John Wayne was about sixty-four years old when he made "The Cowboys" in 1971, and looking it. But he was still going strong and still playing the iconic hero we all expected him to play. Although the movie tries to do a lot more than it delivers, you've got to give Wayne and director Mark Rydell credit for making a big, old-fashioned Western at a time when the genre was in its death throes, and the country was suffering the disillusionment of a long, drawn-out war in Vietnam and looking for weightier, edgier, more cynical things at the movies.
The setting for this one is Montana, the "Big Sky" country, in the 1870s, and Wayne plays Wil Andersen, a proud, flinty, hard-driving cattleman. However, he's got a problem: His cowhands have gotten gold fever and deserted him for the mining camps, leaving him with nobody to help him drive his cattle to the railhead some four-hundred miles away. Then a friend, Anse Petersen (Slim Pickens) suggests he ask the schoolboys in the area if they'd like the job. At first, Wil thinks it's a dumb idea, but being desperate, he gives the boys--close to a dozen of them aged ten to fifteen--a tryout. Even if the kids have never been on a trail drive before, as Wil soon finds out they can all ride darn well.
For a cook, Wil hires a black man, Jedediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), and off they go. Trouble is, a no-goodnik follows them, the villainous Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) and his gang of equally nefarious cutthroats, who are out to steal the cattle.
And that's about it. We see a few long scenes in which the boys do some bronc riding and cattle roping. Then we see Will and the boys herding cattle along the trail. After that, there's a relatively unnecessary scene involving some camp-following ladies. Finally, in the last half hour of this 135-minute extravaganza, there is the inevitable conflict with the would-be cattle rustlers. In essence, we've got about a half an hour of plot and in over two hours of running time.
Sure, it's a coming-of-age story with Wayne as the surrogate father figure, the point being that Wil takes out a group of boys and they return men. Over the years, I've heard this theme advanced in the argument that "The Cowboys" is a good "family" film. However, I would beg to differ. In the course of the story, I saw boys learn only the virtues of killing and revenge, hardly the best of "family" values unless you're a member of the Manson family. Yet even the director in his audio commentary attempts to justify the movie's vengeance motif. There is also the fact that the film winks at the kids' getting drunk, a part of their growing up according to the movie's philosophy, and that Wil's notion of curing a stuttering kid of his speech impediment is to get him to call him a "goddamn, mean, dirty son-of-a-bitch" really fast. One simply has to accept these matters as part and parcel of the movie's view that kids mature through tough experiences. Well, at least Browne's character keeps the boys away from the young ladies. If you buy into any of this, the film works. If you don't, you're going to have a problem.
Anyway, the movie's central premise is only one of several weaknesses, the others being that the film is way too long (it even has an overture, plus entr'acte and exit music); it has a John Williams musical score that is overwrought; and the acting with one notable exception is, to say the least, unexceptional. John Wayne is good at playing John Wayne, and if that's your criterion for success, then he is altogether successful. No one could have played his part any better, not even George C. Scott, whom I've read director Rydell initially wanted. It's just that the role doesn't allow much room for character development, so what you see in Wayne is what you get, no more, no less.
Still and all, the movie's shortcomings don't exactly doom it to failure. For instance, there is the matter of Roscoe Lee Browne. As the black cook, a novelty for the boys, who have never seen a black man before, Browne excels. He is the highlight of the show, in fact, his character noble, eloquent, wise, just, firm, and resourceful. Then, there is the Cinemascope photography of noted cinematographer Robert Surtees, photography as big as all outdoors. Surtees was no stranger to big-screen work, even before wide screens came into being, with movies like "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "King Solomon's Mines," "Quo Vadis," "Oklahoma," "Ben-Hur," "Cimarron," "Mutiny on the Bounty," "The Summer of '42," and dozens of others to his credit. Filmed almost entirely on location in Colorado and New Mexico, "The Cowboys" looks as good as any epic Western ever made.
Basically, then, "The Cowboys" is a mixed bag. It's beautiful to look at, and the themes of turning boys into men and turning the old West over to a new generation work at least superficially. But despite an unconventional and surprising ending, the movie never generates much in the way of tension, thrills, suspense, or humor. Instead, it substitutes eye-catching scenery and imagery--a lot of shots attempting to emulate the flavor of old Frederick Remington paintings of the early West--for plot and character development. Depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing, you could be in for a long wait to the finish.
The picture comes in at a ratio that measures a little over 2.20:1 across my television, about the same as its 70 mm blow up, although probably due to my TV's overscanning not quite the 2.40:1 at which WB say they made the transfer. No matter; close enough. With the exception of some grain in wide expanses of sky (which in a couple of scenes is a bit severe), the video quality is excellent. The colors look natural, intense without being overpowering, the high-bit-rate, anamorphic processing helping the hues to stand out lushly, especially in the mountain settings. Definition is also good, with deep black levels clarifying object delineation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is smooth and clean, well spread out in the front speakers, though lacking ambient bloom in the surrounds. While the strings are a tad forward and bright, making the background music a little edgy at times, it's nothing to fret over. More important, the dynamic range and frequency response are reasonably wide, and the transient impact is quick and strong.
The primary extras are an audio commentary by director Mark Rydell, in which he lovingly traces the film's creation, and a newly made, twenty-eight-minute featurette, "The Cowboys: Together Again," a 2006 reunion of the cast, crew, and director after thirty-five years. Although some of the cast could not make the reunion and sent in their segments separately, the piece contains some sweet and humorous remembrances. The other major extra is an eight-minute vintage featurette, "The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men," a behind-the-scenes, making-of affair, not in the best of shape.
In addition, the disc includes thirty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; a full-screen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. What's more, we also get a packet of glossy, black-and-white, postcard-sized movie stills and an illustrated slipcover. Quite nice.
Even with a closing that breaks with tradition, "The Cowboys" is not as eventful as one would have hoped for in a John Wayne movie. I found much of the picture slow-going and the values it espouses suspect. Nevertheless, there are all those wide-open spaces and that handsome cinematography to consider, along with another solid (if uninspired) role for Wayne and a terrific performance by the late Roscoe Lee Browne. Every blessing counts.