Directed by Mark Rydell
With all his cowhands experiencing gold fever, Wil Andersen (John Wayne) is forced to hire a bunch of young school kids to work on his cattle drive.
In this story the character of Wil Andersen in a way gets to do right this time what he had previously done wrong. He has two dead sons which are implied came to a bad end and these children that he has hired are in a way his second chance. Through setting them on a good path to adulthood by teaching them lessons through becoming cowhands he can redeem his own failures as a father. This was some of Wayne’s better acting. You could feel the regret and sense the character’s sentiments towards the kids. Perhaps Wayne was channeling some of himself here. I do not know but there was real feeling in his performance.
This is possibly one of my favorite performances by Roscoe Lee Brown. He is so good as the cook Jebediah Nightlinger. Aside from his amazing voice, but he was also a very talented actor. Nightlinger was a touch wily and a touch worldly and a guiding figure for both the children and for Wil. His character spins tallish tales that you could almost believe with a twinkle in his eye.
Brown and Wayne had real chemistry in this movie. The dynamic was fantastic. They reportedly got along well-off screen and that appears to have translated to their performances together.
Bruce Dern is in this movie as Asa “Long Hair” Watts. He is quite the villain as a former jailbird that approaches Wil early in the film but is dismissed because he failed to be honest upfront when Wil catches him in a lie. Integrity was a trait all of Wayne’s characters had but it usually did not come back to bite any of them. I can imagine first time viewers back when this came out being surprise that in the context of a Western what is a minor interaction introduced a serious threat to the characters. Strangely while the character is referred to as “Asa” in the film, he is referred to as “Long Hair” in the credits.
This is a masterfully told coming of age tale. His new cowhands start out as children and become men during the course of the cattle drive because of the tutelage and care of their surrogate father Wil. But their final step into manhood comes because of his death. In the context of the story without it they would not have truly matured. When he is killed, they must not only seek justice but complete this one last cattle drive for their “father.” It is a moment of maturity and responsibility.
The story is heartfelt and well-acted. The performances by Wayne and Brown and even the young actors (some of whom have gone on to other things) were all just fantastic. This all supported a wonderful story that is about leaving youth behind and becoming an adult with a touch of coming to terms with the past.
And what a beautifully shot film. The scenery is nice, but I am talking about the total look. The colors throughout are beautiful. No one shot is visually stronger than another. The environment looks believable. The costuming does not feel off the rack. It is a lived in and authentic feeling world that director Mark Rydell put on film.
John Wayne gives a very fine performance. There is some of his better acting on display here. I know he was no great actor, but he was better than usual in this film. He is more nuanced in his approach and his character is not quite as perfect as usual. Wayne did have talent but relied more on his unique screen presence. The right director could bring that talent out, as happened here, but too few just let him rely on presence.
What action there is in this film is quite solid. The best and most satisfying action moment comes at the end AFTER Wil has passed. Wayne was left completely out of the best, The cowhands having lost everything to Asa decide to tackle Nightlinger and steal their guns back in order to get justice. After some discussion, Nightlinger decides to aid the children and they devise a plan.
Brown delivers some of the best dialogue of the movie during this portion of the film. His character is essentially the bait for Asa and the attitude he gives in the beginning and the “you are screwed now” type announcement just before they try to hang him is a high point of the film. This was a rare badass moment for a Roscoe Lee Brown character.
The Cowboys is a fantastic coming of age tale set in the Old West. It is a great story with fine performances all around. It is a beautiful film in sound and in visual and should be on your watchlist.