The passing of Western mores from the older to the younger generation is at its most explicit in Mark Rydell's “The Cowboys,” starring John Wayne as old rancher Wil Petersen who needs help to bring his cattle to market.
As in Red River,” Wil's regular hands have deserted him to make easy money in a gold strike nearby, providing him an opportunity to recite his personal philosophy, “In my day, a man stayed with you on a handshake.”
Wayne turns down the offer of the villain, Long Hair (Bruce Dern), not because he is an ex-convict, but because he is a liar. But, unable to find help, he is forced to hire eleven youngsters, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen. Suspicious of their abilities, he is at first reluctant but, as in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” it takes his old friend Anse (Slim Pickens) to remind him of his youth, “How old were you when you went on your first drive” “What's that got to do with it,” replies Wayne angrily. But his friend insists, “How old, Wil” “Thirteen,” Wayne snaps back, but he quickly adds, “I already had a beard.”
During the cattle drive, the innocent and inexperienced youngsters grow up under Wayne's tough guidance and demanding leadership. He instructs them how to use a gun, how to drink, and even lets them see a brothel. In other words, Wayne helps them to mature into manhood through many rites of passage. Wayne is a strict disciplinarian, but once again his toughness is more of an exterior. He threatens a lot, but in actuality, his worst deed is to push a dozing boy off his horse.
A benevolent father-figure, Wayne even gets to perform some miracles, curing a stuttering boy by teaching him how to curse, “You goddam, dirty sonnovabitch!” But he warns, “I would not make a habit of calling me that, son.” Responsible for the boys, he commands his cook, after having been shot, to see them back home safely. “A fellow always wants his children to be better than he was,” he tells them, “You are.”
A lot was written at the time about Wayne's onscreen death, an unusual (even shocking) occurrence that some felt was no more than a gimmick. (See Film Comment). But it also serves screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. an occasion to show the impact of Wil's death on his loyal wife Annie (Sarah Cunningham) and particularly on the boys.
The boys' speech after Wayne's death shows that they have been socialized effectively, that they have internalized his code of ethics. First, one says, “We're burning daylight,” imitating his master's call for an early start. Then another claims, also in Wayne's vein, “It ain't how you're buried,” one says in Wayne's vein, “it's how you're remembered,” placing Wayne's tombstone where he died. In avenging Wil's death, as if he were their real father, the boys also prove their own true grit.