A Movie A Day: Quint sees THE COWBOYS (1972) You goddamned sonuvabitch! You goddamned, mean sonuvabitch!
Published at: July 5, 2008, 7:26 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today’s flick is 1972’s THE COWBOYS starring John Wayne, Bruce Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne. We follow director Mark Rydell over from yesterday’s AMAD On Golden Pond.
Like his later work on On Golden Pond, Rydell explores an aging man’s relationship with young kids, another angle into the grandfather/grandson dynamic. Here, though, John Wayne isn’t old enough to really be feeling himself slip away, so his character is very much John Wayne. He’s tough, he’s strong… there are hints of him having trouble sleeping without a drink because of the pain of old age, but there isn’t any other weakness for him.
But also much like On Golden Pond this movie is really funny, partially for Wayne’s cantankerous nature, partially for the boys being boys aspect and partially because of Roscoe Lee Browne’s character, Jebediah Nightlinger, a cookie with sage advice and a smart-ass streak a mile long.
Essentially what you have here is an aging Cowboy who is preparing a cattle drive over the summer, but every able bodied man is off trying to strike it rich on a rumored gold strike. He ends up in the awkward position of having to evaluate a new batch of Cowboys for the trip, all aged between 11 and 15.
It takes a while for Wayne to warm up to them, and they to him, but ultimately they’re brought on and the drive is made, all with a Joker-level-creepy Bruce Dern shadowing the drive looking for his chance to steal the cattle.
The subhead line comes from one of the youngest kids in the movie, played by Sean Kelly. He spotted another kid fall into a river and tries to tell Wayne, but the kid has a bad stutter and just can’t get it out.
Robert Carradine (who later gained geek notoriety starring as Lewis in REVENGE OF THE NERDS) is the kid in the river and is pulled to safety.
Kelly is celebrating his friend’s survival only to have Wayne turn on him and berate him for nearly getting his friend killed. I absolutely loved this kid. Wayne is such a dickhead to him and we see this poor kid breakdown… crumbling from happiness to defensive to tears to anger.
At the end of it, he grumbles to Wayne, who is walking away, that he’s a son of a bitch. Wayne freezes. “Say that again.” He does, adding on goddamned and mean onto it. Wayne turns on him, but the kid doesn’t back down. Say that again. The kid does. Not once did he stutter. Wayne notices, but the kid doesn’t. Wayne just smiles and says, “I wouldn’t make it a habit calling me that, son.” And walks off as the kid realizes he didn’t stutter.
It’s a perfect moment in the film, not betraying any of the characters, but still giving us a little heartfelt bit.
And speaking of perfect, I don’t know what kind of crazy pills Bruce Dern was taking, but holy shit is he creepy in this movie. I’ve seen a lot of Bruce Dern movies and a lot of Bruce Dern movies from this era (like SILENT RUNNING and THE GREAT GATSBY), but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how scary his teeth are. He has huge chompers and in this film he feels almost animalistic.
He’s a great heavy. In fact, there’s a scene where he captures one of the kids and I can only imagine the fear on the kid’s face is real when Dern is putting on his big bad wolf persona. Dern threatens to slit the kid’s throat and holds the knife up… and I think it’s a great testament to the film and to Dern’s performance that I didn’t know if I was about to watch the kid die or not.
I also want to talk about Roscoe Lee Browne, who is great. He’s essentially the middleman between Wayne and the kids when he’s first brought on to be the cook for the drive and quickly becomes the heart of the film.
I don’t know what it says about me, but I also picked up a vaguely creepy vibe from him, too. He has some really… interesting lines that he delivers with a menace I don’t they intended. I won’t call him a kid toucher, but there’s a sequence when he first bunks with the kids where he definitely makes the choice to play up the creepy aspect. Of course, I’m sure he was going for the mysterious menace with a smile and to someone whose mind isn’t always constantly in the gutter it’s a perfectly innocent scene.
Browne really does kick ass in this movie. He has a scene towards the end of the film where he utters a prayer that is probably one of my favorite deliveries of any line so far in the 30+ films we’ve covered in the AMAD column. I won’t ruin it if you haven’t seen this one yet.
Also of note is an early and fantastic score by none other than John Williams. You can actually hear a little of JAWS and STAR WARS in this score. Not a theme repetition, but just in choice of instruments and, I’d assume, type of equipment used to record his orchestral score.
Speaking of Williams, I forgot to include in my On Golden Pond piece, but does anybody else think that Dave Grusin is owed a little by John Williams completely aping his main theme for the love theme from Star Wars: Episode II? It’s just as similar as George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord was to the Chiffon’s He’s So Fine (maybe more so) and that was a big ol’ deal when that lawsuit happened… Just sayin’…
I link above to the regular DVD, but I watched it on HD-DVD (it’s also out on Blu-Ray) and from what I understand the difference in transfer is considerable, so keep that in mind if you have a next gen player.
Final thoughts… there’s a sequence towards the end where the kid’s take matters into their own hands and what can I say? It’s a personal love of mine watching kids killing people… in films, of course. I think in person it’d probably make me curl up into a protective ball and cry uncontrollably. But the kids just get their guns out and go on a killing spree and I loved it.
I will say that if I have any bones to pick… is that Bruce Dern doesn’t get a comeuppance equal to the evil he has done. I will leave it at that.
If you like John Wayne at all, this is a fantastic film that throws some of Wayne’s formulas on their ears, so it’s not the same old same old. The movie has heart, laughs and enough threat to make you genuinely worried for the characters.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Sunday, July 6th: THE ALAMO (1960)
Monday, July 7th: SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1950)
Tuesday, July 8th: WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1949)
Wednesday, July 9th: D.O.A. (1950)
Thursday, July 10th: SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943)
Friday, July 11th: THE MATCHMAKER (1958)
Saturday, July 12th: THE BLACK HOLE (1979)
Today’s AMAD kicks off a four-film John Wayne kick. Don’t worry, I was careful to break up the Wayne flicks so it doesn’t get too tedious (for me or for you). I have probably 20 John Wayne films on the masterlist, but I’ll space ‘em out.
Tomorrow we follow Wayne back to his directorial effort THE ALAMO. This is one title that I very well could have seen over the years… I know I’ve seen pieces, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it from beginning to end, so I’m going to make damn sure I have by watching it and reporting on it tomorrow. See you folks then.