Each Monday, I am sharing reviews of Westerns I studied to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Four: The Cowboys and Cowboy
This film was not what I expected. I have dodged this one for a couple years, fearing that the child-centered plot would lead to a Disney cheese-fest. Nope!
The DVD I borrowed from the library skipped and stopped forty minutes in. For the first time in a long time, I was desperate to finish the film. As soon as possible, I drove to town and bought a copy for myself. That’s how good this movie is. It’s funny, sad, thrilling. It makes you feel, makes you think, and you won’t soon forget it. What more can you ask from a Western?
What amazes me is that Rydell never directed a film in this genre and yet he does so with the confidence and craft of Delmer Daves, or even Hawks and Ford. I need to revisit the films of his I’ve seen and the ones I haven’t.
Of course, it is that dramatic development in the film’s second half which elevates this Western to masterpiece status. It’s not just that it’s unexpected like the moments in To Live and Die in LA, The Departed, or Psycho; it’s the way the whole scene plays out, an entire act in itself where we watch Wayne stand for what the Western is really all about and Dern destroy it. This scene is one of the best of cinema.
I feel that anyone who doesn’t think John Wayne was a good actor (I hate to make judgements but…) either 1. Hasn’t seen the right Wayne movies which would be this one, The Searchers, The Quiet Man, Long Voyage Home, Fort Apache, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 2. Or doesn’t really understand film acting. All one has to do is study this film scene after scene to see the complexity of his performance, how varied and nuanced his portrayals can be.
This movie is as good as it gets.
I have major mixed feelings about this film. On one level, I find it incredibly amusing and entertaining. On another level, I think it’s phony.
Why? Well, I just don’t believe a lot of the scenes and characters’ actions, especially Ford’s cattle man. For instance, I don’t buy it when Ford prescribes no punishment or condemnation of the rattle snake incident. I’ve seen a lot of cattle drive movies (the best being The Cowboys and Red River) and this just comes off as false. It goes even further when he stands by the grave of Strother Martin and says something to the effect of, “Does anyone know what to say?”. Wait a second! Is this the first time this experienced cowboy has ever buried one of his men? That’s how the scene reads and it comes off as the screenwriter’s desire for drama over his commitment to authenticity.
Later on in the film, when Ford supposedly starts to see himself and his own faults in Lemmon’s imitation and turns to toughness, it feels again like the screenwriter/director making things happen versus letting them happen. The turns of the plot drive the characters here, not the other way around, and that doesn’t work for me. I don’t believe that a man so committed in his ways (which don’t make much sense in the first place) would change his ways in a matter of days. To cap it off, the film doesn’t really bring any of this to a close. Instead, it kind of forgets about everything it has set up for a charming ending. And this doesn’t work like the big anti-climax of Red River!
It sounds like I hate Cowboy and I don’t. I like a lot of it. I just wish it worked better, especially since it is a Delmer Daves picture. This is no Jubal or 3:10 to Yuma…
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