The Cowboys (1972)

I’ve got a funny point of view on this film. Apparently a very funny one. The two critics I pay attention to (meaning that I read their reviews, but don’t necessarily make any judgments based on them) both gave this middling to piddling reviews (Ebert, who I think is a crackpot with a deft ear for language, gave it 2.5 out of four stars, Leonard Maltin gave it two). I’m young, which puts me outside the generation that grew up on westerns, and into one that has a general distaste for them. I’m a left-leaning moderate if not a liberal, at the least on military policy (though not a military-hater by any stretch of the imagination, or really at all), putting me at odds with the Duke (though actually on track with director Mark Rydell and some of the actors). Still, I myself grew up thinking westerns were all brown and flat and dusty and boring. I bought–as many my age do–into the bullshit that says that westerns are all simplistic, gung-ho machismo and lack subtlety, nuance, and any kind of tolerance or realistic presentation of races other than white men, or of women. Sure, people make exceptions (and I started there, too) for recent films like Eastwood’s Unforgiven (actually I didn’t see this until I realized I like westerns) or maybe Silverado. Peckinpah is an occasional exception for his near nihilism and violence, though still a drunken misogynist by reputation. But, damn…what a great fucking movie.*

Wil Andersen (John Wayne) is a cattle man, and he has a herd to drive to Belle Fourche, SD from near Bozeman, MT, but a sudden gold find has left him without the hands to do it. His friend Anse (Slim Pickens, always a welcome face and voice) asks Wil how old he was for his first cattle drive and eventually draws out the reasonability of drafting kids from the local schoolhouse. Wil still scoffs, but the next morning, he and his wife Annie (Sarah Cunningham) wake to find a group of boys outside anyway. Wil is annoyed but Annie asks him not to be too rough on them, so Wil offers to look at hiring anyone who lasts a count of ten on the still-wild filly he has been working on taming. The boys are very reluctant upon seeing the horse’s general disdain for the safety of humans, but eventually one pipes up and holds on as Wil’s jaw softens a bit and his eyes widen ever-so-slightly. The boy rolls off the horse and introduces himself as “Slim” Honeycutt (Robert Carradine), the rest all hold easily to their mount, too, ten in all: Fats (Alfred Barker, Jr.), Dan (Nicolas Beauvy), Steve (Steve Benedict), Weedy (Norman Howell, Jr.), Stuttering Bob (Sean Kelly), Charlie Schwarz (Stephen Hudis), Hardy Fimps (Clay O’Brien), Jimmy Phillips (Sam O’Brien) and Homer Weems (Mike Pyeatt). When Wil asks for the next, up steps a new, older boy, fifteen like the eldest, Slim. He holds onto the filly and even calms her to a trot before handing her off to Slim with a snide comment, sparking a quick fight. Wil says he’s not sure about this new boy, Cimarron (A. Martinez), but takes on the rest. The final member of their group is the cook, and the one Wil has sent for has skipped out on him, but sent another cook in his stead. The new cook is black (which is treated smartly, might I add), and proves himself as a cook with the slightest of provocation, giving his name as Jeb Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown). While Wil is now set with hands, a man with long hair (and no name, but he’s played by Bruce Dern) appears and asks to be added to the crew. He attempts to deceive Wil to get in so Wil refuses him, unsurprisingly leaving an otherwise simple cattle drive vulnerable in the dark to the ex-criminal cattle rustler and his friends.

I’m going to touch on this subject gingerly: I was quite annoyed when I got about twenty minutes into this movie, but it had nothing to do with the film. My mind started picking at an old wound, something given away about this film and it found the spot where it hurt and masochistically dug in. I remembered all too early what some jackass had written in the “life synopsis” section of a Bruce Dern autobiography–“but he may be most remembered for his role in The Cowboys where he [censored to save you, dear reader, from the spoiler I could not avoid].” Let’s just say it gave away his fate and who put him in a position to balance on that precipice of chance. I was thoroughly annoyed and convinced the movie was ruined, however unsurprising a move it was, but on it rolled and I was sucked in yet again. I was very excited watching this movie because I was sort of expecting a familiar style of western–I know now that they are not so simplistic as I was once led to believe, but there can still be a formula and a familiarity to any of them, even when contrasting the downers of Peckinpah with the earlier black hat/white hat conflicts. I was surprised consistently by many parts, aspects, devices, performances and structures in the film.

Many people, especially people who would fit my description (young, white, mostly educated, left-leaning, definitely on the lesser side of masculine), do not like John Wayne. Many disagree with his politics (actually this one does include me), others criticize his acting and claim he was a one-note actor with no range and little believability who just swaggered his way through roles as a “man’s man,” which is generally said by such folk with a derogatory sneer. I am not one of these people (with the conflicting politics exception aside). I own a large number of John Wayne films and do quite like the Duke, and have no qualms with his movies, generally speaking. OK, I’m not rushing out to drink the Green Berets “Kool-Aid,” but the westerns I’m good with, and many of the other films. I like icons, and I don’t feel the need to rail against them inherently. Wayne’s performance here is like many of his good ones–subtle and nuanced, everything I had always read was antithetical to the clumsy, stupid, judgmental racist he allegedly was, by the accounts of the critical people. I can’t claim he was none of the above, but I certainly don’t think he was as much any of them as such people seemed to think. Here he’s a man who has lost his only sons and is now taking on a whole cub scout pack of boys for sixty days, with some great reluctance. He’s a proud and stubborn man, but he isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, or to knowingly shoot himself in the foot with his pride. He’s a familiar, comfortable and fatherly figure to both the boys and, in an interesting way, the viewer. He and Slim Pickens are the old hands here, and feel like old friends even if they aren’t to you, because they’re so easygoing and likeable.

The boys are uniformly good, and in a very surprising way. It’s difficult to find actors of ages like this (around 9-15) who act their age successfully. Of course, adding a range is helpful, but no one really goes outside that range of age. Usually you get kids who are smarter than their age but don’t know enough to know how to hide it (creating an obnoxious arrogance in their performances that reeks of endless praise and insufficient discipline in their artistic career), or kids who couldn’t act their way out of a paper sack. Carradine is making his film debut here, long before his Revenge of the Nerds stardom (or, for that matter, playing Bob Younger in The Long Riders with his brothers Keith and David), and he is quite good as the eldest of the boys, smart enough to be 15 without being ridiculous, playing a Vivaldi piece (!) on guitar that he has learned. Carradine portrays him as unsure in a strong presence like Wil, but clearly aware of his leadership role when it comes to the rest of the boys. Nicolas Beauvy allows for the public humiliation of crying on film, but leaves it a believable set of tears, not a tantrum or a falsity, but the natural response that a fearsome sole like the long-haired bandit invokes. The rest all do quite well, with solid dialects and a pleasing ease in the physicality of their roles that has just the right note of tension to show their youth and inexperience–but the skill to subvert that tension when they have finally emotionally aged and must take on the bandits that outnumber the group. This element is often criticized as “wrong” for showing kids participating in violence, but this evades the entire point of the film, which is showing their emotional maturation and aging, and that this act is not revenge for the theft of the cattle, it is not cold-blooded, it is done because it is their job to take in those cattle for Wil, and they’re all needed to get them back.

This is not to say that the performances of the other two adult lead roles, in Brown and Dern, are anything to sneeze at. Brown has the right match of unfamiliar threat to him when playing with the boys (in the sense of playing mindgames) and when disagreeing (rather vehemently) with Andersen. He’s very quiet and restrained, but full of vigor held just underneath it, lashing it out with perfect control when appropriate. Dern is in a star-turning role as the unnamed villain and is scarier than all hell, eyes glinting with psychosis and a twisted sense of honour, pride and selfish dignity. It’s no surprise that poor Dern was typecast after this, because he makes an excellent villain, and whatever criticism there are of a “magical black man” role like Brown’s, his performance elevates it to something more real.

The most pleasing thing, though, is best exemplified in the performance of Sean Kelly, whose stuttering is obviously a lead in to a recurrence of it that affects the plot. Kelly drops the stutter at the right times and he does so right, not as if he is a robotic actor turning it off, but as a boy who is pushed into it, and who reels off a nasty line to Wil’s provocations that sounds exactly like the sharp-tongued profanity of an early adolescent. But the problem is still hiding back there–many of the plot points are obvious set-ups, dead giveaways as to what’s coming, but Rydell (and perhaps Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., possibly even author William Dale Jennings–but I’m suspicious when the plotting is the one fault that, however matched, equalled and overcome, is still visible that the original author is the one responsible) does these things right, time and again. One liners and the wit and wisdom of Nightlinger never fall off their tightrope and into self-parody or artificiality, and whenever a line would normally lead to a big rimshot moment, it is turned by the actors and Rydell into a perfectly normal moment, in the same way that those things actually happen, rather than the theatrical occurrence.

A lot of credit can be given for this tone to John Williams (I snickered when the Vivaldi lute part played, wondering if ever Williams would write or insert a classical-style guitar piece and have the other John Williams play it), whose score is as magnificent (with respect to Elmer Bernstein) as always (gosh, sorry about the Bernstein crack, but it was right there…). It’s mostly a full-throated orchestra, but with clever accents from guitar, bass and harmonica (with clear instrument-themes of castanets and maracas for villains, as is often the case with western villains). Williams’ score is not a complete deviation from most western scores in this respect, but it, too, takes the movie from the full-bore western dynamic and places it back in the realm of “any movie”–in a good way. Strong themes with heroic strains are absolutely present, but they have only the faintest odour of “this was written for a WESTERN!” to them, which made the opening (which, in the current DVD release, has a pure display in an opening Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music) much more memorable and pleasing for its solitude.

*Pardon my French. I normally refrain when reviewing, though I happily use blue words in reality, but these are the words coming to me this time. Sorry. In fact: Five fucking stars. Take that.

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