some of my favorite things #6: the cowboys (1972)

I’m not sure how this one slipped by me as a kid.  I’m sure it played on television when I was a youngster–local Portland station Channel 12 was obligated by law to play John Wayne movies every weekend, I think–but I don’t ever remember watching it.  If I did, I blocked it from my memory.

Oh, what a little fool I was.

Having been on a bit of a John Wayne binge of late, I rented the Blu-Ray edition of this and hoped for the best.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away by writing that the film is notorious and legendary in equal measure for being the one where Duke is shot in the back by a dastardly long-haired villain, played by the great Bruce Dern.  It was a jolt back in 1972 and plenty of kids, no doubt, were scarred by seeing the movie icon go down in such a brutal manner.  It’s still a jolt to watch today.

But how was I to know any of it was good?  Most reviews that I’d come across over the years treated it as mediocre late period Wayne.  And people I’ve spoken with who had seen it loved the film, though I suspected they were blinded by childhood nostalgia.

I have to admit it’s a really splendid film, from Mark Rydell’s assured direction to (egads!) John Williams’ appropriately majestic yet lyrical score to the performances from all the kids (half of ’em non-actor rodeo boys) to the stand-out roles by Dern and the great Roscoe Lee Browne, the latter as Nightlinger the chuck wagon man who accompanies the cattle drive.

And then there’s Wayne.

His work with John Ford will always be my favorite–primarily the Westerns–but Wayne’s performance here as rancher Wil Andersen seems the perfect culmination to his long career.  The Shootist (1976) would end up being Wayne’s final performance, of course, but I like the Duke here more.  A bit world-weary but not tainted with cynicism, Wayne seems genuinely comfortable acting opposite the gaggle of cowpokes he’s saddled with, striking just the right balance of obstinacy, fatherly protectiveness, and gentleness we want from our aging cowboy icon.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, but not with the bathetic hard-sell one would expect.  It’s quintessential classic Wayne charisma we get in The Cowboys, but tempered with the wisdom and offhandedness that only a pro can pull off effectively.  There’s insight in them eyes… and when Wayne goes down, it’s crushing.


2 comments on “some of my favorite things #6: the cowboys (1972)

  1. dana garden says:

    I love the Duke, too. I guess I have a serious soft spot for The Quiet Man, but love the cowboy movies, too. Reminds me of weekend afternoons with my grandfather–we may have had that same law on the books in L.A. 🙂

  2. derek says:

    I really liked Wayne as a kid, but for many reasons Clint Eastwood appealed to me more. The Sergio Leone movies just really dug their spurs into me as a teenager more. But then I saw The Searchers when I was 18 or 19 and it was a revelation. Never knew the Duke could act! Red River too. I think the “approved” movies like those and Liberty Valance are obvious pro-Wayne choices for people who don’t really like him. There’s a reason they’re great and I wouldn’t argue that they represent Wayne at his best in terms of acting. But The Cowboys shows how effortless he could be in a way so many actors today simply aren’t. That only comes with experience and I simply love the way he interacts with Slim Pickens and the actress who plays his wife, Sarah Cunningham. Cunningham had been one of the actors on the blacklist, btw, and director Mark Rydell never told Wayne because Duke had, of course, been one of the most belligerent anti-communist crusaders in Hollywood during the scare.

    I can’t stand Wayne’s politics. But as an actor, a movie star, and a presence on screen… he’s captivating. And just watch him interact with Cunningham. He’s damn underrated as an actor too. By that point in his career he was the master of the small gesture.

    Godard hated Wayne’s politics too, but couldn’t deny the emotional power at the end of The Searchers. Who could?

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