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It's hard to believe that it took until 1972 for John Wayne to star in a film titled simply "The Cowboys." After all, John Wayne is synonymous with cowboys and westerns, having made his entire career through them. By the early 70's, Wayne's iconic persona had been supplanted by younger, edgier stars like Clint Eastwood, just as traditional westerns had been replaced by revisionist westerns from directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
John Wayne plays Wil Anderson, a cow handler whose best days are behind him. As the film opens, his team of hired hands abandons him right before a cattle drive to seek easy riches in the gold rush. At a loss for options, Wil reluctantly takes the advice of his friend Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens) and recruits several younger boys to drive the cattle. At first Wil disapproves of the using boys who are so young and inexperienced, but the drive slowly turns them from boys to men, especially after running into a group of bandits, lead by Long Hair (Bruce Dern).
The Cowboys feels completely anomalous for its time period. Despite being made in the early 70's, it has an earnestness and a gee whizz-ness that makes it feel like it could fit comfortably next to any of Wayne's work from the 40's and 50's. In fact, the only aspect of the film that differentiates it from Wayne's earlier movies is the focus on his old age. A main theme of the film is how old Wil has become, and how important it is that he pass the torch along to the next generation, even if he doesn't want to.
And this is an extreme juxtaposition to The Cowboy's contemporary films. Movies like The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly focused on men losing their place in a world leaving them behind. These films refuted the western tradition that Wayne embodied. The Cowboys reinforces this tradition, making it feel all the more out of place in time.
That being said, The Cowboys plays fairly well. Wayne eases up on his tough guy bravado while amping up the "compassion for his boys" quotient, made all the more potent by the young age of the boys in the group. And for their part, the kids come off better than most child actors, some of them going so far as to show actual depth and character development.
The Cowboys isn't a major entry in Wayne's catalogue, but it has its pleasures. If you're a John Wayne fan, you've probably seen this several times over, but even if you're not, it's still worth catching at some point.
The Blu-ray Disc:
I was disappointed in Warner Bros. 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 transfer of The Cowboys. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the majesty of The Searchers, which was shot in Technicolor, but when a movie from the 50's looks significantly better than a movie from the 70's, something is wrong. The best scenes, which are not numerous, have strong detail and very good color reproduction and separation. The worst, of which there is a moderate amount, is soft and lacking definition. The transfer jumps between these two poles, never getting good enough to impress, nor bad enough to offend.
Warner offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that does not make much use of the surrounds. But for a movie such as this, that's not a bad thing. What the mix does do is open up the sound field for the dialogue. Even then, the age of the recordings is very evident, which doesn't leave the audio with a strong showing.
Warner has ported over all of the extras from the latest DVD release, all in standard definition.
The Breaking of Boys and The Making of Men: A vintage featurette focusing on the child actors from the movie.
Commentary by director Mark Rydell: Rydell offers his thoughts on the movie, although he does spend a lot of time just watching it instead of commenting. Then, when he is commenting, half the time he's narrating the action. You think people would have learned not to do this by now. He does have a few production stories worth hearing, although the best of them are included elsewhere in the extras.
The Cowboys Together Again: A look back at The Cowboys by Mark Rydell and several of the cast members, including Bruce Dern. While not terribly intensive, it is fun to see several of the cast members reuniting after so long.
The Cowboys is a staunchly old-fashioned western, and one of John Wayne's last. While not up to par with his greatest works, it still has enough charm to merit a viewing. The Blu-ray edition has image quality that varies wildly, and audio that isn't terribly impressive. At best, I'd say you should Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.