The Cowboys BRD
(Mark Rydell - 1971)
The Score Card
The Movie : 7.5
The story is a simple one: Wayne is a rancher whose hands have succumbed to gold fever and left him without help to drive his 1500 head of cattle to market 400 miles away. Reluctantly he agrees to train ten or eleven schoolboys, none older than 15, one barely half his height, to help him manage the two-month drive. While not without some riding experience, the boys are fairly ignorant about the trail, so they, and us, can expect the drive to be an ordeal. But even before they leave, we can see serious trouble looming in the form of likely bad guys when Bruce Dern and friend are rejected by Wayne as hired help for the liars they are. The light touch Rydell and his writers have with the boys never gets mired into sentimentality – this is no Disney movie of the period. When things turn south, and they do, Rydell doesn't flinch, and the boys find the necessary grit to do what needs to be done. There's a traditional formula that needs to be observed, and Rydell & Co. do so - perhaps too handily and too easily in the end. To some the resolution will seem a satisfying conclusion, to others, its weakness. On this, my first screening of the movie, my feeling is that "growth" came at a high price: namely, by a method not dissimilar from the evil forces opposed to them.
Image : 9 - One of the many things I like about the image is how clear it is when Wayne is seen in close-up – like they went to extra trouble to present every nook and craggy. When the camera pulls back, the texture of his vest and leather accoutrements are downright palpable. The indoor lighting of the classroom is a complete fraud (looks like the roof was taken off just for this shoot) but they are also some of the most gorgeous images in the movie: saturated color, deep focus, great textures. The vistas with large open sky struck me as a tad overexposed and soft, but there was an impression of endless prairie that a more saturated picture might not have offered. The BD image is terrific and hard to imagine we shall see it bettered in our lifetime.
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Audio & Music : 7/9
Let's start with the music: John Williams wrote the score, and it's a rouser, very much in the Elmer Bernstein tradition. Remember, The Cowboys is pre-Star Wars and John Williams was not yet a household name. He had done another film for Rydell, The Reivers, just a few years earlier, but prior to these, he worked mostly, though not entirely, for TV. This score pretty much nailed Williams as a film score composer, going on to write Earthquake , The Towering Inferno and Jaws, then on to Infinity and Beyond. But it's the small Vivaldi piece for guitar that really nails this movie as a sensitive and well thought-out film. The Vivaldi not only functions as a respite, and replaces what would have been another one of those singing interludes that dogs so many a film from the fifties (The Searchers being one), but it suggests a care for the person who plays it in the movie and a world beyond cows that might someday be his that another director would have overlooked. The score is woven cleanly into other real and foley effects for a gratifying complement to a thoughtful screenplay.
Empathy : 9
One of the better images on high definition disc, a stirring score (with its reflective moments), and a thoughtful script by Irving Ravetz, Harriet Frank, Jr and novelist Jennings, with a language of its own (not quite the poetry of True Grit, but effective nonetheless): all add up to a satisfying couple of hours.
Operations : 7
Easy to load, with straightforward menus and easy to use, with slightly expanding, untitled thumbnails for the individual chapters. Downgraded score for not taking advantage of the BD medium.
Extras : 4
The cast reunion featurette is reasonably clear, but the unapologetically designated "vintage" featurette The Breaking of Boys and the Making of Men looks like it was copied off an 8mm projection at a boy's camp: it is downright pathetic and is worth viewing, if at all, only on a CRT. Unhappily there wasn't much of a cast present (only 4 of the grown cowboys). Rydell's observations are more a love song to Wayne than an informative commentary.
July 20th, 2007