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The Cowboys (1972)

CRUMBLIES… 3 crumblies

Working back through John Wayne’s oeuvre is a wonderful way for a man alone to spend his Sundays. There was an outing to a Flower Show, so all the old biddies and their hangers-on buggered off to pretend petal-snorting was a thing. Most of the staff went with them, so old Jack had the TV room and the iTunes button to himself. What better film to watch than old Duke’s struggle to get cattle across the wild west with a bunch of boys? The Cowboys.

The Duke spends this film in a permanent state of disappointment, from the day his usual hands announce the gold rush as their destiny, to the remarkable scenes where Bruce Dern fills him full of lead. After the intensity of the Rooster Cogburn and yet-to-come J.B. Books performances, this one sees Wayne as Wil Andersen, a strangely spelt plot dynamic and brusque old man of the west. He’s about decency, doing the right thing and brutally beating the bad guys. Simpler times.

That said, they do need beating. Wayne gathers a bunch of 10 to 15 year olds and teaches them to bully cattle across the plains. They flinch, scream, laugh and die through two hours of entertainingly played character moments. One is shouted out of his speech impediment. Another bursts into Vivaldi on the guitar (John Williams, here doing an early score, wouldn’t let the Vivster get the limelight these days). One gets trampled by the cattle in a moment of ghastly panic. And they all stand around the grave as Wayne gives the full-on John-Wayne-Speechifying Experience. It’s a lovely, sad and kind of wonderful moment. And the bad guys spoil it all.

Bruce Dern plays Long Hair, a complete nutso bully and leader of cattle thieves. He’s rumoured to have paid a professional price for killing Wayne in this film, like some kind of crazed pinko-Democrat, but…hmmmm…it’s not a subtle performance, shall we say. And that’s old Jack’s problem with the film. It runs a set of lovely character studies for most of its time. In the copy I watched, there was even a restful set of musical options to relax you: Overture, intermission, Entr’Acte (whatever that may be) and some Exit music to sing you through your popcorn clean-up and hobble out of the theatre. But then the ending goes mad.

So. Dern kills Wayne. Not on the spot, mind. He takes out his arms, legs and stomach and the old cowboy still survives the night. One last speech about the American dream and he is gone…and the boys turn into planful, maddened sharp-shooters who collapse Long Hair’s dreams in a hail of set-pieces, bullets and blood. I mean…wow. It is massively at odds with the subtleties and gentle making-of-men that it follows. Brutal, no doubt, to cover twenty minutes of the Duke’s absence, but…really…I was trying to eat some strawberry cheesecake.

Old Jack took some solace from the story of an old soul being listened to by the younger generation. Much as I tried through cunning deployment of laxatives in young Steve and Jacketta’s cherryade, the cowboys learn from the wisdom and remonstrance of the father figure. Only Obi Wan’s off-spring turn into lethal little shits the second he’s dead, so, you know, ups and downs.

So…watch this with a wary eye. It’s a morality tale with a dubious ending. There is much to enjoy in the performances: Wayne is stolid and growly, the boys on their way to decent characterisation, Colleen Dewhurst captures knowing-Madam in seconds and – best of the best – Roscoe Lee Browne plays the other old man on the trail. His Jebediah Nightlinger is a man of cadence, grace and courteous comedy (“It smells of boys in here…”). He gets the best entré to revenge in movie history…

And pronounces, with the poetic expertise of a theatre man, the epitaph for Duke and other men of the west:

“This may seem a lonesome place to leave him, but he is not alone, because many of his kind rest here with him. The prairie was like a mother to Mr. Andersen. He belonged to her. She cared for him while he lived. And she is nursing him while he sleeps.”

It is to be hoped that, in Jebediah’s poetry, the souls of the crazed young men are recovered in an unfilmed sequel…

It’s a fun film. Give it a go for the characterisation, old school old-man style and – if you have the stomach – brutal ending… And perhaps the Vivaldi.

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