Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Cowboys’: John Wayne as Camp Counselor

May 22, 2020 Updated: May 22, 2020

GP | | Adventure, Drama, Western | 13 January 1972 (USA)

“The Cowboys” was recommended to me for a Popcorn and Inspiration treatment. It’s got the two iconic Johns of Westerns: John Wayne in the lead and a John Williams score—it doesn’t get anymore American-Western than that. But I had my reservations.

John Wayne and his cowboys
John Wayne and his cowboys, in “The Cowboys.” (Warner Bros)

Having been raised exceedingly liberal, I was never a John Wayne fan growing up. Never saw his films; never got the whole iconic thing. To my young self, he was a paunchy, toupee-wearing, bigoted-looking individual.

When I saw the 1998 movie “Smoke Signals,” I guffawed about a song called “John Wayne’s Teeth.” Two Coeur d’Alene tribal teens from an Idahoan rez get racially disrespected on a bus, and one says to the other, “The cowboys always win.”

The other says, “No they don’t. You know, in all those movies, you never saw John Wayne’s teeth? I think there’s something wrong when you don’t see a guy’s teeth…” Then, the song: first, traditional Native American drumming, “thump-thump, thump-thump,” and then the lyrics, “John Wayne’s teeth, John Wayne’s teeth, are they plastic? Are they steel?” I found that hilarious.

But 1972’s “The Cowboys” set me straight about John Wayne.

I researched Wayne. The first thing I dug up was, when confronted with the fact that his hair wasn’t real, Wayne responded: “Well sir, that’s real hair. Not mine, but real hair.” That’s fun. I thought, “Maybe I like green eggs and ham. Maybe I like John Wayne.” Ever seen a photo of the young Wayne? Total movie star. And if you find the right shot, you can see his teeth. And John Wayne’s teeth look quite fabulous, actually.

The Cowboys

John Wayne plays William Andersen, an old rancher faced with sudden labor loss due to a nearby gold rush, happening just before the annual cattle drive that normally nets him enough ducats to pay all his bills.

His friend (Slim Pickens) suggests he hire the boys in the local schoolhouse. Having no alternative, Andersen agrees, not looking forward to teaching and camp-counseling a pack of boys, ages ranging from 9–15.

Headed out into the Arizona outback, the group is soon joined by African American trail cook Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne).

black man in cowboy hat and brown scarf in "The Cowboys"
Roscoe Lee Browne in “The Cowboys.” (Warner Bros)

The literal cow-“boys face many hardships on the cattle drive, but they still manage to do boy things like stealing Andersen’s whiskey bottle. Andersen and Jebediah, like a couple of good camp counselors, allow the boys their sneaky “rebellion,” only to administer next morning, syrup of ipecac (as “medicine”) and talk loudly about greasy food. Which has the desired effect of a mass barf-a-thon. That’s fun.

A summer of brutally hard work, hunger, camping in the elements, and rattlesnake danger will certainly turn boys into men. In this case, however, it appears to supernaturally turn them into a seasoned platoon of modern-day special operations warriors.

They get stalked by a group of about 15 cattle rustlers led by psychopathic, fresh-out-of-prison Asa Watts (Bruce Dern).

Epoch Times Photo
Bruce Dern in “The Cowboys.” (Warner Bros)

After the rustlers steal the cattle, the boys go get their confiscated guns, and this bunch of diminutive 11-year-olds, never having killed a man before, start acting like they’re in Delta Force.

They lay sophisticated plans (coached by Nightlinger). They ambush, shoot baddies, don their vastly oversized clothes, gallop around as very unrecognizable decoys, lure hardened criminals into the woods, and dispatch them forthwith! Bang-ity-bang! Children: 15; experienced jailbird men: 0.

More on Wayne

In the 1950s, John Wayne stood for everything conservative America embraced. Now, Wayne’s legacy is reviled by liberalist ideology. “The Cowboys” is chock-full of things that current “political correctness” would find shocking.

For example, patriarchal Wayne stirs up a stewpot of “toxic masculinity,” which in our troubled (and clueless) times can simply mean allowing a group of boys to spit, swear, and sleep in the dirt. The token black man is in the service industry. That cattle-herding looks like child labor. Kids shoot guns. Subservient women actually say, “It’s a man’s world.” Oh, and the branding of cows.

Today, these are all considered bad things. It’s just interesting to note how “The Cowboys” displays long-ago Hollywood’s promotion of conservative values. Now, it promotes the liberal and progressive agenda.

I just wish the cowboys had been in their late teens in order to put the rustler massacre in the realm of possibility. Boys do turn into men after enduring extreme hardship, but these wee dudes smoking a bunch of hardened criminals is a stretch. Probably pretty fun for boys to watch, though!

boy in front of blackboard in "The Cowboys"
Sam O’Brien plays a boy too short to go on the cattle drive (see line above his head) in “The Cowboys.” (Warner Bros)

‘The Cowboys’
Director: Mark Rydell
Starring: John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst, Robert Carradine, Slim Pickens
Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 13, 1972
Rated: 3 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch