|HD DVD Western|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Thursday, 01 November 2007|
Weathered cattleman Wil Andersen (John Wayne) finds himself in a bit of a fix. He’s about to set off on the four hundred mile cattle drive to Belle Fourche with 1500 head of cattle ready for market when gold fever strikes a nearby town. Andersen loses his cowboys to the gold strike; with the town virtually abandoned because of the gold rush, he has no cattle drovers. Andersen is initially amused when his friend, Anse (Slim Pickens) suggests that he use the local schoolboys, but when they show up at his ranch one morning eager to try out, he gives them a shot. On the first day of summer, they all join in on the cattle drive, accompanied by cook Jedediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne). The young lads prove their mettle on the drive and the trials of the trail turn the journey into a rite of passage for them under Andersen’s crusty and occasionally insensitive guidance. The group’s journey is upset by the intrusion of a gang lead by Asa Watts (Bruce Dern), an ex-con who has his sights set on stealing the cattle, by force if necessary.
Eighty percent of the film is something really special—warm and affectionate without being sentimental and the fatherly chemistry and interplay between Wayne, Lee Browne and the boys is admirable and believable. Unfortunately, there’s a twist near the last section of the picture that sends the film down a path of violence that does not mesh with the rest of the film. It seems too pat, obvious and routine. You feel as if you thought you were watching something special and unique, only to find it devolving into an average genre programmer. The last section of the film veers so far away tonally that it damages the experience of watching the rest of the film and affects your overall assessment of it. The film as it stands is a testimony to the importance of star power in cinema. Once Wayne is gone from the narrative, a gaping hole is left in the film and the loss of the intangible charismatic electricity of his larger-than-life presence is deeply felt. I’m not bothered by the twist that sends the story where it goes. It’s shocking, extremely well-handled, emotional and feels genuine in some way, so it’s not a reaction to what happens. It’s how it’s handled afterwards that seems to be the problem. I don’t know if a film which features such a strong performance by such an iconic star can survive once their character is absent, but “The Cowboys” seems to indicate that it can’t. By sending the story down into a vengeance sideroad, it abandons the characters’ story arcs and leaves aspects unsatisfactorily resolved. For example, the character of Cimarron (A. Martinez—who would go on to become a featured player in soaps) never grows or evolves as a character, and he’s the one that should go through the largest evolution in the story. Andersen’s wife, Annie (Sarah Cunningham) is never mentioned in the final act and the fade out feels a few scenes short of being satisfactory. John Williams’ rousing and spirited score provides solid accompaniment and capably drives the pace of several scenes. The usage of some of the more energetic, positive cues in the scenes of violent retribution at the end seems completely wrong-headed, almost as if director Mark Rydell and co. were trying to soften the unpleasantness of the scenes with jauntier themes. It doesn’t work.
To disregard the entirety of the film because of the last act is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Taking the last section out of the discussion leaves much that is noteworthy. The Williams score is lovely and Bruce Surtees’s cinematography is evocative, occasionally lush and is beautifully lit. John Wayne gives one of the best performances of his later years. It’s a terrific role, and there’s not a wrong note in it. Only someone like Wayne could deliver lines like, “A cow is nothing but a mess of trouble tied up in a leather bag” with that believable sense of dry humor that he delivers so effortlessly. While Wayne won the Oscar for “True Grit,” he did better work here. Bruce Dern makes for a thoroughly loathsome villain, appearing near demonic at times. The young leads are a likable bunch, all are believable in their roles and they don’t overpower the film or turn it into a kiddie picture.
The HD DVD release includes an overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music which add around 6:15 to the film’s running time. Director Mark Rydell doesn’t mention their inclusion on the commentary but it’s fair to assume that they were included in the premiere. Most reviews feature the running time sans the overtures etc. so these were most likely dropped for wide release. While too short a film for this kind of “Roadshow” presentation, the intermission works well with the film, structurally. The photography is well-presented in HD. The film has a somewhat dusty look at times, but frequently features rich colors. The transfer features a vivid palette with rich, smooth contrasts. Imagery is clean, detailed and stable, particularly in wide shots. Facial details are occasionally on the soft side, but the vivid saturation of the colors gives them the illusion of greater clarity. The colors nearly pop off the screen at times, which gives Bruce Dern’s eyes an extra degree of insane electricity.
The original mono track has been remixed in 5.1, giving the score a sense of stereo separation through the front channels. Dialogue and effects are occasionally discrete through the fronts, though not much use is made of the rear channels. It’s a nice sounding mix that subtly gives a little modernity to its original vintage, without overdoing it. The original mono track should have been included as well.
The commentary featuring Mark Rydell is warm and pleasant. It’s clear that Rydell is watching the film for the first time in quite a while, as he spends a bit too much time describing the action or anticipating the next scene. There are anecdotes and stories, but he drops out to watch the picture at times. The reunion featurette runs just under a half hour and is essentially a roundtable discussion with Rydell, Bruce Dern and a few of the grown-up child actors, intercut with separately shot interviews with Roscoe Lee Browne and Robert Carradine. There are some candid, juicy stories here but all seem to have been initially intimidated by Wayne and were surprised to find him to be warm and wonderful on-set. The contemporary promotional short promo, “The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men” is a welcome inclusion, as is the original trailer. The trailer sounds a bit odd , as it’s sourced from an old videotape transfer, and is prone to combing artifacts and video noise. Shortly after “The Cowboys” was released, the ratings board revised the “GP” rating into our current “PG” rating. The packaging displays the film’s original “GP” rating, a nice touch.