Top 100 Films. 75. The Cowboys (1972)

For every Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday my Dad would have control of the TV. My Dad would watch the stereotypical ‘Dad fare’. He would watch war films and westerns. John Wayne was a constant in the western genre. I had to watch a lot of John Wayne films, some were bad, some were good. There wasn’t many where I would rewatch on my own. However, The Cowboys is one of these films that I have enjoyed on multiple occasions. The Cowboys is an overlooked gem in John Wayne’s filmography.

The Cowboys is about rancher, Will Andersen, played by John Wayne. He had to find new recruits for his planned 400 mile cattle drive as his past crew had set off to find gold.  Andersen comes up with the idea of recruiting several young kids to help him on the cattle drive. Along the way Andersen becomes a paternal figure, teaching the boys how to ride, rope and to be a man. They are also hindered by a group of rustlers who attempt to steal the herd. The young kids must grow up and learn on how to become an adult if they are going to survive the 400 mile trek.

I have seen a lot of John Wayne films but this one always stands out because of the coming of age aspect of the film. The majority of John Wayne films is good American guy, Wayne, will stop bad native american guy. The focus of rampant masculinity is something that never really inspired me and The Cowboys, does have a focus on masculinity because the picture is a lot less clear on how to achieve ‘manhood’.  John Wayne plays a fantastic no-nonsense paternal figure to these group of young kids. It is endearing to see these kids who are fatherless try so hard to get the attention of Andersen. I have seen so many recent criticisms of this film sharing a bad message that you can only be a man through violent acts, however that notion never crossed my mind watching this film. The presence of bravery and family is key throughout and a theme that is central to these characters.

It is great to see this journey of delinquents grow into respectable young men. It is a very satisfying journey that along the way is met with some harrowing scenes that are bold but really encapsulate the risk of this 400 mile trek. Some of the ideas of being a man maybe outdated but to criticise the film on this notion would be unfair just from the time it was made. I have always enjoyed the coming of age genre, so to mix this with the western genre was always going to be a good concoction.

This is a journey of growth, family and courage. The Cowboys is an overlooked classic and in my opinion, along with True Grit, The Cowboys is John Wayne’s finest performance. For some people John Wayne was a Hollywood paternal figure, a figure of patriotic masculinity. The Cowboys is a perfect example of this cultural role in play. The Cowboys is fun, harrowing, action packed, emotional and a fantastic coming of age drama. So if you are stuck with your Dad on a Sunday and he wants to watch a western, I recommend The Cowboys, you will be pleasantly surprised.



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