The Cowboys(1972), directed by Mark Rydell and starring John Wayne, Bruce Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne in lead roles, is a poignant Western that deals with issues of mortality, fatherhood, mentorship and coming-of-age.“Every man wants his children to be better’n he was. You are” . In 1948, John ‘Duke’ Wayne teamed up with eminent director Howard Hawks for the classic Western, “Red River.”
In the film Duke played Tom Dunson, an authoritarian Rancher who’s determined to take his massive herd of cattle from his Texan Ranch to Missouri. But on the way, his foster son, Matthew Garth(Montgomery Clift) rebels against the despotic nature of his father that’s putting the lives of fellow cattle-drivers in danger. Matthew and the rest of the men disarms Dunson, take control of the herd of cattle, and drives them to Kansas, leaving Dunson stranded and all alone in the wilderness.
By the time Dunson catches up with Mathew, the latter has already taken the herd safely to its destination, sold them for a good price, and made his father a rich man. But Dunson still insists on fighting it out with Mathew; in the end, the father realizes his son’s worth and accepts his son as an equal partner in the ranch. Cut to 24 years later, and Director Mark Rydell’s Western, “The Cowboys”: Duke is once again an aging rancher, William ‘Wil’ Andersen, who’s desperately looking to move his cattle from his Double-O ranch in Montana to Belle Fourche- which is 400 miles away.
Unlike Dunson, Wil, though a strict, proud and tough rancher, is no despot. But this time his ranch-hands abandon him even before the cattle drive has begun. There’s a gold rush going on in the territory, and all the men in the region are afflicted with gold fever; they abandon ranch work to go looking for gold. Wil rides into town to seek help from his friend Anse Peterson , who advises him to use schoolboys to move the herd, but after visiting the school and seeing the immature behavior of the boys, Wil decided against using them.
But Peterson persists, and the next morning when Wil wakes up, he finds a bunch of schoolkids at his doorstep ready to embark on the drive- thanks to Petersen spreading the word around. Andersen reluctantly tests the boys’ ability to stay on a bucking horse. As the boys successfully take turns, Cimarron, another young man slightly older than the others, rides up. After successfully subduing and riding the test horse, Cimarron gets into a fight with Slim , the oldest of the boys, after Cimarron refers to Slim’s mother as a prostitute.
Standing beside the graves of his two sons (who died many years ago after ‘going bad’), Wil ponders long and hard about taking the boys along for the drive; realizing that he has no other option, he goes to the schoolhouse to tell the boys that he will hire them on for the summer and give each $50 when they reach Belle Fourche. Wil takes the boys under his wing, and starts training them for the long trail ahead. On the first day, Wil trains the boys in roping, branding and herding, and eventually accepts all of them, even the youngest, Hardy Fimps.