A Cowboy Movie for Cow Boys
"The Cowboys" although set in the west and featuring John Wayne in one of his more touching performances is not really a western, well not in the traditional sense of the genre. Whilst there are those aspects to the movie that you would expect from a western, the fighting, a bit of gun shooting and a fair amount of cursing the majority of it arrives later on in the movie more towards the end. The first half is different than you would expect, it's about young boys becoming men under the eyes of Wil Andersen and who better than John Wayne to teach young boys about roping, cattle driving and basically manning up.
When cattle rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne - Chisum) is let down by his hired help, leaving him in the lurch when they go gold prospecting, he is forced to find new cowboys to hire. Except the cowboys are quite literally cow boys as the only people left to hire are school kids. But Andersen with no choice takes them on along with trail cook Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne - Logan's Run) they head off on the cattle drive where under his watchful eye Wil turns the young boys into men.
What is apparent is that "The Cowboys" is a movie which dwells almost on nostalgia, something which director Mark Rydell does so well in the likes of "On Golden Pond" and "For the Boys". With John Wayne on particular fine form as the old, slightly time worn rancher who not only sort of reminisces about his own experiences, sharing them with his young crew but also in doing so tries to make a better job of being a father figure to them than he was to his own sons. It's an element which Rydell uses in other movies, that fatherly figure trying to make a better job when given a second chance and it really works well with John Wayne passing on his wisdom through hard lessons on the trail.
"The Cowboys" also has a pleasant undercurrent of humour, as Wil takes on the fatherly role to the children yet still manages to poke fun at them, often done with the accompaniment of the wonderfully theatrical Roscoe Lee Browne as trail cook Jebediah Nightlinger. Probably the most entertaining of which is when the young lads steal Mr Nightlinger's booze and proceed to get drunk.
Something which is noticeable and is very good is that elements seem to be included naturally; the drama of one of the boys nearly drowning when thrown from his horse is not telegraphed that it is obviously going to happen. The same with many other elements, you don't get a huge amount of telegraphing rather they appear and disappear punctuating the cattle drive with enough moments of tension or drama to liven it up.
But "The Cowboys" is flawed and the second half of the movie where it tries to bring in the more traditional western elements with a group of bad guy castle rustlers entering the fray and the boys need for retribution ends up a little far fetched. It's a nice idea, even clever but doesn't really work in the context of a western, probably more at home in a children's fantasy movie than out on the plain.
What this all boils down to is that "The Cowboys" is an enjoyable movie, a western which is not just a western. It's an entertaining movie with John Wayne on fine form as the sort of patriarch to a rag bag bunch of young boys. But it has its issues most notably with an ending which although is undeniably clever doesn't quite fit in with a western, or at least one which despite the under current of pleasant humour is trying to be taken seriously.