A Hollywood western populated by little boys has got to be a wussy family film, right? Wrong. The Cowboys (1972) is an intelligent, elegantly photographed, hardcore western, but with heart, a classicist's sound track, & fine characterizations all round.
And what those boys so bravely cope with is nothing short of horrifying, with no fewer frontier hookers & psycho killers along the route than in any gritty western.
Crusty father figure (or grandfather figure) Wil Anderson is played by John Wayne, but even when I was a kid, I always sort of thought of this is a Bruce Dern film.
Dern plays a wonderful cattle-rustlin' villain, with all too much meaning behind his sinister grin when he queries early in the tale, "What you gonna use for hands on this drive, Mr. Anderson? Those itty bitty boys?"
He's a shit you love to hate. As plan after plan goes awry for the incompetent psycho, he gets stranger & creepier, until he's practically a figure out of a horror movie. And the price Wil must finally pay in the clashes that follow, no child should have to bear witness.
Will's ranch hands abandon him to head to the hills on the rumor of gold. An old friend played by Slim Pickins suggests he hire the only "men" left in town, a group of boys, ages nine through fifteen.
Think about it too long & it don't make any actual sense, that parents would allow any of it, or Wil Anderson believe even a nine year old could make that four-hundred mile journey through some of the harshest country God ever made.
But however flimsy the premise & set-up may be to justify using pre-teens for the job, Wil does rapidly train the children as cattle drivers. Soon they set out on a journey that would've been nigh on impossible even if there weren't murderous rustlers & sundry troubles at every bend.
The great Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger (what a great name) has stood by Wil, being a professional chuckwagon operator.
One of my complaints about stock westerns is they so rarely acknowledge the existance of African Americans in the wild wild west, when in fact they were everywhere, & Roscoe plays a great example.
He has the best line in the film, too, praying in atonement at the end of a lynch mob's rope: "Lord forgive me for the men I've killed in anger, & for those I'm about to."
Any cattle drive cook would be popularly known as "the old woman" in western parlance. The sobriquet isn't much used in cowboy fiction, but but it reflects an actual attitude of an era.
So if Wil is the father/grandfather role model for the lads, Jebediah is grandma. And that means he's a wife to Wil, able to tell him point-blank that as a man who failed & lost two sons, there stands before him now a second chance to parent well.
As tough a cowboy movie as this is, its most wonderful moments are the quiet ones, as when the lads gather around a campfire at night, & young Slim Honeycut (Robert Carradine) with guitar plays Vivaldi to the starlit sky.
With Wayne's later pictures -- from True Grit (1969) to his farewell performance in The Shootist (1976), he was starring in actual works of art, not "John Wayne westerns" as they had formerly been known.
In these latter films he's not trying to play roles that required young men to play them, & he has to deal with the realities of aging & the possibility of failure in a rough, tough world. The Cowboys is one of the best of his entire career.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl