Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A western, about cowboys. In other words, not much to go on here.
What did I get? Ah, now I see! The title, “The Cowboys,” in a bit of wordplay that doesn’t quite work, is meant to throw the emphasis on “boys.” Because it’s all about preadolescent ranchers, you see. But “cowboys” doesn’t mean “ranchers who are children,” does it? Nobody ever intends it to denote fresh-faced fourteen-year-olds, I don’t think. Anyway, that’s a quibble. The Cowboys is a canny piece of entertainment in which Wil Andersen (John Wayne) plays stern papa bear to a ragtag group of tweens who, in a pinch, help him transport his cattle a few hundred miles. It’s a pretty brilliant setup for the older Wayne, and the movie is pretty darn effective. It’s not what I would exactly call a good movie, but it does its job tolerably well, and it’s very enjoyable.
As the word “ragtag” above suggests, The Cowboys isn’t very different, in structure, from The Bad News Bears. The juxtaposition of gruff John Wayne and all of these cute moppets is well-nigh irresistible, and events turn predictably comical or poignant as required. Naturally Andersen imposes on the kids discipline and hard work, under which they all prosper, and Wayne has a few moments designed to demonstrate that there’s a tender heart behind that rough exterior. The kids love him all the more — and so on. The best thing in the movie, by far, is Jebediah Nightlinger, played by Roscoe Lee Browne, who is the older black man who signs on as cook for the cattle drive. Jebediah’s great presence is the product of Browne’s incredible, one might say Shakespeare-worthy, speaking voice — he’s the no-nonsense mama to the group, if you will.
Much as Harry Callahan does in Dirty Harry, Andersen is shown making decisions that require a lot of integrity but are basically untenable, such as turning away sorely needed ranchers because they played a little fast and loose with the facts in a job interview. In both cases, I suppose, the idea is to showcase a character who does what his code requires — come what may. It’s easier for me to see the appeal of this in The Cowboys rather than Dirty Harry; in fact, The Cowboys helps me understand why Dirty Harry is so popular.
There’s a great bit in the middle with a young stutterer whose inability to call out for help nearly leads to the drowning of one of the other boys. Exasperated, Andersen hollers at the stutterer that “if he wanted to badly enough,” he’d be able to speak just fine. During their heated exchange, the boy begins to curse Andersen out and (of course) loses his stutter — because Andersen was the only one who cared if he stuttered or not. It’s almost futile to point out the fallacies operating here — but it wouldn’t it be lovely if the world were like that?
What here smacks of 1972? The main heavy’s name — “Long Hair.”
IMDB score: 7.2
My score: 6
Director: Mark Rydell
Writers: Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr., and William Dale Jennings
Starring: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, Robert Carradine, A Martinez, Slim Pickens, Richard Farnsworth, Allyn Ann McLerie, Charles Tyner
IMDB synopsis: When his cattle drivers abandon him for the gold fields, rancher Wil Andersen is forced to take on a collection of young boys as his drivers in order to get his herd to market in time to avoid financial disaster. The boys learn to do a man’s job under Andersen’s tutelage, however, neither Andersen nor the boys know that a gang of cattle thieves is stalking them.