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The Cowboys: Special Edition

As a movie star, John Wayne was in a class by himself. By 1971, he'd played every type of manly hero imaginable, from frontier gunslingers to two-fisted G.I.s, and his image was larger than life. Mark Rydell, on the other hand, was a self-described "Jewish kid from the Bronx" who'd started out as a soap-opera actor and segued into a director of pictures like The Reavers. He'd signed on to make a unique western called The Cowboys, based on a novel by William Dale Jennings with a script by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., but he resisted casting Wayne despite pleas from the studio. It wasn't so much that Rydell thought the actor was wrong for the part of a grizzled rancher who ends up using a group of young boys as trailhands on a 400-mile cattle drive — it was more a question of politics. Rydell was aware of Wayne's ultra-right-wing leanings, and he figured that they wouldn't get along during what promised to be an arduous shoot. But Rydell flew to Mexico to meet Wayne on location, and he was stunned at both the Duke's deference to him as a director and his enthusiasm for the project, telling Rydell, "If you give me a chance, I promise I'll do the best job I can. I love this [script] and I promise I'll do my best work for you." And he did, indeed, deliver one of his finest performances, working alongside Actors Studio grads Bruce Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne and making the character more than just another swaggering cowpoke, bringing world-weariness and heart to the role. Yet the movie's rarely mentioned among the top films of Wayne's career, perhaps because its widescreen Panavision presentation and 135-min. length have withheld it from regular television broadcast. Thankfully, Warner's DVD release makes The Cowboys accessible to anyone, and it may finally take its rightful place as one of the top achievements of John Wayne's legacy.

A dusty coming-of-age fable, The Cowboys is made up of a number of well-wrought set pieces that drive the story. Gold fever strikes Bozeman, Mont., leaving aging rancher Wil Anderson (Wayne) without any hands to help drive his cattle before the winter arrives. When the town's schoolboys volunteer to sign on for the drive, Wil tries to tell them what to expect: "You're dealing with the dumbest, orneriest critter on God's green earth," he tells them. "A cow's nothing but a lot of trouble tied up in a leather bag. A horse ain't much better." His first test for his young cowboy hopefuls is to challenge them to stay aboard a wild horse that he's yet to break, and it gives us our introduction to the new hands, led by Slim (Robert Carradine), Homer (Mike Pyeatt), Fats (Alfred Barker, Jr.), Stuttering Bob (Sean Kelly), and Charlie (Stephen Hudis). The group's also joined by an older boy with a chip on his shoulder, Cimarron (A Martinez), who refers to himself as a "mistake of nature." The boys are small but capable, and under Wil's tutelage they prove themselves to be adequate with ropes and brands. But Wil gets on the wrong side of seriously bad apple "Long Hair," (Dern), who tracks the drive with his own team of outlaws and plans to steal the cattle. Ultimately, the young cowboys are called upon to prove their mettle against the rustlers to get the herd back and finish the job that they agreed to do.

*          *          *

The Cowboys is a film that couldn't have been made at any other time in cinema history, and it certainly wouldn't pass muster with censors and blue-stocking audience members today. On the one hand, it's an unapologetic homage to classic westerns, with Rydell looking to John Ford as his role model for framing wide-open scenes that take full advantage of the movie's Panavision aspect ratio, while John Williams smartly sticks to the Aaron Copland model for his magnificent score. On the other, there's a rawness and honesty to the picture that's a cut above the more romantic cowboy movies of days past, thanks to the edgier sensibility of 1970s-era filmmaking. As the pre-teen cowboys grow into almost-men during their heroic journey, they experience a number of touching — and often very funny — rites of passage that would never make it past today's studio executives. Wil forces young Bob to overcome his stutter by goading him into calling him a "goddamned mean dirty son of a bitch," the boys' first encounter with the drive cook, Mr. Nightlinger (Browne), leads to the observation that he's "the first nigger we've ever seen," and over the course of the picture the cowboys get drunk on stolen whiskey (although they do pay the price with killer hangovers the next morning), deal with a couple of heart-wrenching losses, and the film's conclusion relies on very young boys engaging in cold-blooded murder. It's a sophisticated picture that never stoops to making the young actors cute, and the cinematography by Robert Surtees is sweeping, gritty, and realistic, rivaling John Ford's greatest pictures in its presentation of western landscapes in magnificent scope.

Warner Home Video's "Deluxe Edition" DVD release of The Cowboys offers an impressive anamorphic transfer (2.20:1) from the Panavision source, which is clean and crisp with lovely contrast and color. The Dolby Digital audio is equally clean and clear, offering a nice separation of dialogue and Williams' score. Extras include an excellent commentary by director Mark Rydell, whose love for the film is abundant, and the new featurette "The Cowboys: Together Again" (28 min.), which reunites many of the surviving cast members in 2006 to meet with Mark Rydell and discuss the film, with additional video interviews with Browne and Carradine — the reminisces are warm and funny, with Dern telling the famous story of how Wayne warned him that America would hate him for his treatment of the icon in the movie, and the group recalls the joys of working with Browne. Also on board is the 1971 promotional featurette "The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men" (9 min.) which offers some interesting footage of Rydell interviewing his young cast (six of whom were experienced rodeo riders), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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