The Cowboys (1972)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
Long time ago John Wayne used to be the embodiment of everything America wanted to be. These days John Wayne is often perceived as the embodiment of everything America should abandon. Yet, some of his films that reflect the ideology and values associated with him look refreshing even to contemporary leftists and liberals. This is probably due to Hollywood's ability - now lost - to promote simple ideas and simple truths in a convincing way. One of the best examples could be found in THE COWBOYS, 1972 western directed by Mark Rydell.
In this film John Wayne plays William Andersen, old rancher faced with sudden loss of labour force due to a gold rush. This happened at worst possible moment - just before the cattle drive that was supposed to pay his bills. His friend Anse Petersen (played by Slim Pickens) suggests that he hires local teenagers as cowboys and he reluctantly agrees, not being particularly enthusiastic about group of boys, aged 9 to 15, that he would have to train and lead. The group, which is joined by black cook Jedediah Nightlinger (played by Roscoe Lee Browne), faces many obstacles on their trek, the worst being group of rustlers led by sinister Asa Watts (played by Bruce Dern). The boys, faced with hunger, hard work and danger, learn many important lessons that would help them act like grown men.
It would be pointless to name all elements in which this film insults modern-day sentiments of "political correctness". THE COWBOYS, among other things, feature positive attitudes towards child labour, masculine authority, vigilante justice and children using guns. The only potentially subversive scene features a group of young travelling prostitutes led by ageing madam (played by Colleen Dewhurst). Although introduced probably in order to fill the conventional quota of female roles, those characters could be interpreted as some kind of female equivalent of John Wayne's character and his boys. Screenwriters' reluctance to explore this opportunity is one major weakness of the film, while the other is failure to explain how young boys suddenly transform into efficient killing machines.
Despite those flaws and the somewhat slow pace that could be less tolerable to younger audiences, THE COWBOYS is a film that can expect audience even today. John Wayne is great in one of his iconic roles, while the rest of cast features some interesting names. Bruce Dern is great in small, but chillingly memorable role of psychopathic villain. Young Adolph Martinez of future SANTA BARBARA fame is also very good in the role of a boy who must fight racial stereotypes. Rydell directed film with great skill, putting locations of American Southwest to good use. The film is accompanied by very good score of John Williams that adds to the epic character of the film. All in all, THE COWBOYS shows how old Hollywood promoted conservative agenda with the skill and efficiency modern-day liberals and leftists can only dream about.
RATING: 6/10 (++)