The Cowboys Reviews
The film seems to try and freshening things up in a lot of ways, and is often successful, but when it's not, it dives pretty deeply into formula, if not predictability, and a little too superficially at times. The drama is an often sentimental, if not melodramatic study on boys being guided into adulthood by an old man who grows increasingly more aware of his youth and mortality, and when it's not that, and more inconsequential, it tries to compensate for a lack of dramatic edge with other forms of edge. There is some risky dialogue and content for a film of this time and nature, and this inconsistency in maturity reflects an ambition to make this thing a little edgier, or at least more genuine than the usual Hollywood affair, ultimately held back by the Hollywood safety, though not as much as it is held back by natural shortcomings to the story itself. This film has some rich dramatic highlights as a human study on coming of age and growing old, between which is compensation through a sense of adventure, though not much beyond that, thus, the final product holds a potential to be dramatically underwhelming. It at least feels that way, as the highlights in question are spread out relatively few and far between by meandering filler that play an instrumental role in getting this film to a runtime of about 132 minutes so unreasonable that, as predictable as the narrative is in certain areas, it becomes difficult to tell where exactly things are heading. When you get down to it, as much as you don't want this fun film to end any time soon, you can't help but wondering if it's actually going anywhere with all of its dragging and uneven sense of consequence, both of which could drive a lesser film into underwhelmingness. As things stand, however, inspiration goes a long way in making a rewarding drama that showcases the rise of men, and even the rise of a music legend.
Still up-and-coming at this time, John Williams showcases exciting samples of the conventional, but still grand scoring sweep that is now iconic, mixed in with classic western sensibilities, in order to capture a sense of adventure, like production value which is minimalist and conventional for a western, but razor-sharp in selecting distinguished locations. Production value and even musical value, like I said, establish a sense of adventure, and it is anchored by lively directorial storytelling by Mark Rydell that keeps up tight momentum throughout the flick, occasionally broken by some tastefully somber moments that range from intriguing to moving, if not downright powerful. The film is a fun one, with heart, and such thorough, well-crafted entertainment value makes up for a lot of shortcomings to a story whose interpretation still wouldn't be so compelling if it wasn't promising as an idea. For all the natural shortcomings and, for that matter, conventions, the narrative is conceptually refreshing, as well as adventurous and tender enough to hold a solid deal of potential that is done justice by the storytelling. Even Irving Ravetch's and Harriet Frank, Jr.'s script has enough witty color to its dialogue and set pieces to endear, and yet, it's true achievement is often genuine characterization that draws memorable, sympathetic leads. These leads are, of course, made all the more memorable by memorable portrayal found across the board, from the charming John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Brown, - as well as a chillingly antagonistic Bruce Dern - to the surprisingly solid cast of young talents, all of whom make the charm all the more electric with a chemistry that defines the comradery which in turn defines this coming-of-age affair. I've said it before, and once again I'll boast that this is a purely fun film, but not simple, because even though it has its minimalisms, more than that, it has heart, and enough of it in storytelling execution and acting to make a thoroughly enjoyable western.
When it comes time to ride out, conventions, sentimentality, an aimless structure, and ambition threaten the film, but more-or-less barely, as the sweeping score, immersive production value, colorful storytelling and charismatic performances and chemistry, all behind an adventurous, when not tasteful story, that make Mark Rydell's "The Cowboys" a delightful and often piercingly emotional portrait on the trials and tragedies on the path to adulthood in the Old West.
3/5 - Good
I have to admit that I actually liked the Duke in this movie. He seems eminently more human and uncertain than I'm used to seeing. This is a man with actual character flaws. In other words he is playing a role instead of just trying to be what he thinks of as the ideal man. He also has a wife and his scenes with her seem actually comfortable and tender. Again, he seems human. This is a man aging, and he's not posturing about it like he was in the Shootist.
The real draw of this film is the fact that while John Wayne is the lead he's not what it's about. It's about the boys and their coming of age. The film is blessed with a string of good child actors and there isn't a single performance that feels out of place or unnatural. Usually kids trying to act tough come off as posturing so this is a pleasant surprise.
There were some complaints at the time about the film's implications of the necessity of violence for becoming a man but I don't see them. Sure, there's violence and danger in the film, and it is intimitely connected with the coming-of-age narrative, but it's never implying that such things are necessary. Wayne even tells 'em not to do it. There are plenty of films about coming of age in a war zone but nobody believes that you need a war to grow up. The confusion seems to come from the fact that it's a bit like a schoolboy's fantasy. Being a western hero was every American boy's dream for decades. It'd be like someone today claiming that superhero movies encourage the idea that you need your parents to die tragically in order to become a man. There is a certain amount of disregard for the cost of taking a life and I could have dealt with a bit more anguish over killing men, even evil ones, but at the same time it never takes the danger lightly.
The villain in this film is great. He's kind of a warm and friendly guy, who will threaten you to your face while still grinnin'. He's genuinely disturbing, which is fitting given his role. I'm told an entire generation of boys refused to give Bruce Dern a second chance as an actor because of this.
On a final note John Williams wrote the music for this (about five years before Star Wars) so even the score is wonderful. An excellent film!