The Cowboys Review
The Cowboys raises a significant question for any critic. Can a film which is ideologically and morally repugnant to the viewer also be entertaining and even moving ? Basically, it's Death Wish with Western trappings but even less subtlety. Its message is, without putting too fine a point on it, right wing garbage and the ideology is so simplistic as to be laughable. Yet it's also constantly enjoyable, exciting, sometimes genuinely affecting and beautifully acted. So what's going on ?
Twenty two years after Howard Hawks' sublime Red River, John Wayne, this time called Will Anderson, is on another cattle drive. Gold fever having struck his men, he is left to face the 400 mile trek alone until an old friend, played by the redoubtable Slim Pickens, suggests that he looks to the local school for help. Times being hard, he signs up 11 lads to go on the drive with him on the understanding that "I'm a man... and you're boys !" Unsurprisingly, all the "cowboys" are innocent of the ways of the world and more than happy to discover the delights of manhood courtesy of their new guardian. In his role as adoptive father, Will is joined by a black cook who glories in the name of Jebediah Nightlinger and is played with elegant skill by Roscoe Lee Browne. Prejudice among the boys gradually turns to curiosity - "Is your, er.. is it black as well ?" asks the oldest - and their rather unlikely immediate tolerance is matched by their grudging eventual trust of a half-breed Mexican boy who follows them on their trail. When whiskey and sex are mentioned, one has a sinking feeling as it becomes apparant that this is a rite-of-passage for the boys but in the event there is only an amusing night of drunkeness for the viewer to contend with. A visit to a mobile whorehouse is mercifully curtailed before we have to witness the loss of virginity scene that appears to be threatened. Meanwhile, Wayne Will a surprising number of tolerant liberal virtues that have clearly been put in by the scriptwriters in the hope that we might ignore the reactionary bunkum to come.
SPOILERS ALERT - although nothing which happens is particularly unpredictable...
This begins once we encounter the villain of the piece, Asa Watts (Dern) otherwise universally known as "Long Hair". This should be enough for any alert viewer to guess what is coming next and, indeed, Asa turns out to be the bloodbrother of Scorpio in Dirty Harry. Those flowing locks and relaxed manner, we are told, should not deceive us to the evil that lurks within. Although Asa doesn't wear a peace symbol, he does appear to stand in for all those darned Hippies causing a ruckus back home. If this seems like a stretch of interpretation then remember Wayne's own politics which were slightly to the right of Henry Kissinger's. We see this time and again in his late films from True Grit to the utterly fascinating fiasco of The Green Berets. A number of the films of his later career, notably Cahill US Marshal and McQ, demonstrate how all those dastardly long haired radicals have been poisoning the country with their peacenik beliefs and dragging innocent, patriotic teenagers into their web of sin. In McQ Wayne takes great delight in punching the lights out of an unwisely garralous long haired protestor (although the rest of the film undercuts this by inadvertantly demonstrating how everything McQ has ever believed in is fundamentally corrupt). In Cahill he portrays a busy Marshal whose children have become lazy and anti-everything during his long absences from home. In other words, radical = unpatriotic = anti-American = Commie Bastard. This time, the poisoning influence of the long haired upon the young is embodied in Dern's deliciously overplayed bad guy. Long Hair dares to attempt to corrupt one boy into betraying Will and appears to succeed for a time. Dern doesn't so much chew the scenery as devour everything on display and he would probably have carried on to munch at the cameras, lighting and supporting cast if he were given the opportunity. He's such a sneaky coward that he shoots his victims in the back. It's a lot of fun to watch if you forget what his role represents, namely the chance for the Cowboys to discover that the way to become a "man" is to be blooded through the act of killing. Dern's actions in the film are so outrageous that the boys must avenge his victim by turning into cold-blooded killers. The film doesn't even bother to discuss this or suggest that it might not always be the best course of action. Instead, it makes it clear that we are in the realm of Old Testament justice; an eye for an eye, or in this case, six men for one since the boys delightedly kill all Dern's companions as well. Just what it means to be male is pathetically simplified in this film down to fucking, drinking and killing. Wayne was probably very proud of this film but it's depressing to be reminded that the man who embodied the dark heart of American history in The Searchers was in real life a reactionary bigot. That it doesn't affect one iota his importance in cinematic terms is testimony to the man's sheer star power - and at the end of the day, that's much more important than any of his personal qualities.
Indeed, Wayne, whatever his real life beliefs, was perhaps the greatest of all classic screen stars. Certainly in terms of sheer star presence there were few other actors to rival him and even then they could not hold together some of the old tat which Wayne was required to resurrect on screen. What makes The Cowboys so affecting as a film is Wayne, bringing together all the contradictory elements of his screen persona into the ageing, saddened Will who sees in the 11 boys his chance to be the father he couldn't be to his own sons, both now dead. It's a great performance, easily superior to his hammy Rooster Cogburn in the bizarrely overrated True Grit. His final scene, one of the most strangely touching I've ever seen, sums all of this up and it's hard not to choke back a tear or two when he acknowledges that "Summer's over". This is an early indication of the bizarre mix of brazen macho and poignant failure that is refined and perfected in Don Siegel's The Shootist, Wayne's last film. He's also wonderfully vital and energtic here, despite his age, everything we want Wayne to be in films, especially when he gets up to fight Long Hair - "I've had my back broken and my hip twice and on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you".
Ultimately, the whole film works despite its decided shortcomings. It looks fantastic, courtesy of Robert Surtees' rich and evocative lighting - anachronistically but perhaps appropriately inspired by the work of Norman Rockwell - and the glorious location work, and sounds even better thanks to John Williams whose work on this movie is among his very finest. The restored version of the film featured on this DVD contains his original overture, entr'acte and exit music, all of which are welcome additions to what is already a great music score. In genre terms, it's not especially significant, being a "late Western" of the post-Wild Bunch school in which a certain amount of reflection and cynicism about the romanticised version of the Wild West are taken for granted while most of the moral issues are well and truly fudged. Wayne's character is given tolerance for other colours and religions in a clear attempt by filmmakers who were, elsewhere in their career, impeccably liberal to dilute the ugliness of the overall message. It doesn't really work, coming across as deeply anachronistic, but it is very revealing. Of course, if you want a Western which genuinely examines the morality of the times and people, look no further than Robert Aldrich's subtle and probing Ulzana's Raid. You might even reflect that John Ford's The Searchers deals with the whole "revenge" issue with much more intelligence and maturity. It's also interesting that this often brutally violent film was treated as rollicking family entertainment on its release in America, where it played at the Radio City Music Hall. What strange times, what strange people.
The R1 disc of The Cowboys is a distinct disappointment in technical terms. The extra features are slightly better with a fine array of trailers for Wayne's movies from the thirties to the seventies.
The picture quality is below average demonstrating little evidence that any attempt has been made to restore the film. There is a lot of slight print damage, constant white speckling and distracting artifacts clutter up the screen during any scene which isn't entirely sunlit. There is some compensation in the rich colours and the generally acceptable level of detail. The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1.
The soundtrack is slightly better. The original monophonic soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 but there is not a great deal of surround activity and what there is seems to be restricted to the music score and occasional directional sound effects. However, the music score does sound wonderful throughout.
The disc features a brief 9 minute featurette called "The Breaking Of Boys and the Making of Men" which dates from 1971. This is one of the short films produced by Warners around this time to publicise their showcase releases for the year, Most of them were made by DGA trainees and quality varies wildly. The best is the one on Deliverance which actually provides some interesting information about the author James Dickey. This is one of the less impressive ones, dealing with the way Mark Rydell chose and directed the boys in the film. No interviews with the boys or John Wayne and an amusingly self-important narration.
The best things about the disc are the 13 trailers for John Wayne's films from Warner Brothers or RKO. These are all fascinating in their various ways and act as an introduction to the changing art of the trailer from the enthusiastically over the top thirties to the scale-emphasising fifties and the self-conscious seventies. The films are; Stagecoach, Flying Leathernecks, Blood Alley, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, How The West Was Won, The Green Berets, Chisum, The Cowboys, The Train Robbers and Cahill:US Marshal. A nice reminder of some great films and an amusing glimpse of some lesser ones - how anyone can watch The Green Berets with a straight face is beyond me, it's a camp classic. A glorious selection of trailers and almost worth buying the disc for. They are in various states of preservation from the very good Stagecoach to the poorly maintained Train Robbers and mostly fullscreen or 1.85:1.
So, an interesting but flawed film receives mediocre treatment on DVD. The trailers make it worth buying and anyone who likes Westerns will enjoy the movie but it's hard to recommend a disc which has such disappointing picture quality. The UK PAL R2 was scheduled for last year but then pulled at the last minute, possibly due to wrangling over the certificate. It was originally passed with an A certificate and then given a PG on video with 1 minute 30 seconds of cuts. The uncut version would probably receive a 12 by today's standards so that may explain the delay if Warners are looking for a new certificate. A European R2 is available with the same features but I do not know if this has an English soundtrack.