Thursday, June 7, 2012

John Wayne's The Cowboys

 If you've never seen Mark Ryydell's The Cowboys, this $15 triple pack from Warner's is your yellow brick road to an incredible movie.

The Searchers and Stage Coach get more love than this, and they certainly deserve all the praise, but The Cowboys, for mine, is right up there with them, and features not only one of John Wayne's greatest and most tragic performances, but is a grand and painful story of how boys become men.

I don't write about my love for John Wayne often on this blog, but when I do, I'm at a loss to convey what an incredible actor he was. He made the process look effortless with that trademark swagger and unique delivery style, but, like all good actors, it was the written material that made him shine so brightly.

The Cowboys script, by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank , Jr., and William Dale Jennings, sees Wayne taking a group of very green young boys on a tough cattle run. Along the way and over the course of the dusty two month trek they learn life lessons most grown-ups don't learn in fifty years while being tracked by Bruce Dern and his band of criminals. The film also features a touching performance by Roscoe Lee Browne as the company's cook and conscience, and showcases the talents of a very young Robert Carradine.

Made in '72, seven years before Wayne's death, the film includes a surprising amount of killing by children, some totally unexpected plot turns, and a rich John Williams score that sounds more like the early Goldsmith than the later Williams.

Director Mark Rydell also made The Reivers (a ripper), On Golden Pond, The River, and Intersection, but I'm unconvinced that he made anything better than The Cowboys. It's a superb achievement.  Robert Surtees' cinematography also boasts breathtaking day exteriors and beautifully lit night scenes.

Wayne often catches the criticism that he simply played himself in most movies. I say nonsense to that because it assumes that playing yourself would take no focus or discipline. A man is a complex creature, and deciding what part of yourself to draw from to play any character (even yourself!) is an equally complex process. Like every actor, Wayne had a deep and effective process, and that's what made him great, and that's why, when the scripts are good, he's got the screen authority of God.

The quality of all three movies on BluRay is pretty stunning.


  1. Love The Searchers,I've never seen this although I do have it on my to watch pile. Will make sure it quickly gets to the top of the pile after enjoying this post Mark.

  2. I agree with your opinion on this film as well as your appraisal of Wayne's acting skills. Whenever some wiseass cinephile starts up with that tired "John Wayne was a personality, not an actor" line I point them in the direction of this film and THE SHOOTIST (my favorite with Wayne).

    It's also worth noting that Wayne's 1970's westerns are underrated in general. Even a programmer like BIG JAKE offers a lot to enjoy, including a shocking amount of bloody violence for an all-ages film.

  3. Confession: I've never seen THE COWBOYS, and what I know is informed only from book-reading and its subreferencing in Wayne Kramer's RUNNING SCARED, but I think I can align myself with you in lauding it as underrated in the Duke canon. Particularly for the finish, which of course SCARED's ostensible antagonist initially challenges but ultimately understands and accepts in mirror action. It seems that in the better Wayne movies there is a hint that the character understands that for as much as he must act the way he does, it is not what he wants for the next generation. I got the same feeling in a way from watching Eastwood's GRAN TORINO: for all the publicity bluster from the filmmaker about political correctness, that film's finish definitely is straight from THE COWBOYS textbook, that his character wants to make sure that the next group of youths pursue another way to solve problems than he does.

  4. Hero -- It's earns its place on top of your pile. I sense you'll really enjoy it.


    Schlockmaniac -- THE SHOOTIST is an amazing movie, I agree, with an incredible Wayne performance.


    Marc -- great connection here between RUNNING SCARED and COWBOYS, Marc. I agree that both characters want the young to handle their problems in a different way.