Studio: Warner Bros.
US Rating: GP - Parental Guidance Suggested
Film Length: 135 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/VC-1
Audio: Dolby Digital Plus: English 5.1 , French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), Spanish 1.0
Subtitles: Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles
The Film - out of
In the evening of his life, veteran ranch hand Wil Anderson (John Wayne) finds himself without the men he needs to help him heard his cattle, 1500 strong, across the 400 miles of treacherous landscape. Despite his better judgment, he hires on for the task 11 “greenhorn schoolboys”, all fresh faced, young and eager to prove themselves men.
They cross paths with the disquieting Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) and a couple of his men who had recently been released from jail and “looking for work”. Anderson declines their offer and continues on the difficult journey of moving this herd and making these boys into men.
There is a real sense of isolation from the scenery in the opening 20 or so minutes of The Cowboys, a quiet and emptiness that pairs well with Wayne’s aging character. Director Mark Rydell captures that mood exceptionally well with superb moments of Wayne’s character caught in quiet reflection. One scene in particular set against the dying sunlight in front of his home that feels almost like an augury of things to come. Genuine subtlety, in both the scene and the fine performance from the great ‘Duke’, that really elevates the tone of the film.
The Cowboys was released in 1971, a different era of filmmaking for the Western Genre that had been popular for years; the times had changed. Actors like the outstanding Bruce Dern, the lyrical Roscoe Lee Browne and others came from a different school of the profession, yet against the more studied talents of these fine actors, Wayne managed to shine even brighter. The intensity of his performance, gruffer, thicker around the waste and aware of his age, showed the world just how deserving he was of the legend that surrounded him.
Mark Rydell, admittedly not the most experienced director in the western genre (he announces with amazement during his commentary that he had only directed a couple of Gunsmoke episodes), shot with great care and skill a film that tells a tender story against difficult and brutal circumstances. Wayne takes these 11 young boys, made up of actors and rodeo kids alike, into the wilderness of the west to learn to become men and to be responsible and hard working. The balance of the inner, gentle patriarch against the miserly and hardliner teacher to these young boys is very well handled. Rydell also manages to craft a film that, while it lets the west (in this case, New Mexico) be stunning and beautiful as a a backdrop, it never becomes the point of a shot or over romanticized. As Bruce Dern succinctly states in the special features, “It’s a beautiful movie but no one shot is too pretty.”
Bruce Dern here delivers a performance that sizzles with a brooding craziness waiting out beneath his perverse smile, holding his character in the darkest of places. Of his many unhinged characters, Asa Watts may last as one of his most accomplished, certainly one of his most notorious given the audience reactions to what his character does to the great and beloved ‘Duke’ during a memorable fight scene. For that remarkable scene, a fight between the sadistic Watts and the heroic and fatherly Anderson, Rydell managed to construct something that is both brutal and emotionally charged, presenting the scene entirely without music or dialogue until the fist fight is won.
The role of Jedediah Nightlinger was played by Roscoe Lee Brown, in a performance that, much like the man himself, was poetic and full of wisdom. Truly a triumph.
The film was attacked by some critics, mainly for its final act, for having these innocent young children become quite violent as they seek their vengeance. But the vengeance on display here is befitting the time and the circumstance, never once placating the harsh brutality of the era in which this film was set and the harsh reality of the open west.
The dialogue is very clear, free of noise distortions or hiss. The majority of the action comes from the front channels and the subwoofer gets some play, mostly from the thundering hoofs of the horses and herds.
Not bad at all.
Audio Commentary with Filmmaker Director/Producer Mark Rydell – I enjoyed the commentary and the stories that Mark Rydell shared, even if his storytelling felt well trodden, as if he was recalling stories and memories that he had shared again and again through the years. But he was full of great information, from just how much the Duke performed his own stunts, the Dukes humility and how he managed to cast a blacklisted actress (Sarah Cunningham) as Wayne’s wife in the picture, quite the feat given his notoriously conservative viewpoint.
The Cowboys: Together Again (28:36) – This high quality special feature is a great and rare reunion retrospective, bringing together producer/director Mark Rydell with several of the actors from the film. Also sharing some great stories from the production, through interviews, are a few actors that were not able to make the reunion date. I wish more films from the 70’s and earlier could include extras like this.
The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men (33:21) – This ‘vintage’ featurette provides some great behind the scenes footage of the young boy actors readying to train on horses and Director Mark Rydell on set. Its brief and the footage is beyond grainy, but it’s interesting.
I can feel the 70’s influence on this picture, something that separates this film from the Westerns before it. The style of acting, the directing choices and even the language in the script do their part to further draw the line between this and the films from the era before it.
This is honestly a very, very good film that has a fairly unique story, some great performances and a great score from John Williams.
Note: If you are interested in an assessment of the Standard DVD release of this title, check out Ken McAlinden's forum review at this link.