The Cowboys Reviews
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!
Interesting that I watched this on Labor Day. Child labor. Eleven boys no older than thirteen, riding herd on a cattle drive with a promise of fifty silver dollars each at trail's end. Obvious capitalist exploitation of children, comrades.
If you've never seen this movie, go rent it.