The Cowboys

The Cowboys (1971)
Warner Home Video
Cast: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Theatrical Trailer

I'll just start off by mentioning I had never had the opportunity to see Mark Rydell's film "The Cowboys" until recently, and I'm glad I waited, I am thrilled to be able to witness it for the very first time on HD-DVD!

Released in 1972, the film stars John Wayne as a rancher named Wil Anderson. All of his help has taken off in search of gold so he is left with some tough decisions to make. He has somehow got to get his cattle through very extreme conditions across very rough western territory some 400 miles away in order to sell them at a town called Bellfoosh. It is suggested that he hire some local schoolboys, and he is hesitant to do so, but finally begrudgingly visits the local school to see what kind of young men it has to offer. He ends up leaving disappointed, but it turns out the boys catch wind of his offer after he has all but given up, and show up at his ranch to offer their help. All of them are fifteen and younger and the cast includes Sean Kelly as Stuttering Bob Wilson, Stephen Hurdis as Charlie Schwartz and also a feisty immigrant named Cimarron (A Martinez), to name only a few of the eleven. Anderson decides the best way to get rid of them is to filter them out by seeing if any would dare stay ten seconds on a wild horse. They all shock him when each one succeeds. He is a man of his word, though, and the boys prepare to embark on the adventure of their lives.

Before they leave for the treacherous journey we learn that Anderson has lived through the passing of his two sons, and how it has affected him. In this film we have a sadder, wiser Wayne than we have seen before, and he is weary of getting old. In fact he hates it. That is one of the points of the film I feel stands out the most, our hero seems tired and beaten down, and so much more human than we may have seen him in other roles. This is one of Wayne's most honest performances, and I was utterly impressed. We also are introduced to one of the film's other enigmatic and aging cowboys, Jedediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), a black man who shows up to ride along as cook and resident philosopher. Some very funny moments lie ahead as the naïve young men had never even seen a black man before, and it is all dealt with in a very honest and tasteful fashion that would never happen in our modern films. Nightlinger is absolutely essential to the film and his presence adds humor and life to the story. Some of the best scenes are the dialogue between Anderson and Nightlinger and it is fascinating watching the two bond and clash.

After the journey begins (and we are treated to some beautiful scenery and vistas that absolutely shine in high definition!), we also meet one of the most memorable bad guys I have ever seen portrayed in a film of this age. Played to perfection by Bruce Dern, the villain is named Asa Watts. He is a savage out to steal the cattle and has a small army in tow. His confrontation with Anderson shocked me, and I must say that you simply must see this film, because not only is it a great adventure story and a wonderful tale of growing up, but you must see this ending. Quite simply, I loved this movie and can't wait to see it again.

As for the transfer itself, let me tell you, for most of the movie it is a revelation and is extremely detailed and vibrant, the colors are nicely rendered and the clarity is so strikingly detailed that we can see the flies on a horses nostril, and we can see minute details on a boys face way off in the distance, and the dust is portrayed clearly, and all of the majestic scenes of beauty and lush brown cinematography come across brilliantly. At its best, the transfer is awesome in every way, and this level of quality is evident for most of the film. I am sure this is the best the film has ever looked. But it isn't perfect, because in the opening scenes we can detect some imperfections, and the quality kind of jumps around, and some of the dark scenes are a little soft. But I'm sure that all of the flaws are simply because of the film itself and I can tell much love was involved in the restoration. I don't even want to suggest this isn't a wonderful transfer because most of the time I was blown away and not for a second was I distracted from the film during times when it showed its limitations. The best way to describe it is that it starts off a tad bit murky and gets better and clearer as the movie moves along. Excellent picture quality, if not a little inconsistent.

As for the sound, we have a decent sounding Dolby Digital Plus track that isn't very aggressive in the surround department. It really shines the most during the wonderful music segments. The wonderful score was done by none other than John Williams himself, and it is a excellent to listen to for the first time. We also have the overture and intermission musical sequences included, (I love it when discs include those, by the way). There are a few parts in the movie when I detect a slight audible hiss in the center speaker, but once again I'm sure they did their best. The sound isn't perfect, but is very good. I get the feeling this film wasn't in the best shape and I only wish we had a special feature about the restoration.

As for special features, I am impressed by the ones we have here and wish more films would trim down extras and only keep the very informative ones. First, we have a commentary by Mark Rydell. Next, we have 'The Cowboys: Together Again' (28:36), which is an excellent featurette, because I wanted to see the children who played these characters now as adults. They have some truly fascinating and very funny recollections about working with John Wayne, a controversial (politically) and larger than life icon who stood almost six feet four. I am intrigued by Wayne and have decided to pursue the best book I can find about him, and seek out more of his films, because I am becoming quite the fan, I must say. This feature is really fun to watch, and is also very informative and entertaining, I usually hate these types of featurettes. Another thing that impressed me was the image quality of this feature, I had to check the box to see if it was in high def or not, because it looks that good. It is in 16:9 anamorphic, but when it shows scenes of the movie it is correctly displayed at 2:4.1. I am so tired of seeing non anamorphic featurettes and incorrect aspect ratios; I think the same level of care that goes into the film should also go into the special features. Well this feature rises to the occasion, even if it's not in high def. The other feature is 'The Breaking Of Boys And The Making Of Men' (8:49) which is a vintage film promo from the seventies which shows some truly rare footage of the making of the film and is quite extensive. This is a real treat to watch and is a golden find for fans of the film. Both of these features really rise above the level of quality I have seen on other discs. We also have the Theatrical Trailer, which is a good reminder of how much better we are now at putting movie trailers together; this one gives away the whole movie!

So, in closing, I really loved this movie, and am thrilled to have discovered it. The HD-DVD by Warner Brothers has simply got to be the best the film has ever looked on home video or even on the big screen, while perhaps not as shining as "The Searchers", this transfer is still very impressive and I highly recommend it.