Cowboys, The (1972): John Wayne’s Western with Boys

Nark Rydell’s The Cowboys was even more self-referential and self-congratulatory than John Wayne’s previous Western, Chisum.

“In this one,” John Wayne said about his role, “I play a 60-year-old rancher with eleven kids under my wing and I try to get all through a cattle drive.”

Aware of his repetitive screen roles as a paternal figure, he said the movie was based on formula that worked in Goodbye Mr. Chips and Sands of Iwo Jima. In all three films, an adult takes a group of youngsters and initiates them into manhood by instructing them the “right” skills and values.

Wayne did not hesitate to appear in The Cowboys, despite the fact that “no actor in his right mind, would try to match the antics of eleven kids on screen,” but for him it became “the greatest experience of my life.”

Director Mark Rydell was also aware of his image as authoritative father: “It’s about an old rancher in his declining years in his last cattle drive, and the boys bursting into young men before his eyes–the whole contrast of fathers and sons and ‘the king is dead, long live the king.'” What attracted Wayne to the role, Rydell said, was “the sense of passing on the mantle to a younger generation. I think he’s about ready.

Many articles on the actor’s paternalism, on and off screen, were written during the shooting of The Cowboy.” One feature in Seventeen entitled, “Do You Think of the Duke as Big Daddy” stated that Wayne had become a universal father figure in American culture. And Vincent Canby described Wayne in the N.Y. Times as “an almost perfect father figure,” whose fictional sons died because they went wrong. But most reviews were harsh about the film’s philosophy. One critic wrote that Wayne’s testament to the younger generation was “be like me, and you can’t go wrong,” and that “the West is safe,” because “we have with us a new generation of Waynes.”

Other critics opposed to The Cowboys  message, that kids are old enough to kill, but not old enough to be initiated into sex. They called attention to the idea that “to kill, in cold anger, is not only justifiable in itself, but somehow the key to manhood,” as one critic noted.

Most damning of all was critic Pauline Kael’s review in the New Yorker: “The movie is about how these schoolboys become men through learning the old-fashioned virtues of killing.” Kael denounced the presentation of Wayne as “an idealized Western father figure,” summing up his philosophy as “there are good men and there are bad men; there are no crossovers or nothing in between. People don’t get a second chance around him; to err once is to be doomed.”