The legend John Wayne stars in the 1972 western, The Cowboys. Wayne, looking heavier, and largely immobile nonetheless delivers a sparkling performance as Wil Andersen, a rancher who has no other choice than to employ a group of young boys to help him with his latest cattle drive.
The film begins with Andersen being abandoned by his cattle hands as they seek the fortune of a gold rush. Andersen complains that he has no one to assist in his cattle drive and a compatriot suggest he hire some young school boys to help him. After brushing off the thought, Andersen realizes he has no other alternative and hosts an audition of sorts for the boys. Between the ages of 9 and 15, the boys handle themselves quite well, showing they have riding skills and Andersen is convinced to taken them all on. After heading out they come across Bruce Dern’s Long Hair character who is recently released from prison. He lies to Andersen and is dismissed for the job. Long Hair appears to have vengeance on his mind at this point and we find later, that’s indeed the case.
As the boys are on the cattle drive, they realize the hard work involved and slowly begin to transform into men. There is a particularly good scene of them bonding when the sour mash is stolen and the boys pass the liquor around a campfire. Andersen, realizing this is the same as he might have done in his youth, watches the boys as they tell tales and enjoy their drunkenness. The drive doesn’t go perfectly however as when a stray horse runs off from the pack, Dan heads out to drive it back and stumbles across Long Hair and his gang who have been following the group. Long Hair assaults the boy physically and warns him about telling Andersen. Things continue to go bad for Dan as he’s scared to watch during the night as he’s convinced Long Hair is set to kill him. As he’s watching the cattle, Dan loses his glasses, which are recovered by one of his fellow cowboys, only to be knocked off his horse, and trampled by the cattle.
The ending of the film is controversial mostly because of the death of Wil Andersen. In one of the few movie roles that John Wayne has played and dies in, the death itself wasn’t as dramatic as the way he died. Long Hair finally attacks the group and after a dust-up with Andersen, he pulls his gun. Andersen refuses to face him and Long Hair shoots him in the back several times. After Andersen dies, the boys enforce a plan on how to get back the cattle and drive them to their destination like Andersen would have wanted. Here is where the ending is controversial for me. The boys hatch a play where they sneak up on, and trick all of Long Hair’s gang, killing all of them. This is a coming of age tale in that they grow up through the drive and these killings but the way in which it was shown, really glorified the killings. For any conservative house wife or mother who thinks video games and the like are making children more violent, I point them to this 1972 film depicting 9-15 year old’s killing grown men and showing no remorse for it. This could spiral to a completely different topic but suffice it to say that violence has always been an influence on youth and the means of seeing that violence depicted has changed, but the fact is, children have always had influences that could promote violent behavior.