The Cowboys (1972)

All they wanted was their chance to be men...and he gave it to them.

When his cattlemen abandon him for the gold fields, rancher Wil Andersen is forced to take on a collection of young boys as his cowboys in order to get his herd to market in time to avoid financial disaster. The boys learn to do a man's job under Andersen's tutelage; however, neither Andersen nor the boys know that a gang of cattle thieves is stalking them.

The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men.
The Cowboys is directed by Mark Rydell and adapted from the novel written by William Dale Jennings; who co-writes the screenplay with Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr. It stars John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern and Colleen Dewhurst. John Williams scores the music and Robert Surtees is the cinematographer. Plot sees Wayne as tough cattleman Wil Andersen, who after finding all his cowhands have fled to find their fortune elsewhere, is forced to use a bunch of green teenagers to get his beef to market. It's a journey of some distinction, for Wil, the boys and the villains who lurk on the edges of the frame.
If ever there was a John Wayne picture that was in need of serious critical reevaluation, both as a measure of his acting ability-and quality in film narrative, then The Cowboys is the one. It's a film that has been known to upset the liberal minded, where the ideology at its core has been lambasted as being objectionable in the least. Yet looking at it closely, away from the humour that does exist within, it finds the Duke at his most vulnerable, therefore believable, and at its centre it's a coming of age tale told with cynical coldness. During this cattle drive innocence will be lost, Andersen is tough and a disciplinarian, yet he's always a benevolent father figure. Wil himself hit the cattle drive trail at 13, he knows the pains and perils of such a task. He also knows that boys need to become men, especially out here in the wilderness. I'd be disappointed in a piece of Western genre cinema if it glossed over this fact. And The Cowboys doesn't, it has a sting in its tail, the trick is that the boys are not judged by how Wil taught them, but defined by a turn of events that calls on them to "man" up. The actions of another being the catalyst for childhood's ending.
Robert Surtees' photography paints a beautiful picture, it's pastoral, broad and appealing, but crucially it doesn't make it poetic. These young lads are entering the unknown, each section of God's great land is beautiful to us, but dangerous to them. It's an overlooked point that critics of the film ignore, that of Wil Andersen not leading these boys on a romantic trip thru the colourful terrain. It's not romantic, it's dangerous, and it's credit to Surtees that he achieves both sides of the coin; beauty and peril in the same frame. The young actors are, expectedly, a mixed bunch, but there's nothing here to be overtly negative about. Roscoe Lee Browne is terrific, his shift from wry observationalist to "Mother Hen" is handled with great skill, and Bruce Dern is memorable in more ways than one. The complaints come from not enough screen time for Colleen Dewhurst, who playing a bordello madame positively threatens to send the film's rating thru the roof (and the male viewers temperature's), while the running time is simply too long-too episodic-and quite frankly, unnecessary.
The Cowboys is not a perceived John Wayne macho based fantasy movie, it has meaning, depth, bravery and a first class performance from the Duke himself. 8/10

Sanford Productions (III), Warner Bros. Pictures by Mark Rydell, William Dale Jennings, Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr..
Stars: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst.

Genres: Adventure, Drama, Western

Keywords: montana based on novel or book boy beef cattle drive rancher cattle schoolboy

01/13/1972

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