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.