Cattle rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne) has hit a snag, and a pretty big one at that: the men who were supposed to be going along with him to herd his cattle to market them hundreds of miles away have decided to go on a gold rush instead. They tell Wil they will be back in a few weeks, but that's not good enough to him as he has to be away as soon as possible if he wants to beat the approach of winter, so has to start searching for new men to hire, only to find that there are none available. His friend Anse (Slim Pickens) has a solution, however... how about recruiting the boys from the local school now that the term is drawing to a close?
There's a famous twist in The Cowboys that I will not reveal, but the results of it as far as the plot goes still echo today, and many find this film's apparent endorsement of violence, expecially with children involved, to be deeply unpalatable. The ironic thing is that director Mark Rydell didn't see it in those terms at all, as although Wayne had his right wing and pro-Vietnam politics well-publicised, Rydell didn't share those views, and the movie was intended more as a rites of passage adventure. Nevertheless, parallels between turning the youngsters into pistol wielding, grim-faced men's men and the war which was still going on in South East Asia were difficult to ignore.
Wayne really wanted this role, and you can see why as it is one of the better ones from his last decade of movie making, casting him as a hard-edged but finally decent and goodhearted father figure - or grandfather figure, considering his age at the time. The plot makes sure to make it clear that Wil has lost his two sons, and although we never discover why they died so young, it's implicated that he didn't do his job as a parent well enough and they turned bad. So now he has recruited these kids, they become his new offspring and he gets a second chance to redeem himself, teaching them the ways of the world and how to survive it.
Those ways of the world include dealing with bad guys, and up steps Bruce Dern in a part tailor-made for him as the untrustworthy "Long Hair" Watts as the credits would have it. He is evidently the kind of hippy type that John Wayne fans would despise, not because he blithely espouses the tenets of peace and love, but he is the opposite: someone who lies and cheats as an example of the kind of young person they suspected the worst of, and here was Dern to confirm those suspicions. If there was LSD around in the Old West, he would have taken it, we're sure of that. Watts is violent too, so when he offers to help Wil as cattle hands in place of the boys and is turned down, we know that as he walks away grinning menacingly, this is not the last we'll see of him.
Yet actually, most of the running time is taken up with Wil whipping the boys into shape, while they teach him a thing or two about compassion and tolerance. He begins the trek as a stern taskmaster, and the boys don't wish to let him down, so put up with his strict tactics (he cures one kid's stammer by shouting at him!), but softens as the journey goes on, showing a more human side to his long-held grit. Along the way and accompanied by the only other adult, chef Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) who offers sagely advice, the youngsters encounter a roaming band of prostitutes and get their first hangover when they steal a bottle of whisky from the stores, but there's nothing too inappropriate here. Not until the last half hour, that is, and those juveniles learn the meaning of vengeance; it's tough to see the finale as anything other than a sincere endorsement of allowing them to use violence to get their way. Fair enough, Watts wasn't the kind of man who responded to friendly persuasion, but The Cowboys needed a little more self-awareness to truly succeed. At least they didn't cheer at the end, I suppose. Music by John Williams.