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The Cowboys is a 1972 western motion picture starring John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Slim Pickens, A Martinez and Bruce Dern. Robert Carradine makes his film debut with fellow child actor Stephen R. Hudis. Based on the novel by William Dale Jennings, the screenplay was written by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr., and Jennings, and directed by Mark Rydell.


A screenshot from the film.
When his hired men abandon him for the lure of the gold on the Ruby Rivermarker, near where it meets the Beaverhead River, in the mid 1870s, Wil Andersen (John Wayne), a central Montanamarker cattle rancher near the town of Bozemanmarker, faces the prospect of financial disaster. He is forced to find cowboys for his yearly long cattle drive to the railhead at Belle Fourche, South Dakotamarker.

Andersen goes looking for help at the other ranches in the area, but no cowboys are available. He rides into a deserted Bozeman and goes to the saloon and provisions store of Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens). Anse seems to be the only soul left in Bozeman, as the "gold fever" has taken every able bodied man. Anse suggests that Wil put off the drive until next year and take credit from stores. Andersen, a stubborn man, refuses to "go on take." As the two men pass the local schoolhouse, Anse thoughtfully suggests that Andersen hire the students as cowboys. He convinces Wil to go to the school to inspect the young boys. They observe for a few minutes but, after Homer (Mike Pyeatt) scares a young girl with a frog, Wil leaves the school unconvinced.

Much to Andersen's surprise, and thanks in no small part to Anse, the school boys show up at daybreak one morning. They admit to not being true cowboys, but say they can ride, some can rope, and a couple are pretty good shots. To test the boys, Andersen says that if they can stay on his green-broke filly horse Crazy Alice to a count of ten, he'll keep that in mind come hiring time.

As the boys successfully take turns on Alice, Cimarron (A Martinez), another young man slightly older than the school boys, rides up. A cocky and mean-spirited half breed, Cimarron doesn't go to school. He rides the fight out of Alice, and insultingly hands the reins to Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis). Cimarron soon gets into a fight with Slim Honeycutt (Robert Carradine), the oldest of the students. Andersen, impressed by Cimarron's abilities, has to think about hiring him because of his angry nature and the chip on his shoulder.

After discussions with his wife, Annie (Sarah Cunningham), who reminds him of what he was like at the students' age, and thinking about his two late sons, Matthew and Lucius, Andersen reluctantly decides to hire them. Excited about the prospect of their first cattle drive, the boys arrive at Andersen's ranch for training. Cimarron also shows up, but after he pulls a knife while fighting Slim, Andersen tells him to clear out.

While Andersen and the boys prepare for the cattle drive, a group of mysterious men led by "Long Hair" Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) show up asking for work. Andersen would like to hire these more experienced and seasoned cowboys. Then he catches Watts in a lie about his past. Watts comes clean and says they are fresh out of prison. Andersen doesn't hold their past against them, but refuses to hire a man who would lie. He tells Watts that he will stick with the boys. Jebediah "Jeb" Nightlinger (Lee Browne), a Moorish Black camp cook arrives with a chuck wagon, making Anderson's trail crew complete.

The cattle drive to Belle Fourche dramatically begins. Under Andersen's continued tutelage, the boys learn to rope, brand and herd the cattle and horses. Much to Andersen's frustration, Cimarron follows the drive from afar. When he redeems himself by rescuing Slim from drowning, Andersen allows him to join the crew.

Slowly, the boys learn about work and responsibility while Andersen, set in his ways, begins to soften his nature to accommodate his youthful cowboys. But nobody is aware that a gang of cattle rustlers led by Watts are shadowing them on the trail.

Characters, controversy and symbolism

This survival story of learning and maturation through hardship, hard work and discipline, propounds the values of truth, loyalty, and fighting for what you believe in.

The Nightlinger character teaches the boys diversity and respect in their initial exchange after Jeb enters the bunkhouse. In the comical tension-relieving scene, Fats says, "Well sir, you're the first nigger we've ever saw [sic].", After some prodding, Jeb confirms that he's black everywhere, "Except for the whites of my eyes." The oldest boy, Slim, then proclaims, "See he's the same as us, except for that color." Jeb laughs-off being "just like you" with a fantastic Moorish tale of seduction, mayhem and heroism that thrills the boys, who ask if it is true. Jeb only says, "If it isn't, it ought to be."

Anderson and Nightlinger are both Civil War veterans. On the trail, the ramrod Anderson, accepts counsel from the outspoken Nightlinger on perhaps being too rough on the boys. The world-weary Jeb diplomatically manages an encounter with Kate (Colleen Dewhurst) and her traveling brothel.

Around the evening campfire, Slim picks out a Vivaldi tune (Largo from the Lute concerto in D major, RV 93) on his guitar in stark contrast to when the boys later are caught raucously singing Home on the Range while getting drunk on stolen liquor.

After accidentally coming across the rustler gang, Long Hair threatens to slit Dan's throat if he reveals their presence. Out of mortal fear Dan betrays the trust of the group by remaining silent (until after it is too late). The reality of death is confirmed that very night when Dan is responsible for Charlie's death.

The film is known for depicting Wayne's cold-blooded killing after being shot in the back by Dern's character. This resulted in co-star Dern becoming typecast as a villain, which made it difficult for him to get worthwhile subsequent roles. During filming of this scene, Wayne warned Dern, "America will hate you for this." Dern wryly replied, "Yeah, but they'll love me in Berkeley."

Another well-known scene was that of a minor using profanity. "Stuttering Bob" was unable to alert them to danger. After Wayne chews the child out, the boy mutters, "Son of a bitch.", only to have Wayne coax him to say it repeatedly. The boy angrily builds longer curses until the boy is no longer stuttering, with, "You God damned mean, dirty son of a bitch!". To which Wayne finally responds, "I wouldn't make it a habit calling me that, son.".

Fatherhood, and more specifically, the father-son relationship is a recurring theme. Andersen has lost two of his own sons. He becomes a surrogate father to his "cowboys" during their cattle drive and eventually risks his own life to save them from a deranged killer. This father-son dynamic takes on a Christian resurrection metaphor at the end when his cowboys, baptized by violence in their quest to avenge his death, return to the scene of Andersen's murder with a tombstone and are mysteriously unable to locate his body. The tombstone inscription reads: "Wil Andersen: Beloved Husband and Father".

Historical distortions

During the scene when "Long Hair" Asa Watts (Dern) shows up asking for work he says that he worked for "every big outfit in North Montana", including Dillard Fant at the Santa Rosa. Wil Andersen (Wayne) says that he was a pall bearer at Fant's funeral five years before, about 1870. Dillard Rucker Fant, owner of the Santa Rosa Ranch in Hidalgo County, Texasmarker, died in 1908.

Television adaptation

In 1974, Warner Bros. developed a television series for ABC starring Jim Davis, Diana Douglas, and Moses Gunn. David Dortort (best known for Bonanza and The High Chaparral), produced the series. Only A Martinez, Robert Carradine, Sean Kelly and Clay O'Brien were in both the movie and the television series. At the last moment, ABC decided to reduce the show's format from one to one-half hour, a change which made it difficult to tell stories effectively considering the show's large cast. This arguably explained the show's unimpressive ratings and subsequent early cancellation.

See also


  1. Kirkwood, R. Cort. - "John Wayne: Mr. America". - The New American. - American Opinion Publishing. - May 28 2007
  2. Dillard Rucker Fant. - Handbook of Texas Online. - Texas State Historical Association. - Retrieved 2008-07-24

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