The Cowboy (1954) is a slim but historically interesting documentary about real-life American cowboys. It was directed by cutter (and later producer) Elmo Williams, who had recently won an Academy Award co-editing High Noon (1952), supposedly using raw film stock that was left over following the production of The Tall Texan (1953), an eight-day oater starring High Noon's Lloyd Bridges and which Williams directed as well as edited. He and wife Lorraine threw together a script and shot footage of actual cowboys while still on location in New Mexico. (Williams' own account is quite different, that he simply proposed the film to distributor Lippert Pictures and it was financed separately. This makes more sense considering that The Tall Texan was shot in black & white and this is in color.)
The resulting film is essentially standard 1.37:1 footage shot silent, some of it nicely-photographed, of cowboys doing what cowboys do: busting broncos, riding the range, going to square dances and the like. This was then supplemented with narration spoken by John Dehner and William Conrad, character actors at the time primarily associated with Western radio programs, as well as Tex Ritter - whose signature song was, of course, "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)" - and Lawrence Dobkin, who served as general narrator. The script appears to have been adapted from interviews with the cowboys, though this isn't entirely clear, and some of the footage is obviously staged. The movie was apparently quite successful; it cost just $53,000 to make yet received a wide distribution and probably earned ten times what it cost to make.
The film recalls the earliest Disney True-Life Adventures (The Vanishing Prairie, etc.) though instead of cute animal footage the film sincerely pays tribute to this seminally American pioneer, and for its footage alone of real-life 19th century cowboys who started riding the range in the late-19th century (and whom by 1953 were in their seventies) The Cowboy is worth a look. Nevertheless, the limitations of the production method - silent footage teamed with meandering and sometimes disconnected narration - becomes tiresome after a while.
Video & Audio
A much bigger problem concerns what would appear to be severe mastering issues. Beginning at about 4:11, digital artifacting began messing up the image, much of it in the form of blocky green squares. It got so bad this reviewer thought something was wrong with the DVD player, not the DVD. However, a second player exhibited the same problems (though not always at the same point) - the green cubes reappeared, and at 13:57 the entire image froze up with a green-white image. Making matters worse, at this point this second DVD player no longer responded to basic commands (stop, fast-forward, power off, etc.), and the machine had to be unplugged from the wall socket and restarted before the DVD could be extracted. Whether this is an isolated bad disc or uniform bad mastering is unknown at this time, but we'll let you know if we hear from VCI. (Update: "I wanted to let you know that we are recoding The Cowboy to correct any anomolies in the first pressing," writes Christopher Rowe, PR Director for VCI Entertainment. "We have had mixed reports on this and we have corrected the issue. As far as the color timing issue, we are looking into it as we speak. Thank you for your review.")
For the record the film is presented in its original full frame format. The clarity and color is strong but very inconsistent, as if this print weren't color-timed. The mono sound is adequate but unexceptional. There are no subtitles options.
The unusually large assortment of extra features for VCI begins with an intriguing Audio Commentary with four of the cowboys featured in the film: Ross May, L.B. "Beau" Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Darrell "Hawkshaw" Hawkins. Getting these four together was a great idea and the track, what this reviewer heard of it, was full of warm nostalgia and quite interesting.
Also included is a documentary produced by reparatory film distributor Kit Parker: Ghost Towns of the Old West (1989), a 47-minute program - apparently episode three of a series - shot 4:3 on video and narrated by Rip Torn, who also appears on-camera as a ghost. It's pretty basic but okay.
Both the Elmo Williams Bio and Making of The Cowboy are presented in the kind of at-our-pace text screens VCI favors, though the viewer does have some control this time via the chapter stop advance button on their DVD player's remote. The latter is adapted from Hollywood: Sooner or Later, a book by Williams.
Trailers for The Cowboy and The Tall Texan, as well other VCI titles including Cattle Queen of Montana, Little Big Horn, and The Return of Jesse James round out the program.
Western movie and documentary fans, as well as anyone interested in the historical Old West and what life was like for mid-20th century cowboys will want to seek this out. As for the title's mastering issues, we'll keep you posted. In the meantime, the movie comes "recommended," while the DVD is a "skip it."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.