I'm going to cut right to the chase here. In Mark Rydell's 1972 film "The Cowboys," John Wayne dies onscreen. This did not happen too frequently in John Wayne's long film career and when Wayne's character did meet his demise, it was typically in a heroic and brave manner. In "The Cowboys," Bruce Dern's character shoots Wayne's character in cold blood and begins the onslaught of bullets by shooting Wayne from behind. Here you have one of the true iconic American actors and a film dared to kill off a John Wayne character by murdering him in cold blood. It wasn't risky enough to cast the sixty five year old actor alongside a dozen children, but by cowardly killing him? "The Cowboys" was a risky proposition, but decades later, the film has become a classic and the well-aged actor with a missing lung and a body ravaged by cancer continued to perform his own stunts and show that he was still a potent force in Hollywood.
"The Cowboys" has John Wayne as Wil Anderson, an aging cattle herder that wants to move his herd for profit before he is unable to do so. However, his hired hands have all fled in search of gold during a gold rush and Anderson is faced with a precarious situation where he may not be able to move his herd and secure the money necessary to provide his loving wife Annie (Sarah Cunningham) with enough money to survive after he has passed on. In order to deliver the cattle to a destination roughly four hundred miles away, Anderson turns to a band of schoolboys of various ages to drive his horses and cattle across the dangerous country side after the urging of his friend Anse Petersen (Slim Pickens). Anderson is at first very hesitant to use the pint sized cowboys, but after they prove their horse riding skills and true grit, Anderson sets off with his head of cattle, the young boys and a negro cook named Jedediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne).
After a rough start with some of the boys and their learn-by-fire affair, Anderson and the boys approach their destination. However, a man who had approached Anderson for a job earlier, but had lied and turned Anderson away from hiring him and his friends, has tracked Anderson and plans on stealing the herd. That man, Asa Watts (Bruce Dern), bullies one of the boys into not telling Anderson and Nightlinger that they are being followed and Watts is given plenty of time to spring his ambush. When Watts and his men finally approach Anderson, the elder cattle herder refuses to stand down and beats Watts in a fist fight. Watts shows his cowardice and refuses to accept defeat and fills Anderson's body with a couple bullet-holes. They leave the boys behind and steal the cattle, but the boys decide to get the guns from Nightlinger and attack the cattle thieves and complete the job they were hired to do.
"The Cowboys" is among one of the better John Wayne films and is surprising in a few regards. First, Wayne shows his acting ability as he performed alongside a dozen young men, who tried their darndest to upstage the elder statesmen. Wayne had impressed me earlier as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" with his willingness to ride horse and not back down from physical challenges. This is a man who had a lung completely removed and his good lung partially removed after being ravaged by lung cancer due to a five pack a day smoking habit. In "The Cowboys," Wayne wrestles with a powerful and wild horse, rides hard across the plains and beats up Bruce Dern. If Wayne wasn't a professional, then I don't know who was. The Duke has certainly earned my full respect after seeing his later films. The 6'5" actor had some difficulty in walking long distances, but gave it his all during filming.
The second manner in which "The Cowboys" impressed me was the acting and cowboy skills of the young men. They rode horses, and comfortably shared screen space with a true living legend. Robert Carradine of "Revenge of the Nerds" fame made his big-screen debut and played a boy who was nowhere near the nerdy Louis Skolnick. Sean Kelly, Stephen R. Hudis, Nicolas Beauvy, A Martinez, Mike Pyeatt and the other boys were all sensational. Some of them were actors, while others were actual rodeo boys. However, their coming-of-age portrayals as cowboys between the ages of eleven and fifteen were incredible. Knowing they each rode the horses in the film and performed acts typical of real cowboys was a testament to how hard they worked in this John Wayne film. A Martinez, for instance, could not ride a horse when filming began. Considering they had to share the screen with the physically imposing and legendary Wayne was another feather under their hats. They showed no signs of being intimidated or star struck.
I enjoyed "The Cowboys" immensely. There was a time when I had Wayne stereotyped as a man who lucked out by finding many great cowboy and war hero roles and had stated his ‘limited' acting skills were perfectly suited to these roles. I was certainly wrong in ever stating Wayne was limited in any way. He was truly a great actor and a great professional and even when he had a handful of years remaining, he was still on top of his game. Thankfully, I still have Keanu Reeves to pick on, but after watching numerous John Wayne films in celebration of his 100th birthday, I have found a tremendous respect for the man. There are a couple John Wayne films I prefer over "The Cowboys," but this is still a greatly above average production. It is not your typical Western and by placing nearly a dozen boys against the actor made for an interesting experiment that is unlike any other John Wayne films. Anybody who loves film should share in the celebration of John Wayne's centennial, and watching "The Cowboys" is one of many good ways to celebrate.
I would have never put any money on a wager betting that old John Wayne Westerns would be among the better looking high definition releases in the first year of the lives of the Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. However, "The Searchers" is still the benchmark of vintage catalog titles and among one of the absolute sharpest looking transfers currently available on either format. "The Cowboys" and its 2.35:1 VC-1/1080p transfer is not nearly as sharp and impressive as "The Searchers," but it is well above average for any catalog title and considering the film is now a quarter of a century old, it has held up incredibly well. The film is an improvement over "Rio Bravo," which was also a nice transfer and there are moments when "The Cowboys" can rival "The Searchers." Regardless, John Wayne continues to look stunning in the world of ultra clear home theater.
The film features stunning visuals throughout its two hour and fifteen minute running time. However, unlike "The Searchers," "The Cowboys" suffers from bouts of softness that isn't as bad as some other catalog titles suffer, but keeps the film from being consistently incredible. When detail is on the upswing, there is a definite three dimensional appeal to the transfer and every possible ounce of detail comes across the screen. Individual grass blades may be counted, as can be granules of sand. Colors are also exceptional and not an ounce of color has been lost in the past quarter of a century. The sky is incredibly blue. Skin tones are perfect and every shade of brown imaginable is faithfully reproduced in the picture. Black levels are also strong and shadow detail is top notch. This may not be the best catalog transfer featuring John Wayne, but it still looks as strong and tough as The Duke.
While the vintage John Wayne catalog titles are absolute stunners when it comes to the visual department, they are technically capable sound wise, but simply do not stand out due to the limited nature of their source materials. "The Cowboys" is featured in English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and mastered at 640 kilobytes per second, but considering it is mastered from old monaural materials, the film feels limited and unimpressive. Dialogue and sound effects are nicely rendered, but contained only in the front channels, with the center speaker handling much of the load. This early John Williams theatrical score is very nicely handled by the Blu-ray release and hints of Williams later scores can be heard throughout this film and he certainly lends a more epic feel to the picture. The film's climactic moments when gunplay and gunfights are commonplace stand out when compared to the rest of the film. There is more action and excitement in these final scenes than the rest of the film and during this time, the rear surrounds are given something to do. Considering the picture was originally filmed in one channel sound, this isn't too bad. The mono track is retained for the French and Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 mixes.
"The Cowboys" has recently been released as a premium-priced special edition on DVD. Thankfully, all of the supplements from that pricey release have stampeded their way onto Blu-ray and I've gotten my cheesy Western cliché out of the way for this review. I had considered purchasing the DVD release, as I had not seen "The Cowboys" before screening the film for this review and I'm thankful I had waited until the Blu-ray disc arrived. Contained on a single-disc, BD-50 platter, this is a nice little package for this classic Western.
The most notable and entertaining of the supplemental materials is the audio commentary by director Mark Rydell. Rydell was in his late thirties when he filmed "The Cowboys" and the seventy-three year old director does a quality job of discussing his experiences of making the film for the full length of the commentary. There are times when he sits back and watches the film to catch his breath, but the main is nearly three quarters of a century old. He is allowed to take a breather or three or four. Rydell comments on his experiences with Wayne and has a strong admiration for the actor. He also discusses the boys to great length. There are not many filmmakers who worked with Wayne still alive today. Of course, this film featured a lot of young boys, so "The Cowboys" is the rare exception to the rule. Anyhow, this is a rather good commentary track.
Two features and the Theatrical Trailer join the commentary track on the disc. The first feature is the longest of the two and perhaps the most enjoyable. The Cowboys Together Again (28:39). On December 12, 2006, the surviving boys joined director Mark Rydell for a sit down chat and reunion. Four boys sit with Rydell on screen and Robert Carradine and Roscoe Lee Browne provide pre-recorded comments, as they could not make the reunion. A Martinez, Bruce Dern, Stephen Hudis and Norman Howell, Jr. are present. After not sitting together for nearly thirty six years, this was a fun little feature with those that could make the journey and had not passed on. The second feature, The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men ( ) is a far shorter vintage film that deals with the making of the film and the steps needed to make these boys into men.
"The Cowboys" was one of the final films by John Wayne. The actor would live for another seven years after the film was released, but he would only make six more years until his retirement in 1976. This film further cemented my newfound strong admiration for Wayne and the film showed how tough, professional and talented the man truly was. The young boys that shared the screen with Wayne did an amazing job as well and Bruce Dern never fully recovered from shooting Wayne in the back. This great film looks very good on Blu-ray. The image is simply stunning at times. It isn't as spectacular as "The Searchers," but is still an above average catalog title. The sound is good, but its mono beginnings do not give the film much room to impress the ears. The features are not plentiful, but enjoyable. This is yet another strong John Wayne film on the high definition formats. Hopefully, it won't be too much longer until another one is released to enjoy.