The Cowboys (1972)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Modern Western  |   Run Time - 128 min.  |   Countries - USA  |   MPAA Rating - PG
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This unforgettable combination of adventure story and coming-of-age tale is a cult favorite with John Wayne fans and it's easy to see why: The Cowboys is great American filmmaking, pure and simple. The script takes its time to develop rich characters and set up themes that pay off memorably in the film's second half. Director Mark Rydell handles the story in an understated, thoughtful manner that makes its dramatic peaks truly effective. Western fans will be happy to know that when it comes time to deliver a bit of action, Rydell gives it just the right amount of punch without overdoing it. His work is aided immensely by a sweeping, Copeland-esque musical score by John Williams and gorgeous scope photography from Robert Surtees: both do an excellent job of enhancing the film's rich feel of vintage Americana. The final, crucial pieces of the puzzle are the performances and they are magnificent: John Wayne carries the film on his mighty shoulders, delivering all the presence one would expect while also tempering it with a sense of vulnerability that only enhances his heroic appeal. Elsewhere, Roscoe Lee Browne makes an excellent (and equally charismatic foil) to Wayne as the drive's resident cook and Bruce Dern makes a genuinely unnerving villain for Wayne to square off with. It's also worth noting that the child actors playing the cattle drivers all do strong, subtle work, managing to be likeable without ever getting cutesy or maudlin (it's no surprise that young stars Robert Carradine and A Martinez graduated from this film to lengthy acting careers). In short, The Cowboys is a great Western and stand proudly alongside True Grit and The Shootist as the best of John Wayne's latter-day work.