Another western that I thought I’d never really watch or review. I do remember hearing some enthusiasm for the film at art-school, but thought little of it, wanting to explore the classics of the genre more at the time, which to a large extent I have since achieved, now I’ve got a few to revisit. I have since considered catching Young Guns (1988) not really knowing much about the film beyond it looking like a chance to refresh the genre, which was beginning to happen during this period such as Silverado (1985) and Pale Rider (1985) at least Clint Eastwood could be relied upon to deliver. I also saw this as a spin on The Magnificent Seven (1960) formula, bring together a group of gunfighters and send them out to save the day, which isn’t far off what happened, just without the pathos or myth-making magic which it achieved.
What’s achieved is my curiosity being pricked up, which is all you need sometimes to engage with a film. First I was drawn to the late 1980’s music video aesthetic, it was clearly aimed at a young audience who had no real interest in the genre, something for older generations who grew up during its hey-day. During this period there are glimmers of something special coming through. Another point was having the other Martin Sheen son as the lead, as Emilio Estevez was already established in film, compared to the more prominent Charlie Sheen whose actually written out of the film at around the half-way point, which also shows as how much hated being on a horse, staying long enough to get a starring credit and a paycheck.
Looking further a stronger historical connection that I found, helping when I realised that it depicted both Billy the Kid – William H. Boney and L.G.Murphy, who both appeared in Chisum (1970), skewed more for John Wayne‘s lead character during the Lincoln County War (1877-8) one of the many cattle wars of the period. The same events basically unfold but from a more relatable point of view – the young men who knew John Tunstall whose killing, that originally started the war. Instead of Chisum who was rightly worried about Murphy’s increasing ownership in Lincoln County. He’s nowhere to be seen or heard in Young Guns which is either a poor choice historically, or consciously written out to focus on those directly effected by the shooting. Having too many characters to focus on would make it a broader less engaging film.
With such a young cast who had yet to really make a mark in film it allows these six actors (ignoring Estevez) into careers of some longevity, which did happen for Keifer Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland, which probably helped during casting. The rest of the cast I can’t say I have really seen before this film. A 50% success rate is still good going though. Placing them in this MTV-esque Western which works in some places and not in others. The music video feel of the film really has dated, the soundtrack really doesn’t work today, it attempt to set the tone but feels out-of-place, it’s neither nostalgic or dramatic, with time it’s just been lost. The casting of Terrance Stamp as John Tunstall just doesn’t work for me. Playing the “Englishman” which is over emphasised at times is really unnecessary for the audience. It’s trying to pit Englishman against Irishmen which really is just circumstance to me, just drop the point and move on. Also Stamp looks very out of place, just delivering his lines without looking awkward on-screen. I think he’s glad he was killed off after 20 minutes. He obviously leave a mark on the men – The Regulators, who start off to war.
Turning to The Regulators as characters themselves who are fully fleshed people who you can engage with. With the emphasis on Billy the Kid the assumed leader post Tunstall’s death, the historical figure that most in the audience would have heard of compared to the cattlemen who are known to those interested in history. For me it comes from reading beyond the films. As a character himself he owns the film and Estevez owns the role, really having fun, making his mark on the role whose being done justice. Looking to Charlie Sheen’s Richard ‘Dick’ Brewer who probably seen as the winger of the group who pushes everyone further before he’s killed off. Two of the Gun’s Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock and Charles ‘Charley’ Bowdre (Kiefer Sutherland and Casey Siemaszko) are given the love interests which don’t take over from the main plot, if anything they make them richer characters, they have more to lose as they reach the finale. I must also touch on the Navajo character ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) whose half Mexican, whose allowed screen-time to discuss the American Holocaust, specifically the massacre at Sand Creek Reservation (1864), despite the fact that he would never have been there, as he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapaho. Showing how Native American past can be recycled and jumbled to suit a script.
Young Guns reminded me of other super groups in the genre which brought together the best of the best in their fields, or even misfits such as The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969) up to Silverado. Guns joins that long line of super groups toting guns. Long before the Avengers and DC universe films that bring together superheroes. Except everyone gets on and they have already met, cutting out a lot of exposition allowing for us to get on with the plot and see this group of young men just get on with it.
Historically I was vaguely aware of Billy the Kid’s involvement in the Johnson County War, afterwards I feel a little more informed and refreshed, there’s more to it then the side we see. It’s small event of a much bigger, dirty, violent history, also adding the myth of the West that has been reshaped by cinema. There are a few nods to the fabric of the genre, Patrick Wayne – son of The Duke takes on the role of Pat Garrett, to Jack Palance as Murphy which you can see he’s enjoying far more than Stamp was. It’s not the strongest of films for a number of reasons which I’ve discussed, however it is fun, engaging with filled with action, you’re supporting the young men as they fight for what is right which makes up what is lacking at times. A product of its time which you can forgive its many flaws leaving me wanting to catch the sequel now.
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.