John Wayne is an American icon -- nearly every film fan knows his name and many can even throw out a quick impression of the actor's vocal delivery. He appeared in hundreds of films going back to the '20s, and his swagger has influenced every action movie that's hit the screen ever since. One of the most notable films of the twilight of his career was 'The Cowboys,' a western that stripped Wayne of the firearms his characters had become known for over the years.
The setup is pretty simple -- a rancher named Wil Andersen (Wayne) must deliver a large herd of cattle more than fifteen-hundred miles before winter comes. Alas, his hired ranchhands abandon him to pursue delusions of wealth in the Gold Rush. As a result, Wil has no other choice but to take in a group of young boys to make the best out of a hopeless situation. Along the way, old rancher finds a soft spot in his heart for the misguided youth and decides to teach them the value of hard work. They all dream of being cowboys, but Wil tries to teach them that they have more to offer the world besides guns and violence.
When I described all of this to my wife, she laughed and commented how much the story sounded like 'Dangerous Minds' or the recent 'Freedom Writers.' It does, in fact, play out much the same way as an inspirational-teacher film. The thing that makes 'The Cowboys' different is that it drops a bomb in the third act -- tragedy strikes and the boys commit themselves to vengeance. For thirty minutes, the teens struggle against everything they've been taught by Wil, bust open a box of guns and set out to become men in their own right.
To be honest, while I understand the nostalgic appeal of John Wayne, I've never been able to see much past his stilted delivery that's been lampooned in stand up routines and comedies for years. So it came as quite a surprise to me that his performance in 'The Cowboys' is layered and nuanced -- a quiet take on an aging man that reminded me a lot of 'Open Range' and 'Unforgiven.' His moments with the young boys aren't sappy, but are full of hard-line lessons that require a lot of range from the actor. Even more impressive, the young actors aren't professionals but they still sell their roles convincingly. They never seem to simply spout out dialogue and they genuinely craft believable characters who are pushed to the extreme.
With that being said, I have to admit that I had a hard time stomaching certain elements of the film in light of more recent (and well-publicized) incidents of teen gun-violence. It was strange seeing a group of bullet-slinging teens mercilessly work their way up through a hierarchy of villains -- sometimes the boys would even lure gunmen into the woods where they could get the drop on them. I'm certainly not going to suggest the filmmakers were glorifying kids taking violence into their own hands. But while fully realizing that this is a film from a different era, it was tough to sit through the last third without seeing it in a modern context.
Having said that, to the film's great credit, I didn't expect it to go in this direction. It suddenly became a dark examination of boys becoming men through their actions rather than their age. It was initially reminiscent of an inspirational-teacher flick, but ended up in Neverland with a Peter-Pan-esque tale of innocence marred by violence.
'The Cowboys' isn't the sort of film that's likely to interest modern audiences much -- its built-in appeal is probably limited to fans of John Wayne and classic westerns. However, if you don't despise older films altogether, this is exactly the sort of western that's worth investing time in. It's more concerned with commenting on violence than setting up the next shootout. As a commentary on youth and the consequences of bloodshed, I found 'The Cowboys' to be surprisingly relevant and it's found a permanent home on my shelf.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'The Cowboys' is a remastered treat that looks much better than I thought it would. I expected the film to be a mess -- it's more than thirty years old and I didn't have any experience with high-def catalogue westerns from Warner Brothers. Much to my surprise, the source was relatively clean, colors were bold, and black levels were stable and deep. The picture creates a good illusion of depth and nice contrast helps add dimension to the background elements. Fine object detail is occasionally a mixed bag of highs and lows, but still suitably crisp and sharp. There's also a consistent veil of light grain throughout the film, but I didn't find it all distracting.
Still, there are some unavoidable problems that keep this transfer from being truly exceptional. Print blemishes are present in spots, random shots are softer than others, and the boosted color palette creates slightly unnatural skintones. The thing I noticed the most, however, was that tight textures are sporadically haunted by shimmering -- John Wayne's corduroy jacket, a gunman's neckerchief, and tiny batches of tree leaves all caught my attention. Even so, 'The Cowboys' looks better than I ever imagined it would, and fans are sure to be pleased with the treatment it has received here.
Featuring a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps), this HD DVD mix sounds nearly identical to the standard Dolby track (640 kbps) on the Blu-ray edition. SAs was the case with Warner's concurrent release of Wayne's 'Rio Bravo,' the audio on both mixes has been remastered from the theatrical mono mix, so there really isn't separating the two other than the numerical bitrate. Both have clear dialogue, nice treble ranges, and mildly good ambiance. There isn't a lot to be found in the surround channels, but movement and accuracy are surprisingly good. John William's score is the highlight of the mix and the instrumentation is well balanced across the front channels.
This is a generally a quieter film that doesn't have much to offer sonically until the last thirty minutes. Gun shots and sound effects are weak by today's standards. In fact, very few elements in the sound design seem authentic and the film retains the lower quality roots of its original release. The bass tones could use some work -- I began to notice a thinness in the lower ranges as the movie played (especially in the third act). All in all, while this audio package is certainly improved from its original form, this mix failed to wow me in any way.
All of the supplemental materials included on this HD DVD edition of 'The Cowboys' can also be found on the Deluxe Edition DVD released late last month. The video features are all presented in 480i/p and this disc also includes a trailer for the film.
The main draw here is an Audio Commentary with director Mark Rydell. His comments are packed with interesting nuggets of information -- he discusses working with the actors, befriending John Wayne, the John Williams score, casting, the controversy that surrounded the film's release, the on-set antics of the young boys, and the training required to fashion them into believable on-screen killers. Rydell is an engaging director who offers a lot of insight into the differences between modern filming and the classic process. I highly recommend this track to fans of 'The Cowboys.'
"The Cowboys: Together Again" (29 minutes) was filmed in December of 2006 and reunites Rydell and other cast members including Bruce Dern. While other notable actors appear in prerecorded interviews (Robert Carradine and Roscoe Lee Browne), the bulk of the featurette focuses on Rydell and the cast members who are present. Unfortunately, for those who've already listened to the commentary track, this one is a repetitious. It's fun to watch old friends and colleagues together again, but I didn't learn anything that Rydell hadn't already told me. Luckily, those involved are likeable and seem genuinely excited to have a reunion of this sort.
"The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men" (9 minutes) is an original peice about the film that was produced in 1972. Again there are some repetitive tidbits here and there, but this one is worth watching just for the archived footage of the cast and crew on set. Sadly, this featurette really shows its age -- maybe it's too much to ask, but it would've been great if the studio could have applied some quick-pass touchups to vintage material like this. I could run this video through a program on my laptop in twenty minutes and make it look better...
'The Cowboys' is an intriguing western that exceeded my expectations. It not only showcases John Wayne in a resonant performance, but it goes into some surprisingly heavy territory in the last act. The video is quite impressive (considering the film's age) and is definitely one of the better vintage titles I've reviewed. On the downside, even though the audio has been upgraded to 5.1 surround, there's just so much you can do with a mono source. The brief supplements are interesting, but for me, Rydell's director's commentary was the only one that left any lasting impact.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.