PictureTypically for a film of this vintage, the 2.40:1transfer for The Cowboys (1080p encoded with VC-1) is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. Whilst there is no mistaking the fact that this is the best the movie has ever looked since its initial theatrical debut, there are still a fair few niggling little elements that conspire to distract the eyes of those keen on viewing the best possible image.
The source print may have been cleaned up, but there are still plentiful flickers, dots and flecks to spoil things. The big skies have a tendency to look murky and grain can, on occasion, fuzz about in front of them, as well. Scene-changes can suffer colour-fades and a loss of clarity. But the image is still pretty sharp and bold, featuring strong colours and detail that is particularly attractive during the close-ups. Faces, clothing, foliage and weaponry all exhibit a clarity that is nice to see, although unsurprisingly, given the age of the film, background detail can often soften-up and lose definition. Interior scenes, such as in the schoolroom, or the saloon where Wayne talks to Pickens, or even the great “story-makers” moment when Jebediah bunks down with the lads at Wil's ranch have a nice sense of depth and clarity that really showcase the transfer at its best. Now, as I stated, the colours are very strong, but they have definitely been enhanced for this release. Purists may not like such tinkering, but if the result had been a little more consistent throughout the entire spectrum, and the entire film, for that matter, then I doubt they would have found much to complain about. But, as it stands, you can plainly see the hues shifting and altering during several scenes. And, whilst facial detail is very good, skin tones and eyes can appear, respectively, too rosy and too bright.
Contrast levels fluctuate too, with some darker scenes tending to waver about a bit. But the black levels are certainly good enough to maintain a stable image and project fine atmospherics throughout much of the film. Of course, some day-for-night shots make a mockery of that last statement, but this is part and parcel of the territory and the era in which the film was made. Digitally, there are at least two occasions when moving objects - both people, in actual fact - exhibit a terrible, but brief, instance of motion drag that is quite glaringly obvious but, on whole, the image is devoid of the usual compression irritations.
Although I probably made this transfer sound less than acceptable, the truth is that The Cowboys does look very nice indeed for much of its running time. The 2.40:1 image is gloriously wide and, with the necessary allowances made for its advancing age, the picture is still very enjoyable and definitely better than I have seen it look at any other time. But, even for such vintage material, I have seen much better.
SoundTaking the original mono track and remixing it into Dolby Digital 5.1 isn't often a sound endeavour (if you pardon the pun). Some things are just better left untouched or tampered with. But, the newly cobbled audio transfer, at 640 kbps, manages to make a decent spread across the front speakers, which does open up what is, ultimately, a quiet and sedate film quite nicely. Voices and movement don't sound particularly sharp or vital, but there is a degree of welcome presence to the mix, and movement across the limited soundscape is still tangible and welcome.
Dialogue is good and clear, the sound of hundreds of hooves on the march is always thickly spread around the speakers and even if the gunshots and the effects don't register at all when compared to modern releases, they still retain a bit of punch and dynamism. As is only to be expected, there isn't a lot of activity taking place in the rears, but there is a steady supply of low-level ambience which seems to fit the tone and mood of the majority of the piece.
What the track does best is project John Williams' score with width and warmth, which is eminently rewarding to hear. Its range is sweeping and lush, filling the room and the more playful cues sound fresh and clear. In all, once you have adjusted to the inevitable lesser quality of such older material, this is a fine track with no major defects.
ExtrasIncluding all the same features that graced the recent SD release, this BD edition kicks off with a Commentary Track from director Mark Rydell. This is gold, folks. There may be a few little lulls in his reminiscences, but he has lost absolutely none of his fondness for the production and his passion is infectious. Even though the film was made a great many years before, his memory never once lets him down and he is able to supply numerous anecdotes and behind-the-scenes trivia. Naturally, the best stuff revolves around his experiences with Wayne, Browne and Dern. Some of the tales he relates are terrific. Listen to him recounting the moment when he roared at Wayne for jumping the gun on an intricate long shot and performing the whole thing before the cameras had even begun to roll, and his subsequent terror that the powerful icon would have him fired from the film for such an outburst. It is also great to hear how the natural rivalry between Wayne and Browne - forever trying to outdo one another - culminated in a bizarre poetry-reciting duel. Wonderful stories, folks, about real Hollywood heavyweights. But perhaps the most affecting part of his chat chronicles his sheer pleasure at working with, not only such big stars, but with the cluster of kids who, it appears, underwent a similar journey of discovery to their onscreen counterparts throughout the mammoth shoot. Ultimately, this is a very worthwhile commentary that I, for one, would take time out to listen to again.
Then we get a fairly warm-hearted and likeable documentary that was filmed in December 2006 called The Cowboys: Together Again. Running for half an hour, this allows us to join a reunion of cast and their director in which all fondly recall their days in the saddle. Obviously, the main star of the film sadly cannot participate, but at least we get to see Roscoe Lee Browne and Robert Carradine, who both appear in separately recorded interviews. There isn't much we learn that is new, but there is ample pleasure to found in seeing such old friends getting together again to share some memories.
Apart from the original theatrical trailer, the final bonus is a vintage featurette called “The Breaking Of The Boys And The Making Of The Men”, which actually hails from the time of the film's production and, sadly, really shows its age with a pretty awful print condition. But, despite a short running time of about 9 mins, it remains an interesting piece of nostalgia, mainly for the footage of Wayne, Rydell and the boys on location. Got to be honest, though, these vintage promos are still miles better than the fluffy, jazzed-up EPKs we keep getting these days.
VerdictIt is easy to view The Cowboys as John Wayne's recognition that he must pass on the reins to a younger generation, but the film allows the actor to go much deeper than that and study what it means to face the end of the line, passing on the knowledge of a lifetime. The ethics of how all this comes to be, and the stance that the film takes in light of the cultural and societal upheaval that America was undergoing at the time, may be ripe for debate, but the simple truth of wild men existing in wild times is told with typical old school relish. For me, the film tends to be a little slow and the cluster of men-children with whom we are forced to empathise and sympathise with, can be irritatingly trite. But, for Wayne fans, The Cowboys valiantly stands his corner and sees the Duke attacking the part with typically cynical-yet-resolute conviction and courage. Ably supported by marvellous turns from Bruce Dern and the inimitable Roscoe Lee Browne, the film is eminently entertaining and provides a great gut-punching thirst for righteous payback. Therefore, this Blu-ray release, with its insightful commentary and big-hearted reunion feature, is well worth picking up. The AV quality is an appreciable upgrade from standard, even if the prints still bears many irksome little blemishes and annoyances.
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