Watching The Great American Cowboy today, it’s difficult to imagine why the picture won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. A cynical person might assume it’s because the movie is unthreatening and wholesome, celebrating familiar themes of rugged individualism without delving too deeply into much of anything. A less cynical person might assume that director Keith Merrill and his collaborators were given the Academy’s top nonfiction prize simply because The Great American Cowboy is as slick as a Hollywood fiction feature. Devices including slow-motion photography and split-screen editing are used to juice already-exciting images of rodeo stars riding broncos and bulls. Furthermore, an over-the-top musical score composed by Harold Farberman and performed by a full orchestra, heavy on the brass, gives The Great American Cowboy operatic scope. Chances are the truth lies somewhere between these possible explanations. For instance, aging Academy members might have enjoyed revisiting images and values from simpler times, even as with-it Academy members dug the film’s impressive technical polish. In any event, The Great American Cowboy does not reward fresh viewing as well as some other ’70s winners of the documentary Oscar. To these modern eyes, the movie is hopelessly repetitive and superficial. Worse, the frontier poetry of the narration track, as spoken by veteran Western-movie star Joel McCrea, is elegant but trite.
The picture tracks a competition between aging rider Larry Mahan and a younger rider, Phil Lyne, both of whom vie for the nation’s top rodeo prize. The backstory is that Mahan won the prize for several years before Lyne took it away from him in an upset, so this movie dramatizes their rematch. Unfortunately, Merrill spends so little quality time with the riders away from rodeo grounds that it’s virtually impossible to care who wins. Both men come across as ciphers. Moreover, the way Merrill treats rodeo as a religion—parsing cryptic remarks from a 101-year-old veteran of the circuit and studying the adventures of preteen competitors at “Little Britches” events—has the effect of making the prize an abstraction. We don’t get a real sense of what winning means to either man. Instead, scene after scene conveys homilies about the dignity a dude finds by pushing himself past his own limits, and so on. Plus, after about a dozen different slow-mo shots of riders getting bucked off animals, the imagery loses its novelty. To be fair, The Great American Cowboy was probably the best documentary ever made about rodeos at the time of its release, and fans of the sport probably still find the picture compelling. Alas, if you’re not into rodeo, The Great American Cowboy is unlikely to make you a believer.
The Great American Cowboy: FUNKY