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Actors: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, Alfred Barker Jr. Director: Mark Rydell Rating: Features: AC-3, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, DVD, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC Running Time: 131 minutes Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1 Release Date: May 22, 2007 Theatrical Release Date: January 13, 1972 Studio: Warner Home Video
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After his cowhands desert him for a nearby gold rush, aging, leather-tough rancher Will Anderson John Wayne resorts to hiring 11 schoolboys to help him on a 400-mile cattle run. Setting off with the boys and an eloquent but equally tough black cook Roscoe Lee Browne, Anderson must get his cattle to their destination while contending with the wilderness and a psychotic, vengeful ex-con Bruce Dern who is out to get him. With an amazingly natural performance by Wayne, this stylized, action-packed Western is exquisitely filmed, emotionally sensitive, and highly entertaining. Director Mark Rydell gets solid performances out of not just Wayne in one of his later screen roles and Browne, but the group of youngsters accompanying them on the journey, as well as actors like Slim Pickens and Colleen Dewhurst who play smaller supporting roles. Close attention is also paid to the natural beauty of the mountains, wild mustangs, and other often overlooked standard Western fare.
Almost in spite of itself, The Cowboys has taken its place among John Wayne's most beloved films. It wasn't always that way: When it was released in January of 1972, the film was widely criticized for appearing to promote the notion that boys become men through violence. From a politically correct perspective, this apparent message is arguably deplorable and some interpreted the film's young fighters as a reflection of young draftees into the Vietnam war, but there's no denying that The Cowboys remains as invigorating as it ever was, no matter how dubious its thematic implications. Based on a novel by William Dale Jennings, and adapted with Jennings by the married screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. whose impressive credits include Hud, Hombre, and Norma Rae, the movie opens with aging ranch owner Wil Anderson Wayne desperate for ranch-hands to herd 1,500 head of cattle across 400 miles of dangerous territory. With no better options, he reluctantly hires boys from the local schoolhouse including Robert Carradine in his screen debut, and an experienced, worldly-wise cook named Nightlinger played to perfection by Roscoe Lee Browne joins the cattle drive--the first black man the boys have ever seen.
A Hollywood liberal who initially felt at odds with Wayne's right-wing politics, Mark Rydell On Golden Pond originally sought George C. Scott for the lead, but studio executives urged him to convince Wayne to take the role. It was a happy outcome for both, as Rydell directs Wayne with an enjoyable mixture of Old West humor and grizzled trail-hardiness, and The Cowboys is a top-drawer production with gorgeous cinematography on location in Mexico and Colorado by veteran cameraman Robert Surtees. Colleen Dewhurst appears briefly but memorably as the madam of a traveling troupe of prostitutes in a scene often cut from earlier TV broadcasts and some home-video releases, and the young A Martinez who would later star in several TV soap operas and the indie-hit Powwow Highway makes a strong impression in a prominent supporting role. But the real reason for the film's lasting popularity is the hiss-worthy villainy of Bruce Dern as "Long Hair," leader of the rustlers, who earned a dubious place in movie history for his character's cheating approach to gunplay. No matter how you interpret its themes of fatherly influence and justified vengeance, The Cowboys later the basis of a short-lived TV series is undeniably entertaining, dominated by Wayne's reliable presence and bolstered by a rousing, Copland-esque score by John Williams. --Jeff Shannon