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The Cowboys Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    The Cowboys Review
    After reviewing the classic Duke westerns The Searchers and Rio Bravo, it is somewhat of a comedown to now confront one from the icon's final batch of movies with Mark Rydell's wistful ode to the passing of an age in The Cowboys. That is not to say that this a bad film - it isn't in any way - but it remains melancholy to see the big guy in the twilight of his years. Although Wayne never really looked like a young man, that face was born weather-beaten, the crags and jowls he wore in his last few films took the aging cowboy-look to hitherto uncharted extremes. It was somehow less upsetting to see him tackle those tough-cop roles in McQ and Brannigan (still can't quite believe that they wanted him for Dirty Harry, though!) since the environments in which those characters existed were so far removed from those he was a staple feature of - ie, the wild frontier and all those dusty saloon sets - that it is easier not to notice the physical transition. But, strangely enough, it was here, back on the range that he had travelled so often throughout his career, that he looked more decrepit and wizened, his girth increased and his eyes a little rheumy.

    But then, this was exactly what the part of old rancher Wil (their spelling) Andersen required and there was no better, nor more seasoned veteran able to do it justice.

    Alongside Clint Eastwood, Sam Elliott and, of course, John Wayne, himself, there is one other genuine cowboy who just happened to follow the cinematic trail as well ... and that was Slim Pickens. So, it is apt and, somehow, poetic that it should be he who makes the fateful suggestion to rugged old Wil that he look to the local school for potential recruits for an upcoming and epic 400-mile cattle drive. With gold fever having accounted for his usual crew, the gruff and grizzled professional is left with little option if he wants to get his herd to market. So, signing up eleven innocent young protégés, all eager to become men and thirsting for adventure, Wil sets off on what will prove to be as gruelling and as arduous a journey for himself as his young charges.

    “What are you using for hands on this drive, Mister Andersen ... those li'l biddy boys down there?”

    Director Mark Rydell brings the quirky and slightly offbeat western screenplay by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank and William Dale Jennings to slow, meandering life, making terrific use of the natural locations of Santa Fe and Montana as an expansive backdrop denoting, quite literally, the big wide world that these young men are exposing themselves to. And, much like a horse-opera-alternative to Dead Poets' Society or Dangerous Minds, they encounter all the things that will turn their quizzical and innocent souls into something hardened, wiser and much less gullible under the tutelage of someone they come to fear, respect and idolise. All the usual episodes of impromptu - and, this case, al fresco - childish learning take place, from discovering the joys of alcohol and the even more intoxicating allure of women, to the hostility of the land and the hard graft that it extracts from hearts and minds and the wretched acceptance of untimely death and violence at the hands of others. There may not be anything radically new to the tale, but the film did cause quite a stir at the time of its release for placing minors in both jeopardy and pseudo-sensual encounters - this second primarily involving a travelling troupe of tarts whose innuendo-laden teasing and half-dressed prancing at the riverside cause a stirring of an altogether different kind. All along the way, Wil and trail-cook Jebediah Nightlinger (an awesome Roscoe Lee Browne) learn to accept the fallibilities of their fledgling crew and come to act as surrogate fathers to them, compassionate, protective and inspirational. Self-discovery is the name of the game but, in Wil's own case, this is more about learning to overcome the guilt he feels at the loss of both of his own sons. One of the most affecting moments in the film comes early on as Wil looks down at their graves. Wayne's face, like a map of the deserts and the prairies, tells its own stories without the need for words or overly-sentimental music. Rugged and resilient, it has, nevertheless, been tainted by time and seen better days, that's for sure. Thus, when he makes his silent farewell, the sight of his crumbling brow and watery eyes as he gazes down at the twin graves is utterly heartbreaking. Once again, John Wayne - the star who nobody thought could act - produces emotion from the simplest of expressions, and an air of personality that is real and sympathetic. It is what he doesn't do that makes the moment so human and etched with pain.

    “I like to travel with a man I'm used to.”

    “You'll get used to me.”

    Wayne shares the screen with two other men who tower above the script and elevate their roles with absolute gusto and conviction. Roscoe Lee Browne's Nightlinger is phenomenal - a man of grace, wit and a powerhouse of saddle-sore philosophy. Equipped with a sensational name and a strange Shakespearean quality, he may be the unlikeliest trailblazer to ever drive a herd, but his relationship with Wil and the boys is right at the emotional core of the story. Ostensibly a outsider, himself - being black he has to run the usual gamut of racist slurs and even some comical interludes that may be viewed as, shall we say awkward, nowadays - he has the benefit of not having to conform to a genre stereotype. His diction, poise and world-savvy attitude paint him out as a unique component in a machine that may look and sound familiar, but is wrought from a different metal than that which we have come to expect from a Wayne western. You could say that Nightlinger is actually an anachronism, far too otherworldly for the otherwise straightforward plot. But this is exactly the point that is being made. He looks different to anything that the boys have seen before. Talks different, too. So, essentially, what we are seeing is the physical embodiment of the strange and wonderful world at large that the virgin-trekkers are experiencing. Browne's characterisation makes Jebediah an oddity, but this does not mean that he doesn't fit right on in with the rest of the characters, just the same.

    “Gambling's a sin.”

    “This ain't gambling ... it's stealing.”

    Bruce Dern, who is great as the sleazy scumbag of determined villainy, Asa, is a tremendously nuanced actor who could economically and effectively portray both good and bad guys, here turns the taps on full with this role and becomes a borderline psycho scary enough to give the grownups on the cattle trail nightmares, let alone the kids. With wild-eyed malevolence and that crackly, half-drawled, half-whistled voice, he transforms a backwater lowlife into the catalyst that will shred the innocence of the boys forevermore. It is another great part and one that the actor bites down hard upon. Although riding with a mob of other desperados, it is only he who lingers in the memory and his two grandstanding scenes, although horrible, are definite high-points in the movie. Never physically intimidating, Dern still manages to become a fearsome threat, his sly and devious wordplay like a psychological knife that he wields just as dangerously as the real one that he puts to a frightened boy's throat. Moments when he and his posse are spotted shadowing the herd have an ominous sense of inevitability about them and it is difficult, especially come his galvanising face-off with Wil, not to imagine John Wayne, himself, spying not only his own eventual demise but the heavily-signposted mid-seventies death of the western as well. It is easy to make grand sweeping statements like that in hindsight, but The Cowboys does foretell such events with thoughtfulness and a kind of grim acceptance. An era was passing and one of its foundation stones was visibly crumbling with it.

    “ ... ask my Maker to forgive me for the men I have killed ... and the men I am about to.”

    Nightlinger makes it chillingly clear that he is not quite ready for the noose, just yet.

    Mark Rydell would go on to further explore his pet themes of family, Americana and small-scale dramas set against big landscapes or turbulent times with The River and the hugely lauded On Golden Pond, but he definitely showed a flair for authentic, revisionist westerns with this and his earlier The Reivers. In a way foreshadowing the darker, more sombre history rewrites of Unforgiven and Open Range when the genre eventually re-awoke with a determination to be nothing if not authentic, he keeps the pace unhurried and the mood introspective, taking a much slower and more character-based study of the times and its many dangers. Of course, the rites-of-passage theme is considerably layered on in thick dollops, and the central idea of one man educating greenhorns in the ways of life, love and hard work is irredeemably battered on the anvil of the American Dream into the altogether darker - and perhaps truer - conceit that to be a man in those times meant having to kill for honour, loyalty and the things you believed in. But the screenplay hones this ethic down still further, actually coming to represent a kind of condoning of revenge ... and that without getting even, you weren't going to get far. The film receives some harsh criticism for this old school attitude to natural justice, mainly on this side of the pond, but you won't hear any such complaints from me about the raw vitality of “eye-for-an-eye” frontier law. Asa represents the liberal anti-establishment movement that Wayne and most of his contemporaries hated and feared, and if you probe a little deeper and think about the politics of the era in which the film was actually made and the right-wing stance that Wayne, himself, was infamous for, the decision to rise above the moral implications of taking someone's life is hardly all that questionable..

    “Mister Andersen, do I look like, to you, the kind of man that would beat on an innocent child?”

    “You look like the vermin-ridden sonofabitch you are!”

    When the violence comes, it is shocking, and the savage sting of 70's cinema makes its mark during the nihilistic final act when wanton brutality bleeds into ruthless retribution. From the tone of the movie, it should come as no surprise that tragedy is going to come a-calling. But the severity of the big showdown is still a kick to the head. Although Rydell courts controversy with an earlier scene of Dern's ferocious Asa, or Long-hair, as he is more widely known, threatening and abusing one of the boys who has strayed from the drive, his depiction of the confrontation between Dern and Wayne is actually surprisingly sadistic and certainly one of the darkest moments in the Duke's career. Even watching it now, after all manner of violence and depravity have danced across my various screens over the years, the sequence has a frighteningly cold and reprehensible edge to it, naturally made all the more upsetting because it plays out right in front of the kids. Still, even well into his sixties, the towering might of Big John is a sight to behold and his bloodied, fateful back-turning on his nemesis is a truly powerful statement of pride that, in its horrible, pain-wracked way, comes to epitomise all that the actor held dear - strength, honour and the indomitable spirit to never, ever back down.

    “Every man wants his children to be better than he was. You are.

    Of course, the message that the script makes is one of triumph over adversity, but it makes it abundantly clear that to survive such traumas as these kids face, you must also learn to be as violent and ruthless as your enemy. And it is here, during the protracted finale, that Rydell's film comes slightly undone. Whilst I totally agree with the ideology of getting even, the way in which the plot turns full circle is a little too contrived to sit right with all that has gone before. Without wanting to give too much away, I will just say that the plan to get revenge on Long-hair and his gaggle of goons is one of the most haphazard and risky that I have come across. It is all perfectly cinematic, of course, and that is the main thing ... but, I still think that a little more thought should have gone into precisely how these naïve young men are going to take this particular wild bunch down without leaving themselves in such hair-raising, trigger-happy and chancy situations. But, as I say, the violence is quite overt and, in this respect, at least, the film certainly pays off against the leisurely build-up that it has painstakingly created.

    Another beneficial ingredient is the evocative score from the great John Williams. This is quintessential western fare, folks, but given the lush, string-propelled sweep that Williams is famous for. At times elegiac and enveloping, at other times exciting and emotional, his work for The Cowboys is rightly lauded as being amongst his best scores pre-Jaws. On occasion, there are cues here that actually sound like prototypes for some of the compositions he created for Spielberg's spine-tingler, namely the playful sections that address the frivolity and sheer exuberance of racing across the open plains on a grand adventure which he would revisit for the awesome shark-chasing scenes in the later blockbuster. Strangely enough, he resists the temptation to concoct the deeply mournful cues that you would have expected to play over certain pivotal sequences, instead letting the actors and Mark Rydell find the appropriate mood without taking the easy option and letting him push the intimate, chin-wobbling buttons with soaring strings and such-like. But, however you cut it, John Williams' music for The Cowboys is one of the film's strongest elements. Fans should take note that this restored version of the film features the original Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music in their entireties, as well, which is a very satisfying touch.

    Well, folks, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed watching the trio of hi-definition John Wayne releases that have come along the trail so far. The Searchers is an incredible film and a superb transfer. Rio Bravo is top drawer entertainment from start to finish. And now, The Cowboys celebrates the Duke's iconic status in true stately fashion. Personally, I believe The Shootist, Wayne's final film, to be one of his best, and certainly more personal than this, but, for the time being, this fits the bill as a tremendous tribute to the star and a wonderful, left-field western, to boot. Well recommended, and here's to more John Wayne oaters to come on Blu-ray, or HD.