Keith Cambre Reviews John Wayne & The Cowboys

Today a movie review from film aficionado Keith Cambre. 

John Wayne played in 152 films, and I am keeping a life list of as many of his works as I can see.  At present, I have screened about three dozen of his films with over 100 to go!  Recently, I viewed one of The Duke’s later works, The Cowboys, for the first time.  This film debuted in 1972, and I am wondering how I let 40 years pass before seeing such a gem.

John Wayne plays Wil Andersen, a successful Montana rancher who must drive his sizeable herd to market, 400 miles away in Belle Fourche.  When Andersen’s hired hands desert him en masse to pan for gold, he is forced to employ 11 boys to accompany him on the drive.  During this Old West Road Trip, the boys are transformed under the mature tutelage of The Duke’s character, who is a font of paternal energy, strength, and wisdom.

There is a second source of father energy on the drive:  Roscoe Lee Browne plays the erudite African-American mess cook, Jebediah Nightlinger, who works in tandem with Andersen to balance the trials of the boys and to shelter their innocence when necessary.  Like Jim inThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the inclusion of Mr. Nightlinger in the story speaks of an America where disparate parts come together for the good of all.  E pluribus unum.  The drive also includes Cimarron, an illegitimate Hispanic youth, and Charlie Schwartz, who on meeting Andersen, cheerfully introduces himself as Jewish.  Indeed, all races and backgrounds are welcome on the drive.  All that matters is a focus on working together, looking out for each other, and getting the job done.

Of course, there are bad guys on this cattle drive, set to steal the herd.  Bruce Dern plays a deliciously nasty character, whose sin of bullying the boys trumps his sin of rustling the cattle.  The rustlers’ evil eventually spills over to killing Andersen.  The Cowboys is rare in the annals of John Wayne films in that The Duke’s character dies about 30 minutes before the ending, and it is further rare in that he is shot from behind.  Falling in a cruciform manner, similar to Clint Eastwood’s character at the conclusion of Gran Torino, Andersen admonishes Mr. Nightlinger to get the boys home safely, and just before dying, he tells the boys that he is proud of them.  Coming from The Duke, there can be no greater benediction.

The film concludes with the boys “finishing the job” by retaking the herd from the rustlers and ultimately dispatching the bad guys, one by one.  While some may criticize the film’s depiction of the boys as killers, Bruce Dern’s character and his cohort certainly had it coming.  At the end, the cowboys ride the herd into Belle Fourche, completing the task set upon them.  They return to Montana, not as boys, but as men.

In addition to a great story and fine acting, the cinematography of The Cowboys is sweeping and rich.  Musical elements complement the visual perfectly as John Williams’ score evokes the spaciousness and grandeur of Aaron Copland.  John Wayne supposedly commented that his performance in The Cowboys was his favorite of the 152 films in which he worked.  While he is better remembered for his roles in The Searchers and True GritThe Cowboys is nevertheless a must-see for any fan of The Duke.  I recommend!


A Few Memorable Quotes

Wil (John Wayne):  “We’re burning daylight!”

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Mr. Nightlinger (Browne)to feminine entrepreneurs encountered on the cattle drive:  “Well, I have the maturity, and the inclination and the wherewithal, but unfortunately, I don’t have the time.”


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