Time for the monthly switcheroo called the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, when a fellow blogger suggests a movie I’ve never seen and vice versa.
This month’s selection is a rarity: a John Wayne movie I’ve never seen! It’s a touching coming-of-age story about a group of boys hired by crusty old rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) to help drive his cattle to market. All his regular and any other qualified hands are off looking for gold, his two sons “went bad” long ago and got themselves killed, so his only option is to train and toughen up eleven local schoolboys. Their different quirks and personalities, plus good casting and natural acting guarantees you’ll have no trouble telling them apart (Robert Carradine, A Martinez are among the standouts).
There’s so much colourful character introduction and development, so much trial by fire, growth, conflict, tragedy followed by revenge, success and reflection, that this movie feels like a binge-watch of an entire TV series. The boys make mistakes, learn to assert themselves and be responsible, the hotheaded rebel joins the group, the sensitive one softens the rest, they all bond over their first bottle of booze, and so on. They meet (and run away from) some travelling prostitutes led by Colleen Dewhurst, and learn life lessons from the only other grown-up on the drive, cook Jebediah (Roscoe Lee Browne), who also teaches Wil a thing or two about tempering his taskmaster approach with friendship and understanding.
It works on the boys and grownups alike, it’s fun to watch, and it’s leading to a showdown with evil Asa “Long Hair” Watts (Bruce Dern), who, along with his gang, shadows the drive from the start and makes his move when Jebediah and the wagon fall behind. Long Hair turns a fair fistfight–one he loses–into a cold-blooded gundown, fatally shooting Wil in front of the boys’. Wil’s death is an understated, heartbreaking, defining moment which becomes the boys’ graduation day. They took to heart his teachings and have to right this wrong, so the moment they can get their hands on weapons, these young men organize an improbably smooth but impressive and highly satisfying attack on Long Hair and his whole gang, then go on to finish the job they were hired for.
Lots of great lines in this movie, my favourites are delivered by Browne with his great voice, with plenty of other zingers coming from the boys’ naivete, and a few playing on Wayne’s heroic persona, here as warm as sympathetic as ever. His signature line is “we’re burning daylight,” one the boys initially want to sock him for, barking it as he does so early every morning, but it’s one of many lessons they fondly remember and repeat when he’s no longer with them.