Although John Wayne’s actual cinematic swan song was The Shootist (1976), which depicts an aging gunfighter’s quest for death with dignity, the Duke’s earlier film The Cowboys is in many ways a richer closing statement about the themes Wayne spent decades exploring in Western movies. Instead of merely pondering the question of whether a man who lives by the gun must die by the gun—the poignant central theme of The Shootist—The Cowboys explores all the qualities, bad and good, that defined the Duke’s screen persona. His character, Wil Andersen, combines frontier values, heroic self-sacrifice, macho stoicism, and, of course, that most American of qualities: rugged individualism. The fact that Andersen’s journey inadvertently inspires a group of boys to become young men molded in Andersen’s honorable image perfectly echoes the manner in which Wayne’s characters inspired generations of moviegoers. So, whether you love or hate Wayne’s on- and off-screen politics, it’s easy to appreciate the elegance of this picture’s symbiosis between star and story.
Based on a novel by William Dale Jennings and adapted for the screen by Jennings and the husband-and-wife duo Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., The Cowboys tells a simple story about noble characters clashing with craven ones. In the beginning of the movie, rancher Andersen preps for a cattle drive until his crew abruptly quits to join the Gold Rush. In short order, Andersen finds himself interviewing an unlikely set of replacements—several schoolboys, some teens and some even younger. When the kids display unexpected determination, he agrees to hire them. However, word of available work also attracts a gaggle of varmints led by Asa Watts (Bruce Dern), whom Andersen quickly identifies as a dangerous type. Andersen refuses to hire Asa’s gang, and then sets off on the drive with the kids as his crew. A series of frontier adventures ensues, during which Andersen gruffly mentors the boys on what it takes to succeed in the cattle biz. Meanwhile, Asa’s nefarious gang trails the cowboys, eventually leading to an infamous showdown between Dern and Wayne—the climax of the duel won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say one single moment helped cement Dern’s typecasting as a crazed villain.
Although the storyline of The Cowboys is so schematic as to seem a bit like a fable, the piece works—mightily—because of immaculate craftsmanship and vivacious performances. Director Mark Rydell, himself a thespian, does a gorgeous job of blending different types of acting, so everything from Wayne’s stylization to Dern’s improvisation feels unified; Rydell also draws fine work from young performers including Robert Carradine, who made his screen debut in The Cowboys. (Grown-ups in the fine supporting cast include Roscoe Lee Browne, Colleen Dewhurst, and Slim Pickens.) Cinematographer Robert Surtees captures the rugged beauty of untarnished landscapes, while composer John Williams’ music strikes just the right balance of excitement and wistfulness. And if the movie’s a bit bloated at 131 minutes, so what? Thanks to its careful treatment of resonant themes, The Cowboys is arguably Wayne’s best film of the ’70s.
The Cowboys: RIGHT ON