Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Cowboys (Warner Bros, 1972)


Burnin’ daylight


A very early post on this blog, back in 2010, was a review of a John Wayne Western of the 1970s that is not universally admired (especially by West Coast liberals) but which is liked by many Westernistas, inc. your Jeff, and having just watched it again, I thought I’d say a bit more about it today. The Cowboys.



Wayne, in his best performance between True Grit and The Shootist (it is said that he had to ask for the part, which was originally slated for George C Scott) plays Wil Andersen, a grizzled sixty-year-old cattleman with a beer gut and an unlikely toupee (he was actually 65) whose cowhands desert him to look for gold. He has to get his 12,000 head to the railroad through  “400 miles of the meanest country of the West” and has no drovers to do it. Saloon-owner Slim Pickens, in a tragically short role, suggests that Andersen draft the male contingent of the schoolroom, and it’s the story of how these young boys try to prove their manliness to Andersen and grow up in the process.


Recruiting ground


The movie was criticized by the liberal establishment at the time because it had John Wayne in it and because it portrayed innocent children being turned into hardened killers, and I suppose the liberal establishment had a point. Leonard Maltin disliked the positive depiction of violent revenge and found the film “disappointing”. But you can’t help cheering the kids on when they get revenge for the baddies’ perfectly beastly behavior. Vincent Canby in the New York Times said, “the finale, in which the boys slaughter a band of cattle rustlers, is simply ridiculous.” Roger Ebert rather agreed, describing the final shootout “during which every one of the range-wise, hardened, experienced, jailbird gunmen is killed and not a single kid gets nicked, even”. Ebert added, “The scenes along the way of the kids learning to be cowboys are good, warm fun, and it’s a shame they had to go for the unlikely, violent, and totally contrived last thirty minutes.” But I agree rather more with Arthur B Clarke who wrote in Films in Review that “The Cowboys is a kind of folk story you want to believe, hence indictments of it for not being realistic are irrelevant and/or tendentious.” Of course what Mr Clarke says may apply to most Westerns.



Duke greatly enjoyed the filming, much of it shot in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona and round Durango and Buckskin Joe in Colorado, though he didn’t always get on famously with producer/director Mark Rydell, actor in The Long Goodbye and director of On Golden Pond, though this was his only feature Western, and apparently there was some disagreement on the ending. According to Luster Bayless, Wayne’s friend and wardrobe guy, “Duke didn’t believe the boys should take the law into their own hands.” Wayne also wasn’t sure whether he should die.



For yes, this was a rare picture in that John Wayne is killed. He hadn’t done that since Wake of the Red Witch in 1948 and certainly not in a Western (except for The Alamo where he was kind of obliged to die). It does come as rather a shock and it’s quite early-70s brutal. Bruce Dern, in one of his greatest roles as the rustler chief Longhair Asa Watts, viciously shoots an narmed Andersen several times, including in the back. Wayne warned Dern that America would hate him for it (and in fact he did receive some death threats) but Dern wryly observed, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.”


Bruce had learned how to scare the living daylights out of poor little kids in Will Penny four years before


Apart from the excellent location photography, by the great Robert Surtees (one of my all-time favorite Western cinematographers – click the link for our appreciation of Surtees père et fils) there is also a fine score composed and directed by John Williams, definitely one of the better Western soundtracks. Furthermore, there are authentic cattle and roping scenes, great costumes (and haircuts) and enjoyable general Western ambience. The picture really has a lot going for it.



Based on a 1971 novel by William Dale Jennings, who grew up in Colorado (a noted gay rights activist, Jennings was not the obvious choice for Wayne), the screenplay was cooked up by Jennings himself in collaboration with experienced husband-and-wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, who had started on The Outriders and Vengeance Valley in the early 1950s and wrote Westerns for Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and Paul Newman among others.



The cast was strong. Apart from Wayne and Dern, giving some of their best ever performances (Dern is splendidly vile), Roscoe Lee Browne was second-billed as the cook, with a curiously plummy voice as if he were doing Shakespeare (the New York Times said his “diction is only slightly less mellifluous than Sir John Gielgud’s”).


Shakespearean cook


Robert Carradine (brother of Keith) was one of the older cowboys and the kids were splendid, notably I thought Clay O’Brien as the pint-sized Hardy Fimps. O’Brien went on to be equally good with Wayne in Cahill, US Marshal when he was a grown man of 11. These days he stands six feet tall, is a rodeo star and has won seven World Titles in Team-Roping. Who would have thought it. Well, actually, you might. Those two films must have stood him in good stead.


Clay excellent


All the kids weren’t at all mawkish or slushy, as they can be in Westerns, but authentic little tough guys.



Robert ‘Buzz’ Henry was second unit director and stuntmeister and the stuntmen included Tap Canutt, who also had a bit as a rustler.


There’s a rather pointless short bit with Colleen Dewhurst as a madam that should have been edited out. The 134-minute runtime would have allowed such a cut.


Reviews were far from glowing at the time. The New York Times, for example, said, “The Cowboys, which opened yesterday at Radio City Music Hall, is so flecked with minor dishonesties that you come to recognize it as a sort of Formica Western, something that amounts to a parody of the real thing.” Nevertheless, the picture did quite well at the box-office, grossing $7.5m on its $6m budget, and as I said above, has found a place in the heart of many Western fans. Brian Garfield (def a Western fan) in his 1980s guide Western Films called it “one of the better oaters of the decade.”



The picture spawned a short-lived ABC TV series with several of the same kids though without Wayne or Dern.



8 Responses

  1. A coming of age story added to an end of the West(ern) story by killing John Wayne. The same year was released The Culpepper Cattle Co. based upon the same cattle drive story used as a rite of passage but on a much discrete tone without stars except maybe Geoffrey Lewis who could have been a Bruce Dern’s partner. Mark Rydell (born in 1929), first of all a musician studying at Julliard, is an interesting director (sometimes actor too) also known for The Reivers (Steve McQueen), The Rose (Bette Midler), On Golden pond (H. Fonda & K. Hepburn) or The River (Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek). He worked for TV series such as Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West or The Virginian before starting shooting feature films like many others of the same generation.

    1. Rydell as an actor is stunning in Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’. Just watched ‘The Cowboys’ recently again and it still stands as excellent work.

  2. I do not like the film at all, although Roscoe Lee Browne gets through it well enough. No one and nothing else shines inmy eyes, and I have no interest in Rydell.

  3. Speaking as an East Coast liberal, I have great affection for this movie, and agree with Mr. Clarke’s view of it as a folk story. Or at least a Saturday matinee/folk story.

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