The Cowboys: John Wayne passes the baton to the next generation of (cow)boy heroes in one of his most poignant late-career Westerns

The Cowboys(1972), directed by Mark Rydell and starring John Wayne, Bruce Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne in lead roles, is a poignant Western that deals with issues of mortality, fatherhood, mentorship and coming-of-age.

Every man wants his children to be better’n he was. You are”

In 1948, John ‘Duke’ Wayne teamed up with eminent director Howard Hawks for the classic Western, “Red River.” In the film Duke played Tom Dunson, an authoritarian Rancher who’s determined to take his massive herd of cattle from his Texan Ranch to Missouri. But on the way, his foster son, Matthew Garth(Montgomery Clift) rebels against the despotic nature of his father that’s putting the lives of fellow cattle-drivers in danger. Matthew and the rest of the men disarms Dunson, take control of the herd of cattle, and drives them to Kansas, leaving Dunson stranded and all alone in the wilderness. By the time Dunson catches up with Mathew, the latter has already taken the herd safely to its destination, sold them for a good price, and made his father a rich man. But Dunson still insists on fighting it out with Mathew; in the end, the father realizes his son’s worth and accepts his son as an equal partner in the ranch. Cut to 24 years later, and Director Mark Rydell’s Western, “The Cowboys”: Duke is once again an aging rancher, William ‘Wil’ Andersen, who’s desperately looking to move his cattle from his Double-O ranch in Montana to Belle Fourche- which is 400 miles away. Unlike Dunson, Wil, though a strict, proud and tough rancher, is no despot. But this time his ranch-hands abandon him even before the cattle drive has begun. There’s a gold rush going on in the territory, and all the men in the region are afflicted with gold fever; they abandon ranch work to go looking for gold. Wil rides into town to seek help from his friend Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens), who advises him to use schoolboys (who are the only males left in this desolate town) to move the herd, but after visiting the school and seeing the immature behavior of the boys, Wil decides against using them. But Peterson persists, and the next morning when Wil wakes up, he finds a bunch of schoolkids at his doorstep ready to embark on the drive- thanks to Petersen spreading the word around. Andersen reluctantly tests the boys’ ability to stay on a bucking horse. As the boys successfully take turns, Cimarron (A Martinez), another young man slightly older than the others, rides up. After successfully subduing and riding the test horse, Cimarron gets into a fight with Slim (Robert Carradine), the oldest of the boys, after Cimarron refers to Slim’s mother as a prostitute. Andersen, though impressed by Cimarron’s abilities, has misgivings because of his angry nature and sends him away. 

Standing beside the graves of his two sons (who died many years ago after ‘going bad’), Wil ponders long and hard about taking the boys along for the drive; realizing that he has no other option, he goes to the schoolhouse to tell the boys that he will hire them on for the summer and give each $50 when they reach Belle Fourche. Wil takes the boys under his wing, and starts training them for the long trail ahead. On the first day, Wil trains the boys in roping, branding and herding, and eventually accepts all of them, even the youngest, Hardy Fimps. As the training of the kids are progressing, Wil is visited by a long-haired stranger, Asa ‘Long Hair’ Watts(Bruce Dern), with two cohorts and asks to sign on for the drive, claiming that they have worked on many spreads. When Wil catches Long Hair in a lie for claiming to have worked recently for a man who died years before, Long Hair admits to being an ex-convict. Wil refuses to hire them because they lied, causing the disgruntled men to ride off. A little later, another stranger, black former slave Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) arrives at Wil’s doorstep; and is hired as the new chuck wagon cook, after proving his worthiness to Wil and his wife Annie. Now Wil’s team is complete; he locks up the weapons in the chuck wagon and sets forth on the drive. On the first morning of the drive, the boys say goodbye to their parents as Annie lovingly makes Wil promise to come home. Off in the distance, Cimarron rides parallel to them, unseen by everyone but Wil and Nightlinger. One afternoon, as they are crossing a swiftly moving river, Slim, who cannot swim, falls off his horse. ‘Stuttering Bob’ cannot get the words out to alert Wil, but Cimarron quickly rides into the river and saves Slim. Wil tells Cimarron to bring his gear into camp and join them, then suddenly yells insults at Bob for not being able to make himself understood. Bob starts to sob, but then starts swearing at Wil, thus curing his stammering.

As the drive continues, the boys soon become able hands, and Wil begins to soften toward them. One day, when Dan (the young kid called ‘Four Eyes’ because he wears glasses) chases after a stray horse, he is accosted by Watts, who reveals that he and his men have been tracking the drive for days and plan to take the cattle. After dunking the terrified Dan into the river, Watts lets him return to the drive but warns him not to say anything or his throat will be slit. One afternoon, just three days away from Belle Fourche, while Nightlinger and Weedy lag behind to fix a broken axle on the chuck wagon, Wil notices that a group of men have been following them from a distance. He then sends one of the boys to summon Nightlinger and tell him to come as soon as possible, with his guns loaded. Now a tearful Dan confesses everything to Wil, who gently tells him not to worry and warns the others to ride along as if nothing is wrong. That night, Watts’ gang surrounds Andersen and the boys in their camp. After forcing Andersen to surrender his gun, Watts crushes Dan’s glasses. Not able to take anymore of Watt’s viciousness, Andersen intervenes and tells Watts his argument is with him and not the boys, leading to a brutal fist fight while the boys and the rustlers watch. Wil wins the fistfight, but as Wil walks away from him, Watts grabs a gun and shoots Wil from the back. A defiant Wil continues walking, and Watts continues discharging his guns, until Will collapses to the ground. Then Watts and his men steal the cattle and rides away, leaving the boys to tend to Wil. Next morning, when Nightlinger arrives Wil is close to death. After consoling the boys, and telling them that he is proud of them, Wil breathes his last.

After burying Wil, the boys, determined to regain the herd, take the guns from the locked chuck wagon after tying up the protesting Nightlinger. As they ride along, the now resigned Nightlinger tells them that they must first have a plan and asks them to untie him. Soon the boys ambush and kill several of Watts’ men, one by one, and disguise themselves by dressing in their coats. When Watts rides up to the herd, he quickly realizes that his men have been replaced by the boys and begins to pursue them. Nightlinger and the boys lure Watts and the rest of his gang into an ambush. In the ensuing shootout, all of the rustlers are killed while Watts finds his leg broken beneath his fallen horse and tangled up in the harness. Watts pleads for help from Dan, but Cimarron shoots a gun in the air that spooks the horse and drags the screaming Watts to his apparent death. When the boys finally arrive in Belle Fourche, the townspeople are shocked that the herd is being led by mere boys. After settling the cattle, the boys buy a headstone from a stonemason who suggests the carving “Wil Andersen, beloved husband and father.” When the boys go to the spot where they buried Wil, they cannot find the grave because the prairie winds have obliterated the marker. Nightlinger smiles and says that they are close enough, so the boys put the stone down and ride home.

Apart from its resemblance to “Red River,” the most striking aspect of the film is (and every John Wayne\Western fan would be aware of it) that this one of those rare films where John Wayne dies; and he dies about three quarters of the way into the film- he’s not there for the all-important climax. (It’s also amusing to note that though Duke has been making Westerns since the 1930s, and he has been the pre-eminent Western hero since, he has never made a film with ‘Cowboys’ in the title up to that time.) But the film goes beyond being just a ‘John Wayne dies’ gimmick and present a poignant meditation on aging, mortality, masculinity and rites of passage. Like “Red River,” the film is a ‘father & son(s)’ story: about passing the baton from one generation tot he next, and where the cattle drive becomes a life-changing journey in which the aged cowboy passes into immortality, while the young ones grows up to be men, and prove their worth to their father. I always felt that Duke should have died at the end of “Red River,” he was a tragic hero of an epic Greek tragedy there, and that would have been a fitting denouement. Anyway Duke’s death in “The Cowboys” is a very necessary part of the story; that’s when the boys really become his sons, and the film becomes a revenge-Western in it’s final act, when the sons violently avenges the death of their father. The fistfight between Duke and Bruce Dern is reminiscent of the fistfight between Duke and Monty Clift in “Red River,” except here Dern is playing an unapologetic villain, while Clift was Duke’s loving son. While Duke was an unmarried old man there, here he has a wife, and two sons who died long ago. It’s hinted that his kids became outlaws and died while engaged in some crime. It’s his failure as a father that drives him to ‘adopt’ these eleven kids and mentor them into manhood. So, the film is also about second chances: Duke’s Wil gets a second shot at being a father, and this time he makes a success of it, as he manages to raise his ‘boys’ right: just before dying, he acknowledges how proud he is to have them as his sons; and the boys vindicate their father’s pride by killing the cattle-rustlers, reclaiming their cattle, and completing the drive even after their father’s death. Then they return home safely after paying rich tribute to their departed mentor\father.

By this time in his career, Duke had perfected the role of the father figure, though till then he hadn’t played opposite so young a bunch. Duke was interested in doing this film because it reminded him of one of his best films, “Sands of Iwo Jima”: an adult takes a group of youngsters and initiates them into manhood by instructing them the right skills and values. And today it maybe impossible to imagine anybody else but him in the role, but the truth is that Duke had to lobby hard to get the role. Director Mark Rydell was originally thinking of casting George C. Scott as Wil, but after one meeting with Duke, he decided to go with him. This was one of the rare late-career Duke Westerns where Duke didn’t have creative control; this was not produced by his company, ‘Batjac,’ and unlike “Big Jake” or “Chisum,” whose narratives are driven purely by Duke’s star power, this was more a plot & character driven Western. So that should put to rest all insinuations regarding the film being Duke’s pro-Vietnam treatise; that through the film he was actually calling for young kids being taken out of schools, putting guns into their hands and sending them off on dangerous missions. But there is a traditional\conservative subtext to Rydell’s Western: though Duke dies in the film, it’s definitely not a revisionist Western – which was the norm during those countercultural times; it’s very much a traditional Western that reinforces the myths and archetypes associated with the genre. Rydell also pays homage to classic Westerns: apart from “Red River,” the recruiting of the boys, and the fact that one of the boys starts out as an outsider, and is later inducted into the gang after he proves his worth, is very similar to “The Magnificent Seven.”

Duke gives one of his most poignant and deeply moving performances here. He’s still ‘John Wayne,’ the larger-than-life Western hero, with his trademark swagger, his punchlines, and that mischievous twinkle in his eye; and that aspect of his screen image is equally important for the success of this performance (and the film)- Dern’s villain can’t beat him in a mano-a-mano fistfight, and he has to shoot him from the back to kill him. But Duke also does not shy away from revealing his age and his vulnerabilities- the character openly acknowledges that he’s Sixty, and does look really old in the film; he also has an age-appropriate wife who looks ‘real’ rather than like a glamourous movie heroine. The fight between Duke and Dern is the highpoint of the film, and perhaps ‘the’ most rousing, crowd-pleasing scene in Duke’s film career, not only for how it’s built-up, how it’s staged, and how it’s performed by the two stars, but also considering how it ends: by delivering a punch-to-the-gut when Duke dies. This is one of the most brutal fights that Duke has ever participated on screen; usually, Duke knocks out his opponent with one meaty punch, but here it goes on a long time, and by the end, both are bloodied and bruised. Full marks to Rydell for executing the scene to perfection; he cuts off the background music completely during the fight, and when Duke is shot- to underline the shocking & unprecedented nature of the moment. It also allows to build up suspense for the rest of the film, as the audiences anxiously ponders the question, What next?. And this is why the final moments of the film work so well, which on its own appears rather unbelievable; eleven teenagers taking down a bunch of ruthless gunslingers and rustlers through their wits and guns is rather unconvincing. But it works because we know that they have been trained by Duke (the best Western hero ever); and we want them do it- this provides the catharsis that we desperately needs after Duke’s death. The film was heavily criticized at the time for turning ‘young boys into killers’; but I look at it as a continuation of its themes of coming-of-age and of the relationship between the generations. The boys achieve manhood through hard work and discipline, and learn the importance of honesty, loyalty, and fighting for one’s beliefs. The righteous violence is as much a rite of passage for them as any other in the old-West.

“The Cowboys” is the only Western directed by Mark Rydell. He had directed episodes of “Gunsmoke” and “Wild Wild West,” but for the big screen, he had made only comedies and dramas. Apart from Duke here, Rydell would go on to direct two of the greatest screen legends, Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, in their Oscar winning performances in “On Golden Pond(1981”- for which Rydell would be nominated for a best director Oscar. Rydell had imagined the film to be a Western drama than an Western action\adventure or epic; which explains why the dramatic core of the film is very strong, and so are the character relationships & interactions. Even though the film is gloriously photographed by the great cinematographer, Robert L. Surtees across the breathtaking natural landscapes of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s vey much a big sky, widescreen ‘Trail’ Western, Rydell imparts a Howard Hawksian intimacy to the film that’s rare in these panoramic Westerns. Rydell also manages to extract great performances from not only Duke, but also Roscoe Lee Brown- who gets to play the most fully rounded character in the film; and his character is used by Rydell, who was a liberal, to make strong anti-racist commentary. Bruce Dern also gets to unleash himself in the meaty villainous role: the scene where he scares the little boy, Dan, is absolutely terrifying. Of course, Dern has gone down in movie history as the ‘the man who killed John Wayne,’ for which Dern gets hate mail even to this day. The young actors are a mixed bunch: the boys portraying the cowboys consisted of six experienced riders, many of whom had been juvenile rodeo performers and five child or teenaged actors, none of whom had previous riding experience. Within the film, many of the roping and riding stunts featuring the young cowboys were performed by the experienced riders. Most of the cowboys made their acting debuts in the film, although Robert Carradine, son of prominent character actor John Carradine, A Martinez, Nicolas Beauvy and Sean Kelly previously had appeared on television or in minor roles in films. Carradine and Martinez went on to long careers in front of the camera, while Stephen Hudis and others continued as stuntmen as well as actors.

The film boasts a terrific symphonic score by John Williams; this is the only John Wayne film scored by Williams, and this was before “Jaws” and “Star Wars” made him extremely famous; though by then he had already received Oscar nominations for his scores for 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls,” and 1969’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”; and won his first Oscar for his score adaptation for the 1971 film “Fiddler on the Roof.” This 134 minute film also has an overture, intermission and exit music, which was rare for a film of that time. The film was based on a novel by William Dale Jennings, and was adapted to the screen by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr (who had previously written dramatic Westerns like “Hombre” and “Hud”). The novel and film were also the basis of a 1974 ABC television series, also entitled “The Cowboys,” which took up the story of the young cowboys after the death of ‘Wil Andersen.’ The television series starred Moses Gunn and Diana Douglas, along with Martinez and Carradine recreating their roles from the film and Kelly, who portrayed ‘Stuttering Bob,’ and Clay O’Brien, who portrayed ‘Hardy Fimps’ in the movie, appearing as other characters in the series. Only 13 episodes were filmed before the series was cancelled.


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