When I was 4 years old, I remember riding along in the truck with my mom and sister as my dad helped my grandpa, my uncle, and my cousin drive cattle from their corral in Blackfoot, ID to their little ranch in the “Wolverine” area of Idaho. That’s approximately an hour drive going 50 mph. I remember the trip taking much longer than when we just drove up to the ranch for our camping trips. We had to avoid hitting cattle, and each one of them would need to be accounted for at the end of the trip.
My dad, my grandpa, my uncle, and my cousin were on horseback for the entire trip.
It took all day and that was only 50 miles.
When I think of “The Cowboys” I always think of that drive we had and realize how safe and easy it was in 1981.
How things had changed.
My grandfather loved John Wayne movies. I have many fond memories watching his films with him. I generally wouldn’t sit for entire films, but I would take a few moments here and there to watch some scenes with him before I was off with my cousin to play on the farm.
My grandpa could never watch “The Cowboys” with me. There were scenes in that film that were too hard for him to see and he didn’t like to revisit them. I watched it in its entirety with my mother when I was 7 and it was an experience to say the least. I believe this was the first Western that I sat down and watched from beginning to end.
The premise is very simple. Wil Andersen (John Wayne) has some cattle to move and no men to help him do it. He has a run in with a man that is willing to offer his services, but it turns out he’s a liar and Wil is not the kind of man to suffer liars. The only help he can rustle up are a bunch of “cow-BOYS” as he puts it–at the local school. The “boys” receive a crash course in cattle rearing on Wil’s farm briefly before they are off on their first adventure.
The most impactful portion of the film is Wil Andersen’s tough love philosophy around how to help these “boys” become men. We know that Wil has had tragedy in his life trying to raise his two boys that died before they should have; and he has never forgiven himself for that. He is a hard man, with a hard job to do and he wants to prepare everyone of them for the tough road to come–not only on the drive, but to make a lasting impression in their life; long after. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Wil helping a “boy” get over his stuttering impediment. We go from life or death drama to out-loud laughter in under 30 seconds. John Wayne made a career out of getting the most from small scenes like this; less is always more.
When people write John Wayne off as a terrible actor, I always ask them who could’ve played his roles better? Was he Dustin Hoffman? No. But like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, wouldn’t it seem wrong if someone else played them? I say hell yes. I also tell them to watch “Red River.” It might be the greatest Western ever made and it is Wayne’s performance alongside Montgomery Clift that drives the drama.
I digress. Back to “The Cowboys.”
There are past characters that reappear and change everything. Namely Long Hair, played by the great Bruce Dern. It is a shame that this film did harm to his career for a time. He is haunting in this performance. I always feel that the best screen villains have clear justification for their actions, however diabolical they may seem–they make us believe that it is important to them as the villain. Dern makes this look effortless. The score by John Williams helps this feeling of doom ascend when Dern appears throughout the movie.
In the end, this was a powerful film for me on very many personal levels. I grew up with a father like Wil. I know that he loved me dearly, and wanted the best for me, always. When he had to be tough, he did it out of love. You never know that when you are a “boy.” It’s years later (after you’re 21) that you realize that the lessons that we learn in that fashion shape us to be better people and models for our children–which I am learning now. I really wish that I had more time with my father to share this with him. He deserved more praise than I ever gave him.