Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Littler Big Man: The Cowboys
An actor’s voice is like an athlete’s legs. Once it goes, the magic tends to go with it. That’s why Sean Connery remained an arresting on-screen presence into his 60s and why Harrison Ford hasn’t been able to do the same. The former retained his foghorn-like voice, while the latter has sounded for years like wheezing fireplace bellows. Actors can grow gray and wrinkled, they can become hunched and rigid in their movements, but nothing reveals an actor’s age quite like a fading voice. That’s why it’s difficult to watch John Wayne in The Cowboys without feeling tinges of sadness, because by 1972 the iconic drawl that was once as thick and smooth as honey was growing thin and rough, reminding us of his mortality. (Indeed, seven years later Wayne died of stomach cancer.) And yet within the film Wayne’s raspy voice is something of a gift, first because it’s appropriate for the portrayal of an over-the-hill cattleman, and more importantly because it frees us up to appreciate Wayne’s acting.
If Wayne’s oft-imitated baritone was part of what made him so charming and so singular, it was also a handicap, preventing him from disappearing into his roles when the occasion called for it. Wayne’s booming voice often made him bigger than the character he was playing, and sometimes even bigger than the scene itself. It shook the walls and became part of the set decoration. It was the perfect voice for shooting in locations like Monument Valley, as John Ford liked to do, but in intimate scenes it could overwhelm. And so when I point out that Wayne’s Wil Anderson always seems smaller that room he’s standing in, that’s what I mean, and the relative softness of Wayne’s voice is the reason why. When Anderson has a drink with his buddy Anse (Slim Pickens), or sits in the classroom of Miss Price (Allyn Ann McLerie), or has a quiet conversation with his adoring wife (Sarah Cunningham) – great moments, all of them – he’s the most imposing figure in the room, as Wayne’s characters always were, but he doesn’t hover over them like a Western titan, which makes his performance here pleasantly unusual. In The Cowboys, Wayne does some of the best listening of his career, and the fact that his voice isn’t echoing off the walls when someone else is talking might have a little to do with that. Regardless, Wayne is something in this film that he almost never was over his distinguished career, possibly because we wouldn’t allow it: vulnerable.
It’s a new outfit, but he wears it well. For my money, this is the best performance of Wayne’s career, and it comes in a film that’s vastly underrated. Based on a novel by William Dale Jennings, who helped write the screenplay, The Cowboys is the story of a cattleman who in a last-ditch effort to drive his horse and cattle herds 400 miles to market is forced to hire 11 rookie cowboys – emphasis on boys. His hired hands are school kids, baby-faced teens familiar with open books not open ranges. But in an area vacated by men with gold fever they’re the only workforce available. So Wil begrudgingly signs them up, and over the course of the journey they learn how to be men, and Wil rediscovers what it means to be a father-figure and more. If that makes The Cowboys sound like a Disney movie, it might explain why this film is rarely mentioned among Wayne’s best, as sentiment tends to be the enemy of critical respect. But if you can avoid the knee-jerk reaction to associate a movie about children with childishness, The Cowboys proves its worth, mostly thanks to Wayne, but also due to the unfussy direction of Mark Rydell, a sneaky-good screenplay, the best John Williams score that you don’t know by heart, a charming supporting performance by Roscoe Lee Browne as trail cook Jebediah Nightlinger and a chilling supporting turn by Bruce Dern as the villain with no name.
(Spoilers ahead, in case that’s necessary.)
Dern might seem an unlikely Western villain, and maybe that’s why his performance is so imposing. Scrawny and unkempt with curly hair that hangs to his shoulders and a cowboy hat with the front of the brim bent up toward the sky, Dern’s character doesn’t appear to be the strongest man in his gang or the smartest, but he’s vicious from head to toe and utterly unhinged, which is why he’s in charge. What makes him particularly dangerous is that he’s desperate to prove himself, even if that means picking on terrified kids. The standoff between Anderson and Dern’s “Long Hair” is the scene people usually talk about when they talk about The Cowboys, because it's one of the rare times that one of Wayne’s characters is killed on screen -- shot in the back, no less. (“They’ll hate you for this,” Wayne reported told Dern, referring to his audience of adoring fans. “But they’ll love me in Berkeley,” Dern responded, in reference to Wayne’s support of the Vietnam War.) But the scene deserves to be appreciated beyond its value as trivia because it includes some of the film’s best images. Before the brawl, there’s a terrific medium shot that puts Long Hair at the right edge of the frame, ordering Anderson to pick up the gun belt at his feet and walk it over to him, and Anderson at the left edge, standing statue-still, refusing to comply. A little while later, Rydell captures Long Hair and one of Anderson’s young cowboys in a creepy close-up that frames their faces in parallel – a look of pure madness on one side and pure innocence on the other. And then there’s the close-up of Long Hair after he’s gunned down Anderson, his eyes wide, his mouth open, his face bloody – a chilling portrait of evil and cowardice.
In movies like these, evil and cowardice are meant to be vanquished, and as before the only people around to do the dirty work are Anderson’s young cowboys. Their mission, as they state it, is to get back the herd and finish the job, but the reality is that over the closing minutes of the film Wayne’s cowboys become the Magnificent Eleven, picking off men from Long Hair’s gang one-by-one until a final climactic shootout in which they lure the final members of the gang into a kill zone. It’s the most problematic portion of the film, less because it strains credulity and than because it asks us to delight in watching these boys become killers. The first time I saw this movie, at the age of 11 or so, I found the whole thing exhilarating. At that age I was drawn to anything that suggested that kids could mix it up with adults and come out on top. But more than 20 years later the bigger picture is impossible to ignore. Over the course of the film, the wary boys become confident young men, which is admirable, but as a result they also stop being boys far too soon, which is heartbreaking. As “Long Hair” meets his death, Rydell stares into each boy’s face and it’s obvious that while triumph is theirs innocence has lost. Through their metamorphosis, Anderson’s death and Wayne’s weakening voice, The Cowboys is a poignant reminder that eventually all good things must come to an end.