Mark Rydell’s ‘The Cowboys’

Tail Pop

The Cowboys. Warner Bros.

by David Maguire

In our family, movies were special events because most of our entertainment came from television. So I don’t remember seeing a lot of films, but there is one that holds a very special place in my heart. It was 1972 and John Wayne was coming out with a new Western. This one, however, wasn’t like all the others. This Western had a very special twist. The gun-slinging, trail-riding, “don’t mess with me” man who had survived countless brushes with death was, for the first time, going to die.

I was 12 at the time and I remember the hype, and how its importance was lost on me, but not on my dad. My father loved John Wayne. On the other hand, he didn’t like to go to movies with me because I asked too many questions about what was going on. Not exactly something that adds to the enjoyment of a movie.

Dad was also a busy man and, even if he spent a lot of his time with me, it never seemed enough. There were the “guy” things we did together, like fix things around the house, rake leaves (hated that) or even build a model truck (he did all the work and I just wanted to play with it), but this time we were going to see a movie — just father and son. And that movie was The Cowboys.

Looking back, I think this movie helped me define or understand the dynamic of a father-son relationship.

My mom did have some concerns over the possible violence of the movie but Dad nixed her doubts. Shoot-‘em-up violence? And I still get to go? This was just getting better and better. So, with popcorn and soda in hand, my dad and I settled back in the darkened theatre as the sound of a horse stampede got louder and louder.

With gold fever taking his ranch hands away, Wil Andersen (Wayne) is unable to move his cattle to market. The only solution, which was the worst option, was to hire on a bunch of kids. I can still remember how cool I thought it was when I saw all the boys from the one-room schoolhouse standing outside Wil’s ranch house. They were my age and stepping up to do a man’s job.

On the trail, they each learned the finer things in life — like working from dawn to dusk, getting drunk for the first time, and sharing stories about the mysteries of women. I wonder now, if that made my dad squirm a bit.

Then came the moment. The showdown. Wil, Mr. Nightlinger (the trail cook played by the fantastic Roscoe Lee Brown) and the boys are surrounded by a gang of rustlers led by a nasty man named Long Hair (effectively played by Bruce Dern). Wil, at 60, is more than capable of handling these thugs and, after giving Long Hair a nice beating, he turns his back and walks away. To everyone’s disbelief, Long Hair shoots Wil — once, twice, three times! I guess if John Wayne was going to go down it wouldn’t be easy, but it would be heroic. And it was!

The Cowboys. Warner Bros.

With Wil dead and the cattle gone, the boys have no choice but to return home. That lasts about 10 seconds. These boys have unfinished business. Nightlinger quickly joins them and they execute a brilliant attack of attrition. One by one, they knock off the rustlers, culminating in a gun fight that had me shocked and excited. These boys were far more capable than anyone could have ever imagined, and their revenge was sweetly enjoyed.

Wil was like a father to those boys and, if it was my dad, I felt that I’d do the same if I were in their boots. Few movies have a more satisfying demise of a bad guy than seeing Long Hair dragged by his broken leg into a rocky stream by his horse. At the end, the cowboys drive the cattle down the main street of Belle Fourche — men, who started out boys, finishing the job they were hired to do.

Looking back, I think this movie helped me define or understand the dynamic of a father-son relationship. The father is the strong guiding force and the son gains knowledge and experience from him. And if, God forbid, the father should fall, then the son should pursue justice and carry on. It’s what a son hopes to have in a father and what a father hopes his son will become.

My dad wasn’t John Wayne and I wasn’t a gun-slinging 12-year-old, but we did all right. My dad passed away back in 1982 and, though I didn’t exact any revenge, I have done my best to make him proud of the boy he raised. Thank you, Mr. Wayne.

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