***½/**** Image A Sound B Extras C+
starring John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst
screenplay by Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr. and William Dale Jennings, based on the novel by William Dale Jennings
directed by Mark Rydell
by Walter Chaw Based on a novel and co-written by William Dale Jennings, one of the co-founders of the Mattachine Society (a group interested in furthering the rights of homosexuals in society), Mark Rydell's The Cowboys betrays at its best a crystalline throughline into what it means to be bullied. It's a chronicle of oppression, a western at the genre's terminus point that, beneath the wide open skies of Colorado and New Mexico, paints an ugly picture of what happens when innocence is directed into experience by cruel hands and angry truths. I think of The Cowboys as John Wayne's The Misfits; he'd go on to do six more films, but The Cowboys' insight into the end of the line, with its collection of mismatched parts driven to violence, locates this 1972 picture as very much a product of the American New Wave--and as Wayne's final coming to terms with the mythologizing of violence. It's fine work from Wayne, too, an actor who, like many of his generation and stature, is accused of being a personality but nevertheless gave a handful of truly great performances.
The Cowboys is a forgotten masterpiece. It has Wayne at his sickest, fattest, oldest--at his most vulnerable. A moment on the trail where you can hear him huffing and puffing is as shocking now as it must have been then, a testament to how masculine-frailty is as rare as feminine aging in American film. He plays cattleman Wil Anderson, a man presented with the problem (like his iconic Dunson from Red River) of moving thousands of cattle cross-country and saddled further with the troubling defection of his crew to the Gold Rush. (Squint just a little and Red River and The Cowboys work as nice bookends for the cattle run in American celluloid.) His solution is to "deputize" a gaggle of young men--children really, the oldest no older than fifteen--and teach them how to deal with the astonishing injustice of the world with an idea of tolerance when, in fact, the only teacher of young men is violence, suspicion, and wrath. Cookie Jedediah (Roscoe Lee Browne) evolves into the mother of this surrogate family, providing sustenance and countering Wil's more extreme fits of tough love (Wil screams the stutter out of one youngster, belittles another for being afraid of the dark) while trying to stem the vengeance-fuelled events of the last thirty minutes. Once Wil's gunned down by renegade Asa (Bruce Dern) and the children, disarmed by Wil in a bid to keep them childish in the wilderness, re-arm themselves to dispatch their tormentor, the greater tragedy of the piece reveals itself to be that no matter the lengths well-meaning parents go to in order to protect their children, the real teachers are the Asas in life, not the Wils.
Legendary cinematographer Robert Surtees shot a hell of a beautiful film, but the trick of it is that this wild isn't romanticized like so many of Ford's vistas. Instead, it's posed as threatening for its vast unknowable quality. Wil isn't leading the children to a manifest destination so much as he's leading them into chaos and, at the moment of truth, disarming them so that chaos will overlook them as the threats they've become. He's an instrument of his own avengement in not allowing the children in his charge to be swallowed by the tide of the bedlam rushing into every vacuum. And there's no thrill in the "just" satiation of their bloodlust, though there is a feeling that the inevitable has taken place--the inevitable and nothing more. It's the bluntness of the predestined that I most admire about The Cowboys, namely that progress means killing the weak and burying idols (even the peculiar iconography of what Americans identify themselves with most fondly: small farms, entrepreneurship, independence, freedom, self-determination), and that growing up only means you're the baddest motherfucker in the evolutionary contest. No speech impediments, no glasses: weakness is a big red target. The Cowboys leaves a scar, for in there, on the surface and beneath, is the melancholy fact that the meek inherit the earth because they rise up in time, having been thought harmless and allowed to witness so much arbitrary viciousness that every means justifies every end.
Warner reissues The Cowboys in a well-deserved, slipcovered Deluxe Edition that lovingly restores the film and augments it with meaningful special features. Although the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is vibrant and largely free of grain (some of the broader vistas suffer a little), I admire that a certain filmic quality isn't digitally polished away. A DD 5.1 remix is meanwhile loud and blessedly full. Rydell contributes a feature-length yakker that's interesting mainly for the lengths to which he goes to avoid discussing the determinism of the piece. It's thoughtful even if, as in his commentary for The Rose, he perpetuates misinformation (his The Reivers was no more John Williams's first film than The Rose was Midler's), and even if he avoids introspection in favour of anecdotes--anecdotes being the central reason for "The Cowboys Together Again" (29 mins.), a docu reuniting surviving cast and crew (including the recently-deceased Browne) to reminisce about the shoot. "The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men" (8 mins.) is a vintage featurette I hesitate to call "useless," but useless it is. Regardless, The Cowboys is due for a serious critical revision, and this DVD release, for all the relative lightness of introspection in its supplementary material, demonstrates by the fact of itself that a critical revision is coming--if it hasn't already taken place. Originally published: June 29, 2007.