The Cowboys

The Cowboys is a 1972 American western film starring John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Slim Pickens, Colleen Dewhurst, and Bruce Dern. Robert Carradine made his film debut with fellow child actor Stephen Hudis as cowboys. It was filmed at various locations in New Mexico, Colorado, and at Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank, California.

The Cowboys
Film poster
Directed byMark Rydell
Produced byMark Rydell
Screenplay by
Story byfrom the novel The Cowboys by William Dale Jennings
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyRobert L. Surtees
Edited by
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • January 13, 1972 (1972-01-13)
Running time
131 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6 million
Box office$19,250,211[1][2]

Based on the novel by William Dale Jennings, the screenplay was written by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr., and Jennings and directed by Mark Rydell.

The film is also notable for being one of the few in which John Wayne’s character is killed and the only one where he is killed by the main antagonist.


When his ranch hands abandon him to join a gold rush, aging rancher William ‘Wil’ Andersen (John Wayne) is forced to find replacement drovers for his upcoming 400-mile (640 km) long cattle drive. He rides into deserted Bozeman, Montana. There, his friend Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens) suggests using local schoolboys. Andersen visits the school but departs unconvinced by the boys' immature behavior.

The next morning, the boys show up at Andersen's ranch to volunteer for the drive. Andersen reluctantly tests the boys' ability to stay on a bucking horse. As the boys successfully take turns, Cimarron (A Martinez), 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 (Robert Carradine), the oldest of the boys, after Slim refers to Cimarron's mother as a prostitute. Andersen, though impressed by Cimarron's abilities, has misgivings because of his angry nature and sends him away. With no other options, Andersen decides to hire the boys.

While Andersen and the boys prepare for the cattle drive, a group of mysterious men led by Asa "Long Hair" Watts (Bruce Dern) show up asking for work. Andersen catches Long Hair in a lie about his past and refuses to hire them. Jebediah "Jeb" Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), a Black camp cook arrives with a chuck wagon, making Anderson's trail crew complete.

Under Andersen's continued tutelage, the boys learn to rope, as well as brand and herd the cattle and horses, and the group later officially sets off on the cattle drive. Much to Andersen's concern, Cimarron follows the drive from afar. However, while crossing a river, Slim slips off his horse and, unable to swim, starts to drown. Although Slim is saved by Cimarron, Andersen berates one of the boys, Bob, for his stuttering problem (which nearly caused Slim's death as he was unable to alert Andersen in time) and delivers an ultimatum to either quit stuttering immediately or else go back home alone. Bob then swears at Andersen repeatedly in anger and loses his stutter in the process. Satisfied, Andersen decides to let Cimarron and Bob stay.

As the cattle drive progresses, the boys steal Nightlinger's whiskey and drink it, all of them getting severely drunk. Afterwards, one boy named Charlie falls off his horse and is trampled to death by the herd. Cimarron and another boy named Homer encounter a group of traveling prostitutes led by Madame Kate Collingwood but leave after Nightlinger intervenes.

Slowly, the boys become rather good cowhands through their experiences and Andersen's guidance, impressing both Andersen and Nightlinger. Meanwhile, one of the boys, Dan, discovers a gang of cattle rustlers led by Long Hair are secretly following the herd from a distance but keeps quiet after Long Hair threatens to slit his throat if he says anything to Andersen.

Soon after, the chuck wagon throws a wheel. While the rest of the boys continue to drive the herd, Nightlinger stays behind with Homer to fix the wagon. Long Hair then announces his presence to Andersen by openly paralleling the herd with his gang. Knowing the rustlers are after the herd, Andersen sends a boy named Weedy back to find Nightlinger, with instructions to make his way back to the herd with his rifle as soon as possible. When Nightlinger and Weedy don't show up several hours later, Andersen gathers the boys together and tells them that no matter what happens, if they act like boys and don’t resist, the rustlers should spare their lives.

That night, Long Hair's gang surrounds Andersen and the boys in their camp with a captured and beaten Weedy. After forcing Andersen to surrender his gun, Long Hair announces his intention to steal the herd and taunts Dan and the rest of the boys, who follow Andersen's instructions and don’t resist. When Long Hair crushes Dan's glasses, Andersen intervenes and tells Long Hair his argument is with him and not the boys, leading to a brutal fist fight while the boys and the rustlers watch. Long Hair initially dominates the fight, but Andersen ultimately gains the upper hand by beating Long Hair repeatedly against a tree. An infuriated Long Hair then grabs a gun from one of his men and shoots the unarmed Andersen in both arms and the leg before shooting him twice more in the torso. The rustlers steal the herd and abandon the boys.

The following morning, Nightlinger and Homer catch up to the group to find the boys tending to the dying Andersen. Before he dies, Andersen tells the boys with his last breaths how proud he is of all of them, that every man wants his children to be better than he was, and that they have become so. Following Andersen's funeral and on a prearranged signal, the boys overpower Nightlinger and seize the firearms stored in his chuck wagon, vowing to avenge Andersen's death and finish the trail drive as he hired them to do.

When the group catches up to the herd and the rustlers, Nightlinger offers to help the boys make a plan to take back the herd. Using ruses and trickery, Nightlinger and the boys kill three of the outlaws and lure Long Hair and the rest of his gang into an ambush. In the ensuing shootout, all of the rustlers are killed while Long Hair finds his leg broken beneath his fallen horse and tangled up in the harness. Long Hair pleads for help from Dan, but Cimarron shoots a gun in the air that spooks the horse and drags the screaming Long Hair to his apparent death.

After the boys complete the drive to Belle Fourche and sell the cattle, they use some of the proceeds to pay a stonemason to carve a marker with Andersen's name and the legend "Beloved Husband and Father", in clear reference to the position that Andersen had earned in their lives. They place the marker in the approximate location of Andersen's grave and head for home as the credits roll.


  • John Wayne as Wil Andersen
  • Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger
  • Bruce Dern as Long Hair
  • Colleen Dewhurst as Kate Collingwood (traveling madam)
  • Slim Pickens as Anse Peterson
  • Lonny Chapman as Mr. Weems
  • Sarah Cunningham as Annie Andersen
  • Allyn Ann McLerie as Ellen Price (a teacher)
  • Alfred Barker Jr. as Clyde "Fats" Potter (Cowboy)
  • Nicholas Beauvy as Dan (Cowboy)
  • Steve Benedict as Steve (Cowboy)
  • Robert Carradine as Slim Honeycutt (Cowboy)
  • Norman Howell as Weedy (Cowboy)
  • Stephen R. Hudis as Charlie Schwartz (Cowboy)
  • Sean Kelly as Stuttering Bob (Cowboy)
  • A Martinez as Cimarron (Cowboy)
  • Clay O'Brien as Hardy Fimps (Cowboy)
  • Sam O'Brien as Jimmy Phillips (Cowboy)
  • Mike Pyeatt as Homer Weems (Cowboy)
  • Charles Tyner as Stonemason
  • Matt Clark as Smiley
  • Jerry Gatlin as Howdy
  • Walter Scott as Okay
  • Wallace Brooks as Red Tucker
  • Charise Cullin as Elizabeth
  • Larry Randles as Ben
  • Larry Finley as Jake
  • Jim Burk as Pete
  • Ralph Volkie as Ralphie (uncredited)
  • Lonny Chapman as Homer's Father
  • Maggie Costain as Phoebe
  • Dick Farnsworth as Henry Williams
  • Wallace Brooks as Red Tucker
  • Collette Poeppel as Rosemary
  • Norman Howell Sr. as Jim's Father
  • Rita Hudis as Charlie's Mother
  • Margaret Kelly as Bob's Mother
  • Fred Brookfield as Rustler
  • Tap Canutt as Rustler
  • Chuck Courtney as Rustler
  • Gary Epper as Rustler
  • Tony Epper as Rustler
  • Kent Hays as Rustler
  • J.R. Randall as Rustler
  • Henry Wills as Rustler
  • Joe Yrigoyen as Rustler


The Cowboys earned generally positive reviews from critics, earning a 75% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film received praise for the musical score, original plot, and John Wayne's performance.

In addition, several critics debated the film's implication that boys become men or confirm their manhood through acts of violence and vengeance. Jay Cocks of Time Magazine and Pauline Kael of The New York Times were especially critical of these aspects of the film.[3]

Film historian Emanuel Levy noted that Wayne frequently appears in a fatherlike role:

"Aware of his repetitive screen roles as a paternal figure, [Wayne] said the movie was based on a formula that worked in Goodbye Mr. Chips and Sands of Iwo Jima. In all three films, an adult takes a group of youngsters and initiates them into manhood by instructing them the 'right' skills and values. Wayne did not hesitate to appear in The Cowboys, despite the fact that 'no actor in his right mind, would try to match the antics of eleven kids on screen,' but for him it became 'the greatest experience of my life.'"[4]

The film won the Bronze Wrangler Award (best theatrical motion picture of the year) from the Western Heritage Awards.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Television adaptation

In 1974, Warner Bros. developed The Cowboys as a television series for ABC starring Jim Davis, Diana Douglas, and Moses Gunn. David Dortort, best known for Bonanza, The High Chaparral, and The Restless Gun, produced the series. Only A Martinez, Robert Carradine, Sean Kelly and Clay O'Brien were in both the film and the television series; the first two reprised their roles from the film, but the latter two did not. At the last moment, ABC decided to change the show's format by reducing its run time from one hour to a half hour, a change which made it difficult to tell stories effectively with the show's large cast. Only 13 episodes were filmed before the series was cancelled.

See also


  1. "The Cowboys, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
  2. "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 44
  3. "The Cowboys (1972)". Retrieved 2010-10-16.
  4. "The Cowboys: The Making of the John Wayne Western".; Retrieved on 2014-05-17 from
  5. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  6. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
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