Genre: Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Release Date: January 13th, 1972 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Mark Rydell Actors: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, Robert Carradine, Slim Pickens
o other film of 1972 opened with an overture, one of the last remaining marks of an epic hopeful (Blake Edwards’ “Wild Rovers” tried that trick the year before). “The Cowboys” uses it as a sensational nudge in the right direction, heralding one of John Wayne’s most memorable works, with the “Duke” again sublimely slipping into a paternal role tinged with equal parts affecting sentimentality and inspiring formidableness. The production further boasts a timeless story about growing up and proving one’s worth (the classic coming-of-age formula), solid acting even for an especially large group of child performers, hilariously crotchety dialogue for Wayne, smart direction by Oscar nominee Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond”), and extraordinary theme music from composer John Williams.
Sixty-something Montana rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne) has a herd of cattle that needs to be driven from his Double O Ranch some 500 miles to Belle Fourche, South Dakota. His regular trail hands abandon him at the last minute for a gold strike, leaving him alone with his loving wife Anne (Sarah Cunningham), ornery cows, and overdue bills. Desperate for a solution, Wil turns to his longtime friend Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens), who scrounges up a group of young schoolchildren (all 15 and under) to tackle the task at hand.
“Come with grit teeth, ‘cause gentlemen, that’s when school really begins.” Wil is full of skepticism and doubt, but finally admits that the smattering of kids is certainly better than nothing. When his cook arrives, he’s in for another surprise: Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), an unexpected replacement, is a seasoned African-American army veteran – the likes of which the boys have never seen before. To top off Andersen’s trepidation, a trio of visitors arrives at the ranch, led by the grinning, stringy-haired Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) from Denton County, fresh out of jail and looking for work. When he’s caught in a lie, Asa and his men reluctantly depart, foreshadowing future troubles for Wil and his fresh crew of juvenile drovers.
“Damned if he ain’t almost human today,” comments one of the boys, as Wil reminds them every minute of every day that they’re just children. The trail treats them harshly, with rivers to ford, trust to be earned, booze to swipe from the cook when he’s not looking, and Sioux Indians to worry about – and the perpetual accompaniment of Wil’s verbal badgering. While Andersen serves as a surrogate father for the boys, he also assumes the driving force of psychological and moral maturation, coaxing the youths into uncommon responsibilities and unlikely avengement, perhaps controversially asserting that adulthood – especially in the severity of an Old West setting – must be attained through some means of violence. Nevertheless, he’s particularly admirable in this film, engineering strong, moving principles that don’t go unvalued even after he’s no longer physically guiding the workforce.
With an evenly paced 130-minute runtime, plenty of opportunities arise to build character, showcase adventure, generate laughs with the boys’ harmless antics and Wil and Jebediah’s reminiscence, and create squirm-inducing moments with the antagonist’s effortless devilishness. Dern certainly has no difficulty donning the guise of a villain. And just when the scenario becomes exceedingly gripping, an intermission and entr’acte calm things down, reacquainting viewers with Williams’ thrilling music. “The Cowboys” is an unforgettable experience, brilliantly combining teen elements with ensemble Western action while keeping Wayne’s signature, cantankerous older hero at the forefront – despite the unconventional, shocking twist that likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in Wayne’s filmography.
– Mike Massie