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.


Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent write up, gave me the itch to watch this again. I"m digging this examination of late period Wayne. Any chance Big Jake is on your list? It's a childhood favorite but I have a feeling my memory is being VERY kind to it.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - I love this movie. I am loving this series of Wayne pieces you are doing as well. In a strange way, this is one of my favorite Wayne performances - because of that vulnerability - which is always there, he was never afraid to "go there" - it's all over his work - but here ... This is a great "movie star" performance. A slamdunk.

The stories of the filming are fascinating to me (I'm sure you've seen the special features?) - and the "clash" between the old-school and the new-school often brought moments like the one with Dern. There were lots of former blacklisted people involved in the production - but Wayne, typically, got along with everyone. There's a great story Mark Rydell tells of coming upon Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne - two men from two different worlds - standing outside the production office and there they were, reciting Sean O'Casey to each other, bonding in their love of that playwright - both of them reciting O'Casey by heart to each other.


Thanks, Jason - gotta pop this one in again.

Hokahey said...

Well done! Your description of the voice is excellent. This is a great film that rises above the run-of-mill John Wayners that were being done around this time.

I saw all of John Wayne's Westerns after The Alamo as they were released in the movies, and I remember being very impressed with this more substantial Wayne feature after seeing Chisum followed by Rio Lobo and Big Jake.

Glad you consider this Wayne's best performance. A good choice. I prefer his performances in The Searchers and The Shootist. His performance in the latter is amazingly touching.

Good comment about how his character listens. I think Wayne was always good at that. Watch The Alamo and note how he stands aside and thoughtfully listens to Widmark's Bowie and Harvey's Travis, allowing them to take center stage.

I also think that Wayne's slow, broken delivery of lines signified that he was portraying that his character was really thinking about the words he was saying. His lines come off as thoughtful, not merely recited.

Thanks for these two great posts on my favorite actor!

Jason Bellamy said...

Bryce: I'd like to see Big Jake and The Shootist sometime relatively soon. Don't have them in-hand at the moment, but will likely write up at least one of them in the next month or so (I hope).

Sheila: I don't think the issue is whether Wayne was afraid to "go there" and be vulnerable. I think the issue is that in so many films that vulnerability didn't translate very well. To paraphrase what Matt Zoller Seitz said the other day about his reaction to Natalie Portman's Black Swan persona, I often find myself believing that a Wayne character is vulnerable because I know that's what the movie and Wayne are going for, but I don't always feel it. Here, you feel it.

I haven't watched the DVD extras yet, but I'd like to at some point. But I did end up throwing The Cowboys back in the DVD player for the second time in a week to enjoy it all over again. There are so many little moments that I love:

The conversation with Anse, the trips to Miss Ellen's class, the conversations with his wife (so touching!), the moment at his sons' grave, the moment when he lets the horses out of the corral, and so on.

Hokahey: I want to watch The Alamo again fairly soon. But without being able to picture the scene you referenced, sometimes I felt like Wayne was properly giving space to the other actor but that he was already thinking of his next line while they were talking -- his first scene with Mattie in True Grit would be an example of that. It ends up making some of his expressions and reactions feel choreographed instead of spontaneous. But, in The Cowboys, as you said, he really seems to be considering his words, very much in the moment.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Let me clarify: I wasn't disagreeing with your comment. I agree that here he shows something very different - and more openly so. I just feel that one of his defining characteristics is not the swagger/the manliness - but his vulnerability (which I can see in that first amazing closeup in Stagecoach - you can see the breath in his throat - he's available to the camera). But yes: here, it's a real crowd-pleasing performance in a more conventional vein where he really gets to let that side out.

There are stories of how during breaks all of the kids in the movie would literally be climbing ALL OVER him. He'd be trying to eat his lunch or smoke a cigarette and he'd have kids on his arms, clinging to his legs, climbing up his back. I love that image. It speaks well of him. Kids know. Kids get who is accessible and who is not.

I put up an anecdote on my site a while back from Mark Rydell - a moment where he lost his cool and yelled at John Wayne - and how it all played out. You might be interested:


Bruce Reid said...

"[I]t's one of the rare times that one of Wayne’s characters is killed on screen and the only time one of them is shot in the back"

Sorry for the nitpick on such a fine write-up, but one of your upcoming viewings famously ends with Wayne shot while his back is turned.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sheila: I haven't read that piece yet, but I definitely will! Thanks for providing the link.

Bruce: Well, shit. Thanks for the correction. Maybe it was the first time he was shot in the back? I thought I remembered learning that factoid from TCM or something. Should have done more research. I'll amend that paragraph. Glad you pointed that out!