Thursday, 27 September 2012

Movie Review: The Cowboys (1972)


A coming-of-age-on-horseback story, The Cowboys is a western trail movie about boys becoming men by facing the rigours of a cattle drive. John Wayne, still barking commands from the saddle at age 65, is the ultimate grizzled grandfather figure, guiding a group of teenagers through the one-way canyon connecting children to adulthood.

Cattleman Wil Anderson (Wayne) needs to deliver his large herd 400 miles across rough terrain to market, before the winter sets in. With all the local cowboys preoccupied with the latest gold rush, Anderson has to turn to local 13 to 15 year old schoolboys for help, including Slim Honeycutt (Robert Carradine) and his friends. Another teenager, the sullen Cimarron (A Martinez) is not part of the school group and carries a large chip on his shoulder, but eventually joins the drive.

With the resourceful black cook Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) as the only other adult, Anderson leads the young amateur cowboys on a grueling journey, where they will battle the natural elements and tangle with barbarous rustlers led by the deranged Asa Watts (Bruce Dern).

The Cowboys carries a blunt message: the path from child to man passes through suffering, loss, drink, women, revenge and violence. Somewhat metaphorical perhaps, but definitely crude. The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. adapts the William Dale Jennings book, and any nuance is muffled in the gleeful shooting spree that the kids precipitate to earn their badge of manhood.

Easier to cheer is an enjoyable John Wayne performance. The stunt doubles are obviously doing all the physical work, but the Duke still dominates the screen and most other characters who dare to share his frame. Director Mark Rydell knows where the film's best asset rides, and gives Wayne's character plenty of leeway to throw his authoritarian weight around.

Roscoe Lee Browne adds a large dose of distinguished wisdom as the magnificently named Jebediah Nightlinger, Browne employing his booming voice and mysteriously honourable persona to achieve the almost impossible feat of standing up to Wayne's screen presence. Bruce Dern is western evil personified, a scumbag waste of oxygen not worthy of his horse, but alive long enough to cause substantial misery.

The kid actors are generally fine, although precious little screen time is dedicated to developing individual personalities. Other than the marginal career of Robert Carradine, none would parlay The Cowboys into sustained movie roles. Slim Pickens and Colleen Dewhurst round out the cast with relatively minor contributions.

The Cowboys misses several opportunities to enhance its narrative. A potentially interesting sub-plot about Anderson losing his own kids remains an untended green shoot, while the interesting character of Cimarron is stripped of his dangerous edge soon after joining the drive.

The Cowboys is left with an experienced veteran doing his best to elevate the movie beyond its brusque message. The west may have been a tough place to grow up, but celebrating blood thirst as a passage to manhood is not altogether necessary.






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