Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movies In History: The Cowboys

I love this film.

This 1972 John Wayne film is one of his absolute best, second only to The Searchers (a film I have not yet reviewed in this list).  It's a classic drama, and touches on a Romantic part of our history in a way few other films do.

This running thread, of course deals with movies in history, not movies as great cinema, and so we'll only really look at this film in this context, and looking at it that way, the film does remarkably well, particularly for one filmed when it was.

Set in Montana in the late 1870s or 1880s (the film isn't really clear, other than that it is post Little Big Horn), the film surrounds a cattle drive east across Montana to Belle Fourhe, South Dakota. As rancher Wil Anderson's cow hands have all quit to participate in a gold rush on the Ruby River, he's forced to use actual boys.

The plot device actually only exaggerates a custom that existed at the time, and it is not hard to find examples of very young teenage cowboys participating in drives.  Indeed, going to work and leaving home at that age was not uncommon at that time, and my own grandfather did so at age 13 in the early 1900s.  Anderson's cowboys are, in some instances, very young in this film, but I've seen middle school aged cowboys not much older participate in drives in present times.

In terms of details, the film does a very good job, and the ranching details are mostly correct.  A nice detail in the film depicts a large string of horses being gathered prior to the drives commencing, which is accurate for the era and even now.  The firearms shown for the period are surprisingly correct in an era when they rarely were, and some older arms are shown in use, including one cap and ball Colt revolver.  This is very unusual for a film of this period.

Of course, it isn't perfect.  The clothing is generally correct for the boys, but not for the adults in all cases, as both Anderson and cook Nightlinger are shown wearing cotton jeans and otherwise being dressed in the fashion that Wayne had made popular for cowboy films of this era, but which did not depict dress of the period accurately. Therefore, the film has an interesting mix of correct and incorrect clothing.

All in all, however, this film deserves its place as a classic and does pretty well in terms of historical detail.

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