Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

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The Cowboys poster

By Scott Ross

There was probably no adequate way a movie could be made of William Dale Jennings’ 1971 novel The Cowboys that would not have been a diminution of the material, in 1972 or even now. Possibly someone in Europe, where audiences are less prudish, and don’t go insane at the suggestion that children are anything less than entirely innocent (or neuter) could have managed it better — especially in Italy, which had at the time a feel for Western authenticity and a notable lack of squeamishness. Certainly an artist, of any nationality, might have made a noble stab at the thing, but if the man you hire for the job is Mark Rydell, the last thing you’re interested in is art.

And the problem isn’t merely the sudden and horrible (if, in context, wholly explicable) intrusion into the narrative of a violence that, in a picture populated by adults, would not have raised a dust cloud but which, as encountered in this story, set some critics’ hair on fire… although that would have been enough of a challenge. Nor is the difficulty wholly or even substantially to do with the inevitable difficulties attendant on adapting prose as rich and masterful as Jennings’; one accepts that a movie is not a book, however much one may regret the loss either of authorial voice or of detail. (The Cowboys is not a lengthy book, but there was much to lose, and the filmmakers lost far more than they needed to.) The major obstacle to producing an acceptable adaptation of this story has to do with what Jennings understood, both about the realities of the West, and about adolescent boys in it.

That Jennings was a Westerner by birth, and a founding member of both the Mattachine Society and ONE, Incorporated (something that, had John Wayne known it, would likely have given him apoplexy) I feel certain contributed to his understanding, on any number of levels. The book is not merely a “revisionist” Western — which in this case merely translates to a certain documentary realism, within a somewhat fanciful structure — but an attempt by its author to capture for a wide readership the authentic vernacular of the time and place. In a lengthy glossary addendum Jennings explains those terms in ways that, while never more than suggestive, and often eloquent, likely caused the pure of heart to blanch. He defines the word “bunky” (or “bunkie”) for example both in the sense of what we think was meant, and which slang term we still use, as well as by its largely unspoken meaning, as someone with whom a man (or boy) shared a bedroll for more than merely warmth or convenience.* In his preface to this glossary Jennings, a quarter of a century before Annie Proulx explained the obvious to a mass audience, observed wryly, “It seems unwarranted to assume that no such thing existed. Men do not cease to be men simply because there are no women around. Yet western historians and Hollywood would have us believe that erectile tissue was completely missing in the metabolism of the West.” Tissue belonging, let’s remember, to adolescent boys; not for nothing does the drive’s black cook Charlie Nightlinger (re-Christened “Jebediah” in the picture) note that their blankets are so crinkly he’s surprised they can roll them up in the morning.

Yet Jennings first wrote The Cowboys as a treatment for a potential John Wayne movie, which he then reconsidered as a novel, so one has to assume he understood that much of what he was trying to portray would inevitably fall by the wayside. (That he envisioned Wil Andersen, the ageing rancher at the heart of the story, as a role for Wayne seems obvious from even a cursory perusal of the book; you can hear Wayne reciting that dialogue as you read it.) Not that the author ever depicts anything sexual between any of the boys; it’s all implication, as when Wil wonders which of them will become bunkies on the trail; he’s been around long enough to know the score, and one imagines he had some experience of his own as a youth. Still, one can hear the panicked studio heads as they contemplated Jennings’ first draft screenplay: “Jesus Christ! We’ve got a picture where we kill off John Wayne three-quarters through, have pubescent and adolescent boys getting drunk and running into whores and then later turning into killers! You want to imply they might have humped each other too?”

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That Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, Rydell’s screenwriters on the previous The Reivers, get a credit over Jennings in the main titles is telling. And while I admire the Ravetches’ work, especially for Martin Ritt, and most especially on Norma Rae, I can’t help feeling that all the little “improvements” in the picture, and which collectively diminish it, are theirs. For all I know, Jennings’ script may not have been filmable; but the Ravetches’ seems to have been all too filmable. Put simply: What’s good in the picture comes from Jennings’ book. What’s bad comes from someplace else.

Like the wholly gratuitous manner in which little Charlie Schwartz (Stephen R. Hudis) announces he’s Jewish, or the unnecessary plot-twist involving the chief villain menacing one of the boys and swearing him to secrecy. While the people involved at least retained the sequence in which the boys get drunk on Nightlinger’s private stash,† even retaining his and Wil’s eavesdropping on them and having the bottle passed to them in the dark, they made a fundamental miscalculation in stranding Wil entirely among strangers. In Jennings’ novel, while Andersen is forced by circumstance to take on as hands for a crucial cattle-drive from Bozeman, Montana to Belle Fourche a dozen un-tested schoolboys (plus a slightly older, and more seasoned, Mexican youth) Nightlinger is his regular cook, and not, as in the picture, a last-minute substitution. The screenwriters do worse than put Wil at a disadvantage; they rob him of a needed contemporary — a comrade who knows him at least as well as he knows himself, if not better, and with whom a sense of shared history imbues every sentence the pair exchange. That they re-tailored Nightlinger from a colorfully sub-literate former slave to the more cultivated and urbane figure of the movie likely had to do with liberal guilt as much as the casting of the ever-delicious Roscoe Lee Browne, who inhabits the role as completely and comfortably as the unaccustomed but attractive beard he sports on his face.

The Cowboys - Roscoe Lee Browne

Roscoe Lee Browne as Nightlinger.

The preparation for the drive takes up nearly half the novel, and that length is necessary. The picture gets the team out of Bozeman pretty quickly. But worse than this loss is that the boys themselves are less individually delineated in the movie than in the book, a necessary telescoping that nonetheless hurts the narrative and the growing sense as it goes along of Wil’s hands becoming a team. Why the group was reduced from a round dozen (plus Cimmaron, the Mexican) to 11 is anyone’s guess, although the most obvious elision is the boy nicknamed “Horny Jim” in the book and whose compelling erotic spellbinding is entirely imaginative. Jim would have been no more welcome in 1972 than the sequence with the traveling madam and her small Conestoga train of whores. They make an appearance, at mid-point, the procurer given husky life by the redoubtable Colleen Dewhurst, but her purpose is less clear. In the novel, Nightlinger arranges cut-rate initiations for the boys, and it is here as much as in any implicit homoeroticism that the Warner Brothers suits must have put their collective feet down. As it stands now in the movie, the scene with Dewhurst is merely an intriguingly brief, and not especially useful, diversion.

Killing little Charlie Schwartz off in mid-stream makes as little story sense as eliminating his crippled leg. There’s a cattle stampede in Jennings’ book — non-lethal, as it turns out, although precipitated by a similar event to the one that takes Charlie’s life here — but one suspects budgetary constrictions account for the abbreviated oddness of the sequence. The only purpose it serves is to get the filmmakers off a narrative hook; when Charlie dies in the novel, it’s as a result of being shot by one of the rustlers who kill Wil and make off with the herd, and at whom the boys’ wholly justifiable violence is directed. Again one presumes there was no way anyone involved was going to depict that event. But Charlie’s early death, and his lack of involvement in one boy’s working out the Vivaldi Concerto in D on his guitar, robs the movie of Jennings’ final line of dialogue, which in context is devastating.

My citing of the above is not gratuitous. It brings us to the crux, and the thing that drove the commentators mad in 1972: The boys becoming vigilantes — and worse — after Wil Andersen’s death.

As Jennings presents it, the boys’ deliberate and systematic enactment of violence against the rustlers led by the one called Long Hair (enacted in the picture with pop-eyed, spittle-flying psychosis by Bruce Dern) is not merely justifiable. It’s a matter of survival. While Long Hair has murdered their surrogate father, he’s also stolen the man’s herd and stranded the boys in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from home. Their only means of getting back alive, let alone of regaining the herd, is to outsmart the rustlers… which does not admit of leaving any of them alive. And even as the violence is cunningly orchestrated by the cowboys, meted out over a matter of days and arranged initially to look like accidental death (the killings eventually set the rustlers at each other’s throats), their acts are never depicted with authorial approval. Indeed, far from hatching the plans himself as he does in the picture, Jennings’ Nightlinger is so appalled by the calmly enacted bloodthirstiness of these otherwise sweet, good-natured boys that witnessing it performs a kind of psychic murder on his soul.

The Cowboys - Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern in full bull-goose loony mode.

The filmmakers were probably going to get pilloried for this no matter what they did. But where they erred worst, it seems to me, and most avoidably, was in the way the long, violent sequence at the end of the boys’ war against the rustlers was put together, especially in its musical accompaniment. Bringing in John Williams’ big, Coplandesque main theme as the battle intensifies is probably what set the reviewers off in 1972, because it seems to do precisely what the movie’s critics alleged: Urge the audience to cheer it on. I like to think this was not the composer’s doing but Rydell’s as director and producer; Williams can be bombastic, and overly lush, but I can’t think of any other time in his long career when he could be accused of insensitivity. Some of the mickey is taken out of this by the shots of the boys’ faces as they drive Wil’s herd into Belle Fourche.†† The accusation most frequently leveled was that the movie endorsed murder as the means by which a boy becomes a man, and indeed the faces Rydell depicts here are devoid of innocence or pleasure. But neither are they celebratory, nor their deeds celebrated. Rydell may be less an artist than a gifted hack but whatever his reasons for bringing in the big strings and horns at that crucial juncture described above, I don’t seriously maintain he made the leap that killing equals maturity.

The Cowboys required an epic widescreen presentation (the early engagements even included an Overture, an Intermission, an Entr’acte, and Exit Music) but Rydell isn’t up to the challenge, even with so gifted a cinematographer as the great Robert Surtees. The director’s images are unexceptional, pedestrian. He does get off one nice effect, when, early on, Wil lets his horses out of the paddock. It’s an elegant means of depicting the character having decided to forego this year’s drive without making the actor say it. Rydell almost immediately undoes the good impression this makes, however, by including an irritating bit of foreshadowing involving a young and an older bull in battle.

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At least the picture is, with the notable exception of Dern, well-acted. Wayne knew and admired the novel, and it shows; when he speaks to the boys in the schoolhouse near the beginning of the picture, he keeps his fingers in his pockets, but not his thumbs, exactly as Jennings describes Wil doing on numerous occasions. But Wil doesn’t clear the schoolroom of girls and teacher through a great wash of deliberate obscenities as he does in the book — although I again suspect he might if the picture was made today — and although prideful he is never as hard, or as tough on the boys, as he is in the novel where, interestingly, his threats have a weight not even John Wayne can match. And while he visits the graves of his two sons and alludes to them in speech, we don’t get a sense from the screenplay of why Wil is wracked with guilt over their deaths, something Jennings in his novel teases out masterfully. That lapse, of course, is no fault of the actor’s, nor is the trace of uncharacteristically blunt sentiment Wil is given before he dies; if Wayne doesn’t do anything here he hasn’t done before (and if he’s rather obviously doubled in his stunts) he at least appears to be trying to stretch further than Rydell and the Ravetches.

Dewhurst is likewise pleasing, if ultimately wasted, as the traveling madam. Slim Pickens gets a good, albeit too-brief, turn as a saloon-keeper, Allyn Ann McLerie makes the most of her appearance as the schoolmarm, and Sarah Cunningham nicely underplays her abbreviated role as Wil’s wife Annie, another character given a great deal more heft and presence in the novel. Browne, with that most distinctive and unforgettable of voices, is his usual breath of fresh air, but in place of a character as real as Jennings’ Nightlinger, was given a monologue of such airy (and pointless) abstraction its only discernable purpose is to impress the gullible boys. Big deal.

The then 22-year old A. Martinez makes a fine Cimmaron, although he’s neither as handsome as Jennings describes him nor as ruthless. Roughly half the youngsters could act when cast, while the other half were seasoned riders; they worked together so effectively to shore each other up during pre-production that, in the picture, you’d be hard pressed to decide which boy hailed from which group. Among them, Hudis is very good indeed as Charlie Schwartz, as are the young Robert Carradine as Slim, Norman Howell as the God-burdened Weedy, Sean Kelly as “Stuttering Bob,” Mike Pyeatt as Homer, Alfred Barker as Fats and Clay O’Brien as the wonderfully named Hardy Fimps.

Although Wayne’s Wil, in a line from the novel, describes the boys initially as “between hay and grass,” the movie itself is more fish than fowl, and far more hay than grass.

___________________________________________

*I am reminded by this of the way the similar demotic term “gunsel” has almost completely lost its original meaning, presumably by its use in the movie of The Maltese Falcon. John Huston, adapting Dashiell Hammett, knew as well as his source that the word implied a passive young man in a homosexual relationship. It’s precisely why Bogart’s Sam Spade uses the word to twit Elisha Cook, Jr.’s Wilmer, and why Wilmer gets so angry when he does. Today it apparently only means the other thing Bogart calls Cook: A cheap young hood.

†Naturally enough, however, they dropped Horny Jim’s drunken suggestion that the boys engage in a circle-jerk. No one was going there in 1972. Come to think of it, who would do so in 2018?

††It’s a remarkably small parade of beeves and once again one senses a budget that simply wouldn’t allow for anything like the vast teeming herd Jennings describes in the book.

The Cowboys - Rydell and Wayne

John Wayne on set, with Rydell to the left. Note the placement of Wayne’s hands.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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