boys themselves all the way to the screen veterans in the form of Wayne, Browne, and to a lesser extent Dern (who is delightfully despicable in this incidentally) all comprehend and can embrace the concepts that the film is choosing to operate with. As for the superficial ingredients at play with this slice of cinematic pie they are all top-flight in every sense of the word. Indeed the cinematography is absolutely beautiful and rousing, the score is electric, and the writing and the pacing are perfectly on point. Thus The Cowboys truly is an integrity-laced, home styled slice of cinematic pie that manages to entertain whilst also making you think and truly is a low-key yet terrific outing from an icon who gave us a career full of iconic moments and films alike. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Cowboys “72” a solid 4 out of 5.