Release Date: June 5, 2007
Film Rating: /
Starring: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst
Screenplay by: Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr. & William Dale Jennings
Based upon the novel by William Dale Jennings
Produced and Directed by: Mark Rydell
The Cowboys is a standard Western cattle drive film which benefits from the presence of John Wayne in one of his final roles. Wayne plays an aging cattleman who is forced to employ young boys on his cattle drive when his experienced hands all abandon him for a gold rush. Between the experienced performances of Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne as the drive’s cook, we are presented with a group of younger performers, several of whom would later go on to extensive careers, including Robert Carradine, A. Martinez and stuntman Norman Howell. In the role of the villainous cattle rustler, Bruce Dern provides a fair amount of menace. The film is not a particularly daring one, but it does a serviceable job of telling the much-loved tale of how a group of boys join a cattle drive and learn to be men. By the way, the film's running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes includes an Overture, Intermission and Exit Music, totalling 6:32 - so the true running time is much closer to 2 hours and 8 minutes.
The Cowboys was released in May of this year as a “Deluxe Edition” standard DVD special edition containing a new print and a photo set in the package along with the DVD. (A prior release in 1998 simply had an older anamorphic print without any other features) Warner Brothers has now released the film on Blu-Ray, with all the special features on the disc but without the photos. The difference for the Blu-Ray release, obviously, is the new 1080p VC-1 transfer, which is a solid presentation of the film.
VIDEO QUALITY: 4/5
The Cowboys is presented in an effective 1080p VC-1 transfer of the new print. A fair amount of clothing detail can be seen, and the frequent widescreen vista shots benefit from the added resolution.
However, even with the new transfer, the print still has many areas of varying quality. Sharpness varies at times from shot to shot within the same scene, and when the print quality drops in those shots, the colors become muddier. There is some grain evident in the print, but it is not obtrusive.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3/5
The Cowboys is presented in a 5.1 Surround mix in English, with mono mixes in French and Spanish. There is some directionality in the mix, and some use of the surround channels for atmospheric effect, but this is still primarily a front-based audio experience. John Williams’ score is effectively spread across the surround channels. (It is interesting to listen to this score, as it contains the seeds of his later work, including his “Smallville” theme for Superman.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of The Cowboys includes all of the special features from the standard DVD edition, presented in standard definition. These include a commentary with the director, a pair of featurettes, and an unrestored trailer. The most interesting piece here is a newly recorded reunion featurette, but other than that, there’s not a lot of material here.
Audio Commentary with director/producer Mark Rydell – The feature commentary recorded by Rydell for the standard DVD release is included here. Rydell is clearly happy with his film, and shows a lot of affection for his cast, particularly John Wayne. However, this commentary is fairly sparse – there are many periods of silence, and many others where Rydell is simply watching the film without providing any useful observations. (At the end of the film, Rydell admits that this is the first time he’s seen it in 30 years.) Rydell mentions the violence in the film, describing it as being controversial, and defending those scenes against the accusation that the film is somehow advocating violence among children. (Rydell specifies that Charles Champlin asked him to edit the fate of a major character to try to head the controversy off, but Rydell felt he needed to complete the story without watering it down.) Most of the good stuff in this commentary can also be heard in the reunion featurette.
The Cowboys: Together Again (28:39) (480p anamorphic) – This featurette, presented in anamorphic standard definition, reunites Mark Rydell with a few of the cast members, including Bruce Dern, A. Martinez and Norman Howell, with separate video interviews of Robert Carradine and Roscoe Lee Browne edited into the discussion, along with the usual clips from the film. (The interview with Browne was done shortly before his death) The guys cover a lot of ground in the half hour period, from their interactions with John Wayne to the experience of young boys shooting a cowboy movie with stunts. All of the cast refer fondly to Wayne and the bits of knowledge and experience he was able to give each of them during the film. This one featurette is the jewel of this disc (aside from the 1080p transfer, of course). If you look at no other extra on this disc, make this one the priority.
The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men (8:50) (480p full-frame) – This vintage featurette from 1972 shows footage of the boys in the film being trained in horsemanship and cattle roping, as well as further behind the scenes footage of Mark Rydell at work, along with the usual intercuts with clips from the movie and some stock footage. The featurette is in fairly poor condition, with plenty of grain and print damage, but it is nonetheless interesting to see.
Theatrical Trailer (3:07) (480p full-frame) – A standard definition full-frame transfer of the trailer is included here. As with the earlier featurette, it’s in pretty poor condition – lots of grain, damage and the colors are dim and muddy. If anything, the trailer speaks to the higher quality of the print used for the 1080p transfer. As such, this extra is primarily useful as a comparison point.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, and for the special features. The usual Blu-Ray pop-up menu is accessible during the film, this time in the form of a kind of tintype with the cattle drive shown at the lower left.
IN THE END...
The Cowboys is fairly straightforward western, made memorable by the sight of an aging John Wayne educating a new group of boys on the ways of the West. The new 1080p transfer, while not of the greatest print seen on Blu-Ray, still is light years ahead of the prior transfers given to this film. And the reunion featurette is probably the most interesting and moving part of the whole package. For John Wayne and Western fans, this film is an easy choice to pick up. For more casual viewers, I encourage a rental.
July 7, 2007.