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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cowboys, The (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Cowboys, The (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // PG // June 5, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 14, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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2007 marks John Wayne's hundredth birthday, and Hollywood is celebrating the centennial of one of its most enduring stars by collecting and reissuing dozens of his movies. Chief among them is The Cowboys, the 1972 film that stars Wayne as aging cattle rancher Wil Andersen. His sleepy Montana town has been all but deserted with rumors of a gold strike upstate, and Andersen's ranch hands have abandoned him in the hopes of striking it rich. Unable to find anyone else to lend a hand and determined to get his 1500 head of steer to market in Belle Fourche, Andersen is convinced by his longtime friend Anse Petersen (Slim Pickens) to look for help at the local schoolhouse. Andersen laughs off the idea, but he himself was all of thirteen when he went on his first cattle drive, and when he sees how skilled and determined these eleven young boys are, he grudgingly agrees to take them on for the four hundred mile trek to South Dakota. The arduous journey shapes the boys into men, and a run-in with a group of murderous cattle rustlers (led by a deceptively charming Bruce Dern) forces them to grow up that much faster.

John Wayne is an actor who invariably took on almost superhuman roles, and Wil Andersen is as heroic and virtuous as any of his other characters. However, just as the actor was in his mid-60s as cameras were rolling, the weathered Andersen is aging, vulnerable, and keenly aware of his mortality. The film uses the cattle drive to South Dakota as a metaphor for life, and as his journey nears an end, Andersen's unflinching conviction in the most trying of circumstances makes for one of Wayne's most courageous characters. Wayne has said that he never thought much of himself as an actor, but his emotional gravity as The Cowboys approaches its climax shows how much talent the man truly possessed. Bruce Dern is impressive in a smaller part as Asa Watts, disarmingly charming at first but convincingly sinister when he next appears. Roscoe Lee Browne steals just about every scene he's in as a clever, smirking chef with little interest in bowing to the stereotypes of blacks in westerns.

The slew of young actors fare surprisingly well too. On paper, the kids might sound too precocious and one-note -- the lanky one's nicknamed Slim, the tubby one's called Fats, the hot-tempered Hispanic goes by Cimarron, and you can probably guess what Stuttering Bob's schtick is -- but The Cowboys is careful not to reduce them to a single character trait the way most modern movies dismiss child actors, and none of the younger cast members put in performances that are cloying or overly precious. They're completely believable as determined but still youthful kids steeled throughout their rigorous journey, and the drastic actions they take in the film's final act would have been a dismal failure if these characters had been saddled with a weaker screenplay or a lesser cast.

That's part of the sincerity to The Cowboys that I really appreciate. The movie deftly juggles lighter moments in with the drama -- these are still playful kids, after all -- and it strikes that balance without seeming as if it's mechanically shoehorning in a comic beat. As part of a third act twist, the likes of which were rarely seen throughout his prolific career, John Wayne speaks proudly and tenderly to his young ranch hands as a father would his sons, and it feels genuine and is surprisingly resonant. Admittedly, there is some measure of suspension of disbelief required to fully buy into the climax, which sees Andersen's surrogate children mounting an attack on the cattle rustlers with essentially no resistance whatsoever, but it is a movie, after all. Its unconventional ending was considered to be extremely controversial as these children take it upon themselves to kill, but it doesn't strike me as controversy for the sake of controversy. Dramatically, it works -- I can't really picture the movie ending any other way -- and the toll it takes on them isn't glibly dismissed as The Cowboys draws to a close.

While the premise of an aging cowboy shepherding a group of young boys on a cattle drive may sound like good-natured, sappy schmaltz in the old Hollywood tradition, The Cowboys is a film more sharply written and skillfully acted than any plot summary may suggest. I'd point to it as the least essential of John Wayne's three classic westerns available on HD DVD as I write this, but I greatly enjoyed The Cowboys and consider it be a film well worth discovering in high-definition.

Video: Don't be turned off by the excessively soft and grainy shots that open the film; The Cowboys' 2.39:1 high-definition presentation may not be quite the revelation that The Searchers is but still looks wonderful, especially once the first reel has finished unspooling. Its most striking shots are remarkably crisp and exhibit a surprising amount of depth and dimensionality. There were several points where I was startled by how great the film looks, and if not for the fact that the Duke had passed on nearly three full decades ago, it'd be easy to mistake the shots of Wayne towering over his sons' graves and the close-ups of him in the schoolhouse as being no more than a few years old. Of course, not all of the film looks like that, but I was rarely disappointed. Robert Surtees' cinematography translates beautifully to high definition, boasting a palette that starts off as a dusty, sunbaked gold but becomes lusher and greener as they make their way towards Belle Fourche.

No print flaws of note were spotted throughout, but as I inched closer to the screen, it did seems as if the image had been digitally smoothened somewhat, presumably to mask that sort of wear. It's so mild that I doubt it'd be a concern for anyone with a display 50" or smaller, but particularly large sets and projector rigs may be more revealing.

I've frequently been impressed with the effort Warner has invested into their classic catalog titles, and The Cowboys is another strong showing for the studio.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix doesn't stray too far from the film's monaural origins, disinterested in shoehorning in any gimmicky surround effects and preferring instead to spread its audio convincingly across the front channels. There is some scattered ambiance such as mooing in the rear channels, but the mix doesn't overindulge. The fidelity of the elements is reasonably strong, with The Cowboys' rousing score sounding particularly robust. Nicely done.

Dubbed soundtracks are offered in French and Spanish along with the usual assortment of subtitles.

Extras: The Cowboys features the same set of extras as the recent DVD re-release, presented again in standard definition.

The first of the disc's featurettes is the vintage promotional piece "The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men". This eight minute clip, shot on grainy 16mm stock, focuses primarily on the younger members of the cast, particularly how the actors were taught to ride and how the riders were taught to act.

Several of the surviving cast members were reunited for the half-hour retrospective "The Cowboys: Together Again". Shot at the tail end of 2006 and presented in anamorphic widescreen, the featurette brings together Bruce Dern, A Martinez, Stephen Hudis, Norman Howell, Jr., and director Mark Rydell, with Robert Carradine and the since-departed Roscoe Lee Browne taped separately. It's more of a warm remembrance anchored around the personalities -- primarily John Wayne, Dern, Browne, and the film's director -- than an intense look into the making of The Cowboys, but it also touches on how the project came together, the unique mix of seasoned child actors and young riding experts, and a couple of great stories from the set. Definitely worth a look.

It was a bit disappointing to watch that reunion and immediately settle into Mark Rydell's audio commentary. For the early stretches of the discussion, Rydell recycles many of those same comments, sometimes practically verbatim. Rydell is an engaging speaker, endlessly amiable and enthusiastic, but he falls into two of the most frequent commentary pitfalls, prone to quietly watching the movie instead of talking about it and often just narrating what's happening on-screen when he does. There are some highlights in the first half of the commentary, such as how to get bulls to square off in front of the camera and how he helped break the blacklist, and it improves as the film goes along, particularly as Rydell delves in depth into the controversial climax of the movie. I'm sure The Cowboys' many fans will find it to be a rewarding listen, but I wish at least one or two of the cast members could've joined Rydell in the commentary booth to help maintain a steadier flow of discussion.

A rough looking trailer, pillarboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, rounds out the extras. The printed materials from the DVD deluxe edition didn't make their way to this release.

Conclusion: With too many studios doing such a poor job taking advantage of their back catalogs for these next-generation formats, it's heartening to see Warner not only unearth so many of their films from decades past but do such a spectacular job of it. The Cowboys is remarkable both as a coming of age film and as a Western, boasting panoramic cinematography that looks tremendous in high definition as well as a strong set of performances and a stirring emotional undercurrent. Highly Recommended.

Related Reviews: Paul Mavis has written a detailed and insightful review of the DVD edition, if you'd prefer a critical analysis of the film over the more cursory look offered here.
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