When the cattle drive finally reaches it’s destination, one of the local townspeople looks at one of the cowhands and comments “They’re just kids.” They’re not just kids. They’re “The Cowboys.” They may have started off as eleven kids, but after 400 miles of driving cattle and fighting off rustlers, you grow up fast.
That’s the premise of director Mark Rydell’s rousing western “The Cowboys,” a 1971 production starring John Wayne as a rancher who must rely on the local youth to help him drive his cattle to market when the grown men desert him to search for gold. At first, rancher Wil Anderson (Wayne) is reluctant to hire children to do a man’s job. Still, he has bills to pay, so he agrees to train the eleven boys in the fine art of cattle driving. Once the boys are up to the challenge, Anderson and his cook Jebediah Nightlinger (the marvelous Roscoe Lee Browne) move them on out, hoping for the best.
Their trek is filled with all sorts of obstacles and adventure, not to mention menace in the form of cattle rustlers headed up by Bruce Willis. Working from a sharply written script by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. (“Hud,” “Norma Rae”), director Rydell has created more than just a western. He has created a coming of age story that seems to work on so many levels. The relationship Anderson forms with the boys is emotionally satisfying, while the young boys seem to grow up right before our eyes. While most of the young cast never went on to stardom, A. Martinez and Robert Carradine do stand out.
It’s easy to see why they found careers after “The Cowboys.” I really liked “The Cowboys.” Wayne is at his best playing a crusty, no- nonsense man who dearly loves his wife and demands dedication from those around him. He’s still playing off his “True Grit” goodwill, and he’s excellent as Anderson. Browne is the glue that holds the film together, the wise sage who knows more than everyone else in the cast put together. Dern is appropriately despicable, while Colleen Dewhurst has a nice moment as the madam of a traveling whore house. John William’s spirited music takes it’s cue from those wonderful Elmer Bernstein western scores, most notably “The Magnificent Seven.” You don’t have to like westerns to appreciate “The Cowboys.” It’s much more than that, but as a western, it rides high the saddle. “The Cowboys” was one of the last Warner Brothers films to be released as a “road show” attraction, and the DVD comes complete with an overture, intermission and finale music.
VISION: [ ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ X ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
“Dusty Trails.” That’s what the digital transfer of “The Cowboys” looks like. Delivered in the film’s original 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, the transfer is a mess. It’s grainy, the colors are muted and somber, and there are compression artifacts around every bend. I was so disappointed. At first I tried to pretend that the picture wasn’t so bad, but it just got more irritating as the film continued. Some scenes look like they were shot through gauze, while others just fall apart. The blacks are an embarrassment, almost dissolving to dark gray in some scenes. John Wayne’s corduroy jacket causes strobing during one early scene. The colors are dreary. The blue skies are washed out, the flesh tones look pale, and the earth tones seem lifeless. It looks like the original negative wasn’t in the best condition. The images look sharper once the disc switches over to the second layer, but it’s still not acceptable. It’s watch-able, but it’s not nearly up to the high standards one comes to expect from Warner Home Video DVD.
HEARING: [ ] EXCELLENT [ X ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
“The Cowboys” DVD features a newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack in English and a French language mono soundtrack. The 5.1 Soundtrack is okay but no overly expressive. The rear speakers are under utilized, and only come alive with the occasional strain of John William’s score or some low level ambient noise. The dialogue mix is strong, but the sound range isn’t dynamic enough to discuss. I wasn’t expecting much from the soundtrack, so I was pleased with the results.
ORAL: [ ] EXCELLENT [ X ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
Closed Captions in English and subtitles in French.
COORDINATION: [ X ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
First and foremost, let me say that I love coming attraction trailers. I’d probably buy this DVD just for the thirteen theatrical trailers included that cover John Wayne’s career at Warner Brothers. Aside from the original “The Cowboys” trailer, you get “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Bravo,” “Stagecoach,” “Blood Alley,” “The Green Berets,” “The Searchers” and many more. It’s a John Wayne coming attraction film festival, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The DVD also features a behind-the-scenes documentary “The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men.” It’s a short yet fascinating exploration of the process director Mark Rydell used to turn actors into cowboys and cowboys into actors. I especially liked the scene where Rydell lets one of the actors know he has gotten the part. It’s a real, honest moment. There’s also a brief history lesson on the cowboy, his place in history and film, plus star and crew production notes and bios, and handsome main and scene access menus. A nice package of extras for a DVD that isn’t a “special edition.”
PROGNOSIS: [ ] EXCELLENT [ ] GOOD [ X ] RESUSCITATE [ ] D.O.A.
If it weren’t for the crappy transfer, I would say ride this one like the wind.
VITALS: $19.98/Rated PG/135 Min./Color/RSDL/37 Chapter Stops/Snapcase/#15183
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
PATIENT: THE COWBOYS
BIRTH DATE: 1971
HMO: Warner Home Video