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When his cattle drivers abandon him for the gold fields, rancher Wil Andersen is forced to take on a collection of young boys as his drivers in order to get his herd to market in time to avoid financial disaster. The boys learn to do a man's job under Andersen's tutelage, however, neither Andersen nor the boys know that a gang of cattle thieves is stalking them. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
An engrossing Coming-Of-Age story and a rollicking good western to boot! Wil Anderson (John Wayne), a 60 year old cattle rancher is ready to herd his stock to Belle Fouche, but "gold fever" has struck the able-bodied men in his community, so Anderson is left with three choices: Herd the cattle alone; fore-go until next year and leave himself and his wife pauperized; or whip 11 boys from ages 9 through 15 into ridin', ropin' and ranchin' cattle-hands to get his livestock to market. He opts for the third choice and what happens next is as entertaining a tale as the old west could ever provide.
Having lost his own two sons ("They went bad. Or I did . . . I'm not sure which,") from the outset Anderson is ill at ease in the company of 11 virginal children, more at home playing cowboy than being one and his solution is to treat them as men so that they grow up quick and keep him from losing his income. Adding to his troubles is an untried cook named Jebediah Nightlinger, a world-wise man of the plains who happens to be black -- something new to everyone on the ride.
The script is well written and never boring. The dialogue and performances are uniformly enjoyable all around. Watching these school kids turn from babies into men as they are introduced to a world with unforgiving weather, hazardous terrain, their first experience with Tennessee Sour Mash, death, treachery, and cattle rustling is a sight to behold. And as the youngsters become men, Wil Anderson, in his own rough and awkward way, is able to become the father he failed to achieve with his own sons.
There is a quaint and delicately restrained scene involving two of the boys stumbling upon a traveling troupe of prostitutes, headed up by Kate, an older Madam seamlessly played by the late, great Colleen Dewhurst. You can't help but smile at the entire delicious interplay between boys and girls; Nightlinger and Kate.
But every deck has a joker and in this story it is Long Hale, played with wild-eyed psychotic subtlety by the exceptional Bruce Dern. Anderson knows a vicious criminal when he sees one and Hale is the dictionary definition in Wil's book. Anderson refuses to hire Hale and his "friends" for the cattle ride. Better done with the school boys. But Hale has a surprise in store for Wil. He's following the cattle ride and plans to rustle the herd away from Anderson. What kind of resistance will 11 kids have against a gang of over a dozen seasoned killers"? Directed with consummate skill by the brilliant and unheralded Mark Rydell (the man also responsible for The Reivers and On Golden Pond), he bathes the film in rich russets, dark and supple browns, creamy beige, and captures the dusty plains, the sparse autumn woodlands, the cow hides, horse flesh, leather, ropes, and tumbleweeds of the Old West with an almost pastoral beauty. This picture is gorgeous to look at! John Williams contributes a vibrant and energetic score (what else would you expect?) with a harmonica's drawl and wail that let's you know Long Hale isn't far away.
Wayne is just right as Anderson. He sort of softens his John Wayne persona for the role and hits all the right notes. But it is Roscoe Lee Browne who stands out in this film. He is the brightest penny in a cast full of bright pennies. He, too forges a bond with the boys in the moment of everyone's darkest hour through his understanding that they've become men worthy of his respect and praise and, while he may not be able to achieve a surrogate father role, he becomes their trusted uncle and one of them.
How the boys resolve the theft of the cattle herd and exact a fitting justice on the evil Long Hale is nothing short of brilliant. And the arrival of the cattle into Belle Fouche is almost tear producing as the town and we the viewers understand the price of manhood.
This is not a western for pre-teens or younger. The language is rough and Nightlinger is referred to by the "N" word frequently. But for teens and older, this is a great introduction to John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, and westerns in general. It is also a chance to get to know the work of one of Hollywood's true great contemporary directors, Mark Rydell. I would love to tell you more but, as Nightlinger points out at a key moment in this film, "I have the inclination. I have the maturity. I have the where-with-all. Sadly, I do not have the time." Enjoy!
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