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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!
I've always had a feeling that John Wayne had some kind of health
crisis and deliberately chose The Cowboys to be his swan song film.
When it didn't work out that way, he went on and did some more until
Ever since his Oscar in True Grit, Wayne began playing men of his own age in his films and a common thread seemed to be imparting values to the next generations whether they wanted them or not. You can see that readily in films like Rio Lobo, Big Jake, Chisum, The Train Robbers, and Cahill, U.s. Marshal. Most especially in The Shootist with Ron Howard as his pupil.
But in The Cowboys he had a mess of pupils. Wayne's a hardworking rancher whose hands have deserted him because of a rumored gold strike. He has to get his cattle to market, so out of desperation he hires a bunch pubescent and pre-pubescent youngsters from the town.
The trail drive is quite the lesson for these kids. They learn about life that it is about hard work, responsibility, and keeping your given word. Wayne gets a second chance at fatherhood, he didn't do such a good job of it with his own two sons. More like grandfatherhood at his age, but the kids learn well.
Along as a second role model is Roscoe Lee Browne. Possessor of one of the greatest speaking voices in the English speaking world, Browne is the first black man they've ever met. In fact one of the kids uses the "N" word when first meeting him, out of ignorance more than racism. Browne sets them straight by example more than preaching.
The oldest two kids, A Martinez and Robert Carradine, have gone on to some considerable adult careers which they are still enjoying. All the kids are a winning bunch however.
A couple of the Duke's later westerns like The Train Robbers and Cahill I found to be flawed. Not so here. Director Mark Rydell keeps this one going at a good pace and does wonders with his cast of all ages.
Wil Andersen (John Wayne) is an aging rancher who traveled 30 miles
that day and didn't find a single hand that could throw in with him
Anse Petersen (Slim Pickens) suggests to his best friend to hire local teenagers as cowboys for his 400-mile cattle drive So, in the morning the children came very early to put in for the job Obviously, nobody of them has been on a cattle drive
For a cook, Wil hires a black man, Jedediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), who asked to be paid $125 knowing he should be got flooded out, stampeded out, frozen out or scalped by wild Red Indians
However, a group of rustlers led by Asa Watts (Bruce Dern), the man with the long hair, came looking for work But they were lying They were after Andersen's 1,500 head of cattle
One day, Andersen knew that Watts and his gang have been paralleling him for the herd He also knew as soon as it's dark they'll be coming in He doesn't know how rough they'll get But right now they think they're one man and a bunch of kids
When Jedediah falls behind with a broken wheel on the chuck wagon, Asa makes his move for the herd, engaging Wil in vicious fight
There is a funny scene when two of the children meet on the trail a traveling bordello madam led by Colleen Dewhurst And a touching scene where all the boys steal a whiskey bottle and have a little party, discussing the various attributes of their cooker, and his pretty independent character
Filled with exciting adventure, gentle amusement, visually stunning photography, but most importantly how to want to see these children growing up so quickly, "The Cowboys" stands simply as one of John Wayne's best Westerns
What a thrill it is for me to be able to say that I experienced the
tremendous presence of John Wayne on the big screen.I was but a lad of
7 when I was taken to a local theater to see this, one of the last
performances of one of the biggest stars ever. This is without question
the ultimate boys-to-men story.Duke (in the character of Wil Anderson)
is faced with a dilemma. There is cattle to drive and no available men
in town due to an epidemic of gold fever.There's no one left but a
classroom full of boys aged 15 and younger.He seems insulted at first
at the notion of taking them on,but left with no choice,he does. Any
young child, such as I was at the time,almost wished he could come
along for the ride.By the end of the film,they may still be boys in
body,but they have the spirit of young men. Excellent casting here,with
Bruce Dern as one of the most effective screen villains ever,and the
memorable performance of Roscoe Lee Browne as worldly and intelligent
Jebediah Nightlinger.As a grown man viewing this film today,I can
honestly say that the Duke is still my hero.
4/12/2007 R.I.P. Roscoe Lee Browne (1925-2007)
Obviously, John Wayne had a long and distinguished career in the
movies. Of course, he was merely playing himself time after time. In
this movie, that works wonderfully well.
He plays Wil Anderson, a man in his 60s with little else he can do but hire a classroom of boys to help with a cattle drive. This makes for a fun outing for anyone in any age group. Roscoe Lee Browne is well cast here. His scene with Colleen Dewhurst is very well played. Bruce Dern is great, too!
My son, who is a big fan of "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones", pointed out the John Williams music in "The Cowboys"; it is very good indeed.
"The Cowboys" is my choice for the movie to introduce people to John Wayne. It definitely makes you want to see more! Out of four stars, I rate it: ***.5
This is that is by far one of the finest Westerns ever made. The script is superb, with lines like Wayne's toward Bruce Dern, "I've broke my back once and my hip twice and on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you," classic Wayne. His performance is one of the most honest of his career. As his relationship with the boys grows it is both tender and tough. You get everything with this film. From the boys proving they belong on the drive to Rosco Lee Brown's magnificent counterpoint to Wayne. The cinematography is great and the music score outstanding. It embraces every aspect of the Western. Each time I watch it I find another reason to move it up the ladder in my list of favorites. It is truly the last of the great Westerns before the advent of such movies as "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and others forever changed the way Westerns were written and produced. It's an old school movie, but school was never any better than this.
The Cowboys has never gotten the attention it deserves. I saw it at age 13 when it was released and loved it. Wayne's performance is much more mature and deep than his Oscar winner as Rooster Cogburn. Roscoe Lee Browne's performance helped to dispel racial stereotypes in westerns. And Bruce Dern's riveting psychopathic role as a child abuser and back shooter brought him death threats. The Cowboys has it all. Great scenery, action, drama, solid acting and a great musical score by John Williams. Even the small parts with Slim Pickens and Colleen Dewhurst are jewels. Every teenage boy should see this film and John Wayne lovers should revisit this beautiful film.
"The Cowboys" gives a solid performance by John Wayne, with excellent
support from Roscoe Lee Browne and especially Bruce Dern.
John Wayne plays his role well as the aging rancher who needs to get his herd on the trail and has trouble finding help. He shows softer moments than is typical for him, and seems almost wistful at times.
The supporting cast of about a dozen boys who end up helping him do a pretty good job as well. When the film gets under way, the boys make you think you are in for a relatively smooth ride, but some of the later scenes get pretty intense.
Browne has the somewhat trite role of a wisdom-dispensing African-American, but he does have some good lines that he does well with. Whereas many films today might downplay the issue of his skin color, "The Cowboys" has fairly realistic reactions from a variety of people to a black man working in the West.
Bruce Dern comes off as one of the creepiest bad guys in a Western. In early scenes his (unnamed) character tries to pass himself off as smooth and sweet-talking, but eventually his true colors show, and he is downright scary. He has an especially frightening confrontation with one of the boys, and a wild-eyed showdown with John Wayne that really cements him as one of the worst bad guys ever played in a Western.
The story is pretty much by the book, with only one big surprise in a fight near the end. It also takes a little while to get going, but by the first scene with the boys in the corral, it hums along.
On the whole, a good Western with some excellent acting.
This movie, for all that it's a fairly straight forward, shoot-em-up
western, has some unique points that make it extremely artful. The boys
were well-cast (though A. Martinez seemed to struggle in a role that was not
fully developed), and those difficult psychological moments which were so
important to the book translated to the screen without too much trouble. As
is always the case, the book is able to take more time to expand upon the
characters more thoroughly; if the movie left you a bit dry, visit the
library to find the rest of the story!
The reasons I watch this show repeatedly are two of my favorite fellows: Roscoe Lee Browne and John Williams. Roscoe Lee Browne is able to sell lines that simply wouldn't work coming from somebody else (his dialogue with Coleen Dewhurst is priceless), and he is the unique feature that makes this film work. He graciously shares the screen with his co-actors as necessary, but he easily walks off with the movie nonetheless. John Williams' fantastic score could stand alone; though it is occasionally a little too cheery for the moment (after all, this is a pretty gruesome film, if you really think about it), it covers all the bases of the movie. Youthful innocence, becoming men, sorrow, success -- it's all right there in the score. Don't expect Star Wars music; frequently understated, the music carries a supporting role. As both John Williams and Roscoe Lee Browne displayed here, it is often the supporting actors that make the show a success!
The Cowboys is directed by Mark Rydell and adapted from the novel
written by William Dale Jennings; who co-writes the screenplay with
Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank Jr. It stars John Wayne, Roscoe Lee
Browne, Bruce Dern and Colleen Dewhurst. John Williams scores the music
and Robert Surtees is the cinematographer. Plot sees Wayne as tough
cattleman Wil Andersen, who after finding all his cowhands have fled to
find their fortune elsewhere, is forced to use a bunch of green
teenagers to get his beef to market. It's a journey of some
distinction, for Wil, the boys and the villains who lurk on the edges
of the frame.
If ever there was a John Wayne picture that was in need of serious critical reevaluation, both as a measure of his acting ability-and quality in film narrative, then The Cowboys is the one. It's a film that has been known to upset the liberal minded, where the ideology at its core has been lambasted as being objectionable in the least. Yet looking at it closely, away from the humour that does exist within, it finds the Duke at his most vulnerable, therefore believable, and at its centre it's a coming of age tale told with cynical coldness. During this cattle drive innocence will be lost, Andersen is tough and a disciplinarian, yet he's always a benevolent father figure. Wil himself hit the cattle drive trail at 13, he knows the pains and perils of such a task. He also knows that boys need to become men, especially out here in the wilderness. I'd be disappointed in a piece of Western genre cinema if it glossed over this fact. And The Cowboys doesn't, it has a sting in its tail, the trick is that the boys are not judged by how Wil taught them, but defined by a turn of events that calls on them to "man" up. The actions of another being the catalyst for childhood's ending.
Robert Surtees' photography paints a beautiful picture, it's pastoral, broad and appealing, but crucially it doesn't make it poetic. These young lads are entering the unknown, each section of God's great land is beautiful to us, but dangerous to them. It's an overlooked point that critics of the film ignore, that of Wil Andersen not leading these boys on a romantic trip thru the colourful terrain. It's not romantic, it's dangerous, and it's credit to Surtees that he achieves both sides of the coin; beauty and peril in the same frame. The young actors are, expectedly, a mixed bunch, but there's nothing here to be overtly negative about. Roscoe Lee Browne is terrific, his shift from wry observationalist to "Mother Hen" is handled with great skill, and Bruce Dern is memorable in more ways than one. The complaints come from not enough screen time for Colleen Dewhurst, who playing a bordello madame positively threatens to send the film's rating thru the roof (and the male viewers temperature's), while the running time is simply too long-too episodic-and quite frankly, unnecessary.
The Cowboys is not a perceived John Wayne macho based fantasy movie, it has meaning, depth, bravery and a first class performance from the Duke himself. 8/10
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