The Cowboys (1972) Revisited
If you look at the latter part of John Wayne‘s post winning his best actor Oscar for True Grit (1969) which was well on earned, he was on form, was in part awarded to him out of guilt for being over-looked for past performance, then having been in front of the camera for 40 years. It’s far more polite than the honorary awarded which can be even awarded after death. A sorry for missing you statue that we see given to those who have graced our screens for decades, some of the recipients even kiss them, joke about it being their first to be nominated or considered for. It could have been the only one that Leonardo DiCaprio would have got if it wasn’t for his SIXTH nomination and the track record that awards seasons that ensure he finally won, add a bit of guilt he finally won. OK so back tracking to The Duke you could say his better years are over, this is something I have mentioned in past reviews so I won’t go over the same ground for too long. He didn’t go on to make any really great films that stand-up to True Grit, The Searchers (1956)… the list is endless, he produced classics every few years.
The last one prior to his obvious swan song is The Cowboys (1972), often mentioned as Wayne’s personal favorite. On a second watch I can see why he was fond of this now charming yet controversial Western that has a bitter-sweet place in my heart. With a long career behind him and a few more years left in him, he had created and wanted to maintain a screen image. He had nurtured new talent that had gone onto have successful careers, formed friendships with others too. Here he was able to find and allow much younger talent in front of the screen, 11 young men all younger than 16 able to live out their fantasy, starring in a film with John Wayne, who the hell wouldn’t if they had the chance? Another reason could be to be surrounded by boys who were the ages of his sons when he was mostly away filming, missing out on their upbringing. Whilst also sharing them with his first two ex-wives. A mix of guilt and paternal feeling that you might not consider at first.
Another reason why this film has a clasp on that classic status is its uniqueness, even in the 1970’s it was rare even for a Western is to have its populated with children on a cattle run. The film takes its roots a little more in fact, as Wil Anderson (Wayne) admits he was 13 on his first cattle drive. So you have to start somewhere. Children grew up quicker in the 19th century, they didn’t have it much better over in the UK, either being chimney sweeps or a life in the workhouse, maybe out in the fresh air was sliiiiighty better for them. Not mentioning the early starts, the rough conditions, the short nights and the dangers of the unknown, along with constantly proving your worth. Hmm maybe I should have a re-think on that one.
There’s also the undeniably beautiful cinematography thanks to Robert Surtees who has given us the images that could have almost been captured decades earlier. Rich in blue skies, the classic imagery of the cattle drive feels fresh after years of seeing the genre depict the event on countless occasions, here it feels like a documentary at times. Together with an early John Williams score that shows hints of greater things yet to come. We have moments of grandeur before something a little quirky, he has yet to reach his own real style.
So we have a refreshed take on one of the oldest forms of Western, driven by an actor whose rarely producing the film, he’s the actor for hire, listening to the director Mark Rydell who is able to get a matured yet not cliched performance out of The Duke, he’s not simply playing a version of his image, he’s bringing out the father figure in him. Whilst being too old to conceivavably have young children on-screen he is able to act as a mentor to a new generation who will have to grow from being boys to young men. Which is pushing me towards seeking out the Young Guns (1988) to see how these young men roles might have lead them Of course that was more about a vehicle for another generation of actors coming through and an attempt to restart the genre.
There are a few aspects which disturbs me about The Cowboys, the first was quickly wiped away, the depiction of the Mexican Cimarron (A Martinez) who was seen as more confident, a cowboy in the making. First seen breaking a horse, showing his potential employer that he is more than worthy of a place on the trail. He’s dismissed before they even set off because of the violence he brings to the company. His heritage is never mentioned, he has no other name other than Cimarron which suggest he’s had to fend for himself, may have even forgotten his surname or have been given his name by someone other than a parent in his short life. He does hover return after rescuing one of the white cowboys from drowning, proving he can be a team player, having grown up over the course of the film to that point. Another is the boys picking up guns and ultimately killing with them. First they are taken away from them, locked away on the wagon by Anderson wanting a clean and safe drive. Its only when they feel the need to exact revenge do they resort to violence that is usually carried out by men. It’s as if they have to prove their worth as men in a world of testosterone. Today you could read this as young soldiers fighting against their will for a guerilla outfit that has trained boys to fight. This has been seen before if not as prominently in another Wayne film The Horse Soldiers (1959)where young boys at a military academy, of course the setting is far different – Civil War, different rules apply here, yet they do discuss sending these boys into the line of fire. Boys who are at an academy to become soldiers, so you can more easily forgive the depiction.
The bittersweet-ness I am however left with is one of those rare times when the Duke was killed on-screen. I was dreading seeing it happen again, it has given Bruce Dern a story to dine out on forever. However Wayne was rarely at the receiving end of a fatal bullet, the hero, the last man standing who saw the job and the film through to it’s end. Maybe this was seen as a rare departure for him, allowing the boys to take on the drive or simply ride off. You can see the motivations for picking up a gun and acting lower than those who stole the cattle. After seeing a larger than life screen idol being beaten by a young actor before being shot in an unfair fight, the boys are only acting out what any of us in the audience would want to do in that world. Each shot, every punch hurts not only the characters but those who have followed him on the screen, not just the boys on the cattle drive, its all the motivation you’d need
I feel I have come away from this film better able to express how I feel about a latter film of the Duke who was very much in legacy mode by then, wanting to keep working until his body finally gave out on him as we see 4 years later in The Shootist (1976) which had to be shot around his failing health. Its a film that not many actors of his generation would make, the hero never dies in the classic genre, they live on. However he hasn’t really died, his spirit lives on in his films, his ideals (on screen more so) and image of the west that he created, reflected out to the world, this is the genre starting to bow out, here in a way that pays homage whilst still wanting to reinvent itself for a new audience. It still on TV at least 1 once a month in the UK alone, just shows the popularity of the film and the power of the John Wayne.