Warner Bros. // 1971 // 135 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // June 28th, 2007
All they wanted was their chance to be men...and he gave it to them.
Done in the twilight of his career, John Wayne's role in The Cowboys is notable for something that I really can't divulge for you. You'd have to see it for yourself. But Wayne's cancer had taken its toll and he was suffering from it while making this film, one where Wayne takes on a group of schoolchildren. So how does The Cowboys stack up in high definition, and is it worth buying?
In The Cowboys, adapted from William Dale Jennings' novel by Irving Ravetch (Murphy's Romance) and directed by Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond), Wayne plays Wil Andersen, an aging cowboy who has been left out in the cold by some hired hands on the eve of a cattle move. He decides to enlist the help of some children, some coming into their teenage years, others right on the doorstep. Recognizable faces among the pack include Slim (Robert Carradine, The Big Red One) and Cimarron (A Martinez, Santa Barbara). The group is joined by Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne, Super Fly), who helps cook for the crew. While they're taking the herd down to their final destination, they also have to fend off a group of ex-cons who have been following them, headed by Asa Watts (Bruce Dern, Coming Home). So the only question left appears to be: Will Andersen and the kids get the cattle to where they need to be?
Several things occur within The Cowboys that make it a film few have been exposed to in previous times. First is the fact that this possesses an overture, intermission and entr'acte. This is the first time I've seen this in a Western. And second, the fact that the film runs over two hours is also moderately alarming. But the film allows you to see some of the chores of being a farmhand and dealing with the cattle, and helps to show the type of work that the kids have to do to help transport the cattle safely to their destination.
All of this is fine, except that the film sours in a couple of main areas that are of concern. First off is the begrudging respect that Andersen gives the kids. You can see it happening from a mile away, the only thing left to see is the patriarchal angle of the relationship. But Andersen is a tough guy, and even though he manages to poke fun at the kids as they go through their first alcohol induced hangover, being their friend is a little bit tough to swallow. The second part is the last act of the film. Aside from Wayne's character meeting a rare onscreen fate, the way that the retribution occurs is far from believable, especially when you consider the strength that the children supposedly find was lacking for the first hundred or so minutes of the film. It all goes back to a particular type of role that Wayne was doing after he was first diagnosed with cancer, and many of which were those of a cowboy facing his mortality. It's not to Wayne's blame, don't get me wrong, all of the physical work that was done in the beginning of the film (which Rydell notes in his commentary was done after one of Wayne's lungs was removed) is worth high praise.
>From a technical point of view, the 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer, The Cowboys looks good. Really good. By no means is it demo material, but the picture includes a lot of detail (in one scene late in the film, you can make out the shine of new horseshoes as a group of horses runs away from camera) and depth, and seeing older films as clean and sharp as this help underscore the reason for upgrading to next generation DVD equipment. The Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 sound comes off as a little bit hollow, as John Williams' (yes, that one) score and the gunshots (along with any other sound effects) don't possess a lot of low end activity. Nonetheless everything still sounds clear and without issue.
Quite surprisingly, Rydell contributes a commentary for the disc. He does have quite a bit of recall about the production itself, and helps to walk the story along in his commentary, showing you the next step in the production and introducing cast members as they appear on screen. He also helps explain the subtleties of Wayne's performance, but overall the track isn't as active as I would have preferred. Two featurettes accompany the disc, the first is "The Cowboys: Together Again," a half hour long retrospective piece on the film featuring interview footage with Dern, Browne, Carradine and other cast members and Rydell. The cast members share their thoughts on Rydell and each other, and each contributes their own story or two on the production and about Wayne (Rydell has a funny story about how Wayne was recognized constantly). As is the case with the retrospective pieces of this ilk, it's a nice look back from the surviving main players. The other piece is a featurette from the production, entitled "The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men," as the cast at the time is filmed with their preparations for the film. The trailer is the other extra on the disc.
Aside from some occasions where the dialogue is bold in parts, there are moments of the film where Wayne shows a little bit of emotional nuance, making it a little bit more robust role than the one from three years prior (in True Grit). He's a much more grizzled veteran who plays his emotions closer to the vest, whereas Rooster Cogburn was more of a caricature of Wayne's iconic status.
Not many people are given the chance to put a final stamp on their work in the December of their lives like John Wayne had. He turns in a decent performance, but the final act of The Cowboys unknowingly falls into a lot of the plot traps that countless films have done since, and potentially ruins a halfway satisfactory film. Fans of the film should snap it up for the technical upgrades, but casual fans of the genre and of Wayne might want to rent this before making a solid decision.
The court finds for the attempt that Wayne puts in, but the writers are guilty for slapping on a poor ending to a decent idea.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Director Mark Rydell
* Reunion Featurette: "The Cowboys: Together Again"
* Vintage Featurette: "The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men"
* Theatrical Trailer