The Cowboys (1972)

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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.

For Mike’s Take on the Movies, I recommended a sumptuous and totally mesmerizing pre-Code starring Marlene Dietrich.

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8 thoughts on “The Cowboys (1972)”

  1. Glad you seemed to love this one. Underrated as far as I’m concerned. As you say some great one liners in here and Dern vs. Duke “On my worse day I could beat the hell out of you.” a classic. Check out Jim Carrey doing Dern at the Oscars for a dead on impersonation of Dern’s tirade here. I could go on and on as this one’s a big fave.

    1. I just realized this is my second challenge in a row with Dern as the baddie! Yes I did like it a lot, very nice turn by Wayne and Browne practically steals it, he got some fantastic moments like “…forgive me for the men I’ve killed in anger and those I’m about to.” Dern’s face was priceless at that line. Great work by the kids too, and Slim Pickens. As a teen I loved A Martinez on the soap Santa Barbara so I always get a kick out of seeing him young in the movies.

  2. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one, but I remember liking it as a kid, and your review has me wanting to check it out again, especially for the ending revenge bit when the kids go after Dern’s gang. And I don’t know how often Wayne died in his movies, but it can’t be many…I wonder if this was a shock to viewers when it was first released.

    1. I really liked it and again, kind of surprised I hadn’t since I love John Wayne and westerns. His death scene could have been stretched out but it was done just right. Good movie when its long like this but so full of interesting happenings that you hardly notice.

      1. Sort of an off-track question, but what would your favorite John Wayne movie be? And what would be your favorite Western?

        1. oh gosh, asking me anything related to favourite movies is an impossible question, I have 100 at any time 🙂 so without thinking too much: for Wayne, Rio Bravo, the Ford Cavalry trilogy. But so many more. Fave western, that’s too hard! Winchester 73, My Darling Clementine, Ride the High Country, Yellow Sky, Warlock, Westward the Women and easily dozens more… How about you?

          1. Ooo, let’s see…The Gunfighter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Red River, The Ox-Bow Incident, and yes, Winchester ’73. And whenever you post your next film noir review, we’ll compare our noir favorites!

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