The Cowboys

Starring: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Brown, Bruce Dern

Director: Mark Rydell
Released: 1972

Mood: If you want to watch a Western that’s a bit like Hook on horseback. 

“A cow’s nothin’ but a lot of trouble, tied up in a leather bag.”

Wil Andersen (John Wayne)

This is my first Western movie review since ditching Vancouver and moving up to the Cariboo, British Columbia’s awesome interior ranch country. 

  • I’m surrounded on all sides by endless hay fields instead of people crowding sidewalks with no respect for social distance
  • We’re so far from the nearest city that we don’t have cell service
  • My horse is RIGHT OUTSIDE in a massive grass paddock, instead of at a stable that takes 30 minutes of bridge-and-tunnel commuting to reach 

With all this glorious country living, I feel closer than ever to my beloved Sackett clan! That’s why I needed to start with a movie befitting our new home. I also wanted to pick something that could have been the first Western we watched in our new place with my boyfriend’s dad, if he hadn’t passed right before we finally made it.

John Wayne was the obvious choice. 

I figured The Cowboys would be kind of similar to the original True Grit, shot only three years later and also featuring child actors. I had NO IDEA that I’d end up liking this movie even better.

photo of the cowboys DVD

The Cowboys is based on a 1971 novel of the same name. It opens in 1877, with aging rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne) getting screwed over by a group of hired drovers. Tempted by a gold rush, the men bail on Andersen’s massive 1500-head cattle drive from Montana to South Dakota, leaving Andersen to find new hands.

Unfortunately, everyone else in town has gone after the gold, too. Andersen is forced to look in the most unlikely place: the local schoolhouse. 

After a thrilling ‘audition’ where Andersen makes each boy (ages 10 to 15) ride a bucking mare “to the count of 10”, he hires the lot of them plus a talented camp cook named Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown). They set out on the gruelling drive, and much action ensues.

illustration of a fancy moustache

The Cowboys features a massive cast with eleven boys plus Wayne, Brown, and the bad guys, so let’s take it to a bullet list:

  • Unlike the whiny, annoying kid in Shane, the child actors in The Cowboys are all super engaging and bring something important to their roles
  • Robert Carradine made his film debut here as one of the teens, Slim Honeycutt, and is adorably cheeky in his sort of caregiver role over the rest of the boys
  • A Martinez instantly blew me away with his TOTALLY BADASS horsemanship as Cimarron, then was just as quickly established as the intriguing bad boy who you know has a good heart – I should have guessed, since my favourite is always the bad boy, and he was giving me major Rufio vibes
  • I’m not interested in kids, but watching little Hardy Fimps (Clay O’Brien) in his first scenes, riding and roping a tiny calf, made me want one exactly like him
  • Seriously, most endearing kid I’ve ever seen in a Western, he deserves two bullet points
  • Brown plays Jebediah Nightlinger as a uniquely and satisfyingly elegant African American character for Western fare, you just warm to him right away; some critics hated on his performance because he was “too well spoken” to be believable, which is just rude
  • Young Bruce Dern as the baddie Long Hair is just creepy – he’s all big teeth and unsettling smiles and looks eerily like Dax Shepherd; Dern has still receives hate mail TO THIS DAY for what his character did to Wayne’s
  • Wayne is predictably gruff, commanding, and solid as Andersen; he famously said “no actor in his right mind, would try to match the antics of eleven kids on screen,” but you can tell how much he enjoyed this role

Half of the young actors actually had junior rodeo circuit experience when they were chosen, while the others were taught. You can kinda tell by who gets closeups on horseback and who doesn’t. 

But can we go back to little Hardy Fimps for a sec? Actor O’Brien went on to become a seven-time world champion team roper, and is still active and still among the all-time top money winners in the PRCA. You can see videos of him roping all over YouTube. (This awesome video about his 1997 induction into the ProRoper Hall of Fame tells the tale of his career.)

illustration of a fancy moustache

The Cowboys is obviously a coming of age story, with boys being taught the skills to become men by America’s manliest man of all. Apparently some critics disliked the perceived implication that violence is the path to manhood. 

OMG, f*ck those people. This is an awesome, if a bit implausible, story. 

What Andersen teaches his charges isn’t violence. He takes away their guns and knives before the drive, and tells them they’ll have to stick with “butting heads” to settle any differences. He teaches them to ride better, rope better, and to work as a team. He and Nightlinger teach them respect, but also let them feel their feelings. 

And Andersen didn’t do anything to MAKE the boys hunt down the bad guys to get revenge – they did that because they felt it was the right thing to do (and I agree). This was 1877, and you’re watching a f*cking Western! If you don’t want violence, throw on some Teletubbies or something

Some reviewers have also compared The Cowboys to Lord of the Flies, which is bizarre given that the boys have TWO adult supervisors, they stick together, and nobody turns savage and kills a kid named Piggy. These cowboys are much closer in spirit to the Lost Boys (the Peter Pan posse, not the Santa Cruz-dwelling vampires). 

illustration of a fancy moustache

I didn’t expect The Cowboys to have such an impressive score, or to run through such a range of emotions – although I should have, given that it’s about kids doing a hella dangerous job. But beneath the horse chases and shootouts it’s a really freakin’ heartwarming story

10/10, would watch with my imaginary little cowboy.