The Cowboys (1972) is a wonderful John Wayne saga where he hires school boys as cowboys to drive his herd to market. It is a coming of age story as the boys learn about life and death from Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne as they grow into manhood.
Rough Script The Cowboys (1972)
Well the great actor John Wayne played the lead role of Wil Andersen. I have spoken about Wayne extensively in other podcasts so I won’t go into that again.
Roscoe Lee Browne played the role of trail cook Jeb/Jebediah Nightlinger. Browne earned a masters degree and began teach French and comparative literature. In 1951, he won the world championship in the 800-yard dash. This lead to a change in profession and in 1956 the decision to become an actor. With no training his voice and presence lead to a role in the newly formed New York Shakespeare Festival.
He began working on and off Broadway until 1966 when he left the theater until 1983. By the end of the 60s, he was making regular appearances in films. His roles ranged dramatic such as Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), comedies like Dear God (1996), and black-plotations films such as the squeal to Supefly.
He was also a mainstay in 70s television on shows such as All in the Family and Good Times. He also replaced Robert Guillaume as the butler Benson on Soap (1977). He died of cancer on April 11, 2007.
Bruce Dern played the rustler Long Hair. Dern began his career playing pyschos, killers, and outlaws. He began acting on television and in movies in 1960, He was a fine actor and by 1978 he won the Best Supporting Actor oscar for Coming Home. He tried to leverage this into larger roles but could not break the typecasting. By 1981 he was back to his typecasting roles such as in Tattoo. But these movies were mostly dudes. Dern kept working but never had another breakout hit. He is married to Diane Ladd and is the father of Lura Dern.
Robert Carradine played Slim Honeycutt one of the oldest two cowboys on the drive. Robert is the youngest son of actor John Carradine. He began acting at a very early age and has been in around 120 films and shows. He is probably best know as the head nerd in the Revenge of the Nerds films. While he was involved in a plethora of stinkers he did appear in two fan favorites in 1980. These moves are The Big Red One and The Long Riders where he acted with his two brothers as three Younger brother: members of the James Gang.
A Martinez played Cimarron the only non-anglo cowboy. He is primarily a television actor though he has done a few movies. He was most recently seen on the recently canceled television series Longmire.
The great cowboy actor Slim Pickens played a small part as Anse. He has been covered in other podcasts as well so I won’t say any more about him here.
Richard Farnsworth played the rustler Henry Williams. Farnsworth had been in the business for 30 years as a horse riding stuntman. When he was 50 years old they gave him a chance to speak and found an actor that had been around for a long time. Some of his movies include The Grey Fox (1982) and in The Natural (1984). He also spent some time running around with Wilford Brimley, I suppose eating oatmeal because it was the right thing to do.
One of the background rustlers was Tap Canutt. Quite frankly he is only mentioned because of that great name. Canutt was a stunt man in 38 films including Ben-Hur (1959). He acted in 10 films but they were all goodies like Spartacus and The Alamo (1960) with John Wayne both of which were released in 1960.
Finally, we come to another rustler/stuntman Chuck Courtney. Do you remember him from Episode 12 – Billy the Kidd Versus Dracula (1966) where he battles Dracula for his true love.
Rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne) has a problem: all his ranch hands have run off to find gold and he needs to drive his cattle 400 miles to market. He needs to hire cowboys to drive the herd. He goes into the relatively deserted town. He meets Anse (Slim Pickens) who recommends that he use school boys. Andersen is not ready to go that far but the next morning a passel of boys show up to “interview” for the job. The PBS West series states that the average age of a cowboy was around 24. So it is not so far out of line to use teens. The last half of the word is boy.
So Andersen thinks he can dissuade the boys by putting them on a bucking bronc. In turn, each boy rides the unbroken horse. Andersen starts to warm up to the idea of using the boys as cowboys. After they have all ridden Cimarron (A Martinez) arrives. He is the only non-Anglo and he is a little older and tougher that the other boys. He then gets into a fight with the oldest boy from the original group, Slim (Robert Carradine). Andersen sends Cimarron away and hires the other boys for the drive.
Andersen and the boys are getting ready for the drive a group of men show up asking for work. Their leader “Long Hair” Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) lies to Andersen about being in prison and Andersen catches him in the lie and refuses to hire the men. They get angry and leave. Finally, the last member of the trail drive arrives: “Jeb” Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), a Black camp cook arrives with his chow wagon. Andersen places all of the guns in the chuck wagon so they will not be misused by the boys.
As they head out on the trail Andersen teaches them their new craft while Jeb takes care of their other needs. Cimarron follows the group from a distance like a mangy dog. When they cross a stream Slim falls in and can’t swim. One of the boys tries to warn the group but his stuttering prevents him from issuing the warning. Cimarron jumps into the river and saves Slim. This earns Cimarron a spot on the crew. Andersen’s berating of the stutter forces him to stop stuttering.
As the journey continues the boys steal Jeb’s whiskey and get really drunk. One of the boys falls off his horse and is killed by the herd. The boys grow a little more. After this point, they can do their jobs just like grown men.
The chuck wagon breaks down and Jeb stays behind to fix it and plans to catch up with the herd later. That night “Long Hair” and his gang attack the cowboys. They beat Andersen and terrorize the boy. Long Hair then shoots down the unarmed Andersen. Long Hair and his gang steal all of the horses and cattle.
In the morning when Jeb arrives, the boys are tending to the mortally wounded Andersen. Before he dies Andersen tells the boys how proud he is of them. The group buries their leader and then grab Jeb and tie him up. They get the guns and make plans to go after the herd. When Jeb realizes he cannot stop the boys he decides to help them. It seems that this was the seventh movie in which Wayne’s character died. His character was also killed in one movie after this. The movies are: Reap the Wild Wind (1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944), Wake of the Red Witch (1949), The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Alamo (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Cowboys (1972), and The Shootist (1976).
The group tracks the rustlers and by using tricks they knock a few of them off. They then attack the gang and kill them all without losing a boy. Odd? The last one to die is Long Hair who was trapped under a horse with a broken leg. Long Hair begs for mercy but the boys let the horse up and it drags the criminal to death.
The boys and Jeb deliver the herd and use some of the money to buy a stone for Andersen’s grave that reads “Husband and Father.” As the boy now view Andersen as a father figure. This is one of the few films where Wayne is actually happily married. With their work done the boys head home as men.
The great roger Ebert did not care for this movie. To him, it seemed to say that you had to kill to become a man. I don’t quite see it that way. I believe that this movie was going through the group formation process: forming, storming, norming, and performing. As they formed the energy was high and everyone was excited. When Cimarron was added to the group they began to fight among themselves. Later they learned their job and normalized. And finally, they began to perform at a high level when they took back the herd.
Film historian Emanuel Levy said the movie followed a formula seen in Goodbye Mr. Chips and Sands of Iwo Jima where an adult takes a group of youngsters and guides them into manhood with the needed skills and traits.
This movie reminds me of some time I spend with a group described in Red Dawn as “an elite para-military organization” the Boy Scouts of America. The goal of this organization was to take a group of young men and give them the skills they would need for adulthood. Each troop has the goal of being truly boy-led. The, I won’t say problem, the issue in Scouting is that 16 and 17-year-olds always leave and 11 year-old always come in. Therefore the troop never makes it to being boy led. Also, it is only my opinion but all troops have two leaders because it is required. However, much like grandmothers, each troop has one harsh leader and one nice leader. In this movie, Andersen was the harsh leader and Jeb was nice leader giving them castor oil for hangovers and medicine for boles. In this case, the cowboys did become boy led and Jeb went along to help the boys. Of course, Andersen dies just like the old Scoutmaster retires.
World-Famous Short Summary – boy scouts or cowboys – watch out if you’re the big boss.