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.