O.K.: “Oklahoma!” (Todd-AO and CinemaScope versions) 1955

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By Scott Ross

The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest, in large part due to the intimate involvement of its original creators, and their determination to shoot as much as possible on location. R & H were not only the producers; they oversaw nearly every aspect of the production, including the planting of corn so that it would indeed be “as high as a elephant’s eye” by the time of shooting. (Sadly, Lynn Riggs, the author of Green Grow the Lilacs, the 1930 folk-play on which Oklahoma! was based, died the year before the movie was released.) When I was a small child, one of the local children’s television show hosts (I’ve forgotten which) began his daily program singing “O, What a Beautiful Mornin'”; when, never having seen the play or heard the cast recording, I first saw the movie, on a CBS Thanksgiving airing in the early 1970s, I was delighted to discover it opened with that song, and the camera moving through those leaves of corn made a strong impression. It was many years before I finally saw the widescreen version of the picture, but as fine as it is, it pales beside the Todd-AO edition. Shot not simultaneously but in tandem with the more widely-seen CinemaScope version, the Todd-AO, which runs slightly longer — it has a “road-show” Overture, Intermission music and an Entr’Acte — has a far deeper color palette (Robert Surtees was the cinematographer on both) and a richer look generally. There is more to see on the peripheries in Todd-AO, and a couple of nice effects: The way Gene Nelson’s lasso floats past the camera during the “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” number, for example, and how Aunt Eller’s gavel splits in two and seems to fly at the audience at the climax of the lunch-basket auction, which feels almost like 3-D, but without our having to wear those annoying glasses.

Oklahoma! - MacCrae and Jones

It helps, of course, that the picture was made by a director whose work was entirely in the realm of human drama. Fred Zinnemann takes the material seriously, and doesn’t attempt to stamp it with a superfluous personal style. That doesn’t mean the picture is devoid of visual interest — far from it; Zinnemann’s crisp, clean direction is the furthest thing imaginable from the anonymous style of most ’50s musicals, but never makes the style about him. Between Riggs’ original and Hammerstein’s adaptation, there was little for Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, the movie’s scenarists, to add, although they do improve the ending slightly (it’s a bit rushed in the show). There is one addition, a brief atmospheric scene between Gordon MacRae and Jay C. Flippen, that raises a question (how did Curly get his horse and saddle back?) it doesn’t bother to answer, although it’s preceded by a lovely bit of nature photography that is almost an illustration of a Hammerstein lyric (“when the wind comes right behind the rain”) we’ll hear in a few minutes. Pretty much the only other flaw I can find in the picture is one of continuity: The Agnes de Mille “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” dream ballet clearly takes place at dusk, but when Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger leave for the party, it’s just as obviously mid-afternoon.

Oklahoma! - Steiger in dream ballet

Rod Steiger and dancers in the Dream Ballet

I once worked as assistant director on an amateur production of Oklahoma! in which the aged director, who had become a bit dotty (everyone who worked with him at that time had stories) warned his cast to ignore the “badly miscast” movie — especially Steiger and Gloria Grahame. I wasn’t sure what he meant then, and am even less certain now. MacRae and Jones are charming and in excellent voice. Zinnemann wanted James Dean for Curly, but his singing was underwhelming; Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman were also considered, as was Howard Keel, who might have been ideal except that MacRae was less well-known, which gives his presence a fresher tone. Grahame is both funny and sexy as Ado Annie, and Steiger is genuinely frightening as the psychotic Jud, although the character lost some potential sympathy when Jud’s “Lonely Room” solo was not filmed. Steiger not only sings well, but in the dream ballet managed to dance creditably too — and for de Mille. No mean feat, that. (Astonishingly, he got billing below James Whitmore’s brief role as Annie’s shotgun-toting father.) Nelson, like Grahame, has enormous charm, and his athleticism as a dancer is given a strong work-out, notably in the “Kansas City” dance; Eddie Albert is delicious as the alleged Persian peddler Ali Hakum; and the Dream Curly and Dream Laurey, James Mitchell and Bambi Lynn (the latter of whom was in the original stage production) are superb. Marc Platt, the Dream Curly of the show, has a small role as a cowboy, and Ben Johnson, of all people, can also be seen at the railroad depot. Best in the cast, however, is Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller. Known, largely on Broadway (although she was in movies from 1915 through the ’40s) as a comedian and “eccentric dancer,” she’d been sought by R & H for the stage role but wasn’t available. And if at 65 her famed high kicks are less in evidence she grounds the movie in something very like Lynn Riggs’ original folk poetry: Feisty, funny, sensible and warm, Greenwood’s Aunt Eller exhibits the sort of frontier strength people mean when they use the word “indomitable.”

Oklahoma - Albert, Greenwood

Eddie Albert as the peddler, with the great Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller.

Oliver Smith’s production design, realistic to a fault throughout most of the picture, reaches its creative apogee in the Dream Ballet, a perfect melding of the theatrical and the cinematic: A Surrealist landscape combining the open space both of the performance stage and of the prairie, decorated with appropriate exterior suggestions and incongruous interior objects hanging in midair, a Hellish nightmare in which a bordello’s light fixtures suddenly shoot columns of red flame, a staircase leads to nowhere, and the backdrop alters abruptly from blue sky to a menacing cyclone. Smith’s work perfectly compliments de Mille’s celebrated choreography, which is, if anything, even darker on the screen: What on stage in 1943 represented a negotiation between Jud and Laurey over Curley’s fate that ended with a compromise allowing the cowboy to live becomes, on screen, abject surrender following an act of murder. If the post-South Pacific and King and I Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals represent a pulling back from the precipice, their movie of Oklahoma! conversely shows an older de Mille still intent on pushing the limits of what dance, and musical theatre, could do.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Everything gets old: “The Last Picture Show” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

Following a remarkable writing/directing debut which very few people saw (Targets, 1967/1968)* Peter Bogdanovich, on the advice of his then-wife Polly Platt and working with the author, adapted Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, one of the best brief “coming of age” books by an American writer. Shooting on location in Archer City, Texas (McMurtry’s hometown), in black-and-white, with a cast of actors who might be familiar but were certainly not (or not yet) stars, and on a modest $1.3 million budget, Bogdanovich delivered a small masterpiece detailing the dreariness, and the extreme anomie, of a small, windswept Texas town in the early 1950s that can, of course, stand as emblematic of any community, then or now, in which hope dies pretty much at birth, and the only things that hold people  — especially young people — together are drink, meaningless sex, and the tiny incidental pleasure of the movies they see that in no way reflect their own lives or experience.

There is scarcely a character in The Last Picture Show who is not either seeking sex, having it off with someone else’s spouse, or who has not done so in the past, sometimes from lust or even genuine love but (for the adults anyway) largely out of sheer boredom. The only exceptions that come to mind are Eileen Brennan’s Genevieve, the mother-figure toiling as a waitress due to her off-screen husband’s illness, and the smiling, mute and backwards boy Billy (Sam Bottoms) — and even he is initiated, in a disastrous encounter with a fat middle-aged whore (Helena Humann), courtesy of a few teenagers looking for something, anything, to do on a Saturday night. (We are at least spared the sequence in the novel in which the boys take turns humping a poor blind heifer, although in the movie they consider it.) I don’t wish to seem critical of these people for their erotic obsessions: Half the characters in the movie, after all, are adolescent, and thus naturally preoccupied with sex; anyone who says otherwise about his or her own teenage years is either lying, a Pentecostal, or both. But there appears to be, in Anarene/Archer City, no other activity that can engage them, aside perhaps from billiards or high school athletics. And it’s telling that the only book we see in the movie is a well-thumbed paperback of I, the Jury being surreptitiously passed from one masculine hand to another in a high school classroom. Perhaps the Coach (Bill Thurman) is right when he complains that the boys on his basketball team might be better shooters if they practiced more and jacked off less.

It is the Coach’s request that Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) drive his wife Ruth (Cloris Leachman) to her physician that sets The Last Picture Show’s most important chain of events in motion, and it is there too that McMurtry and Bogdanovich commit a curious omission. In the former’s novel, Coach Popper is known for bedding certain of his players on out-of-town trips in which he contrives to get his current favorite to share his hotel room, and that he has had only the most perfunctory conjugal relations with his wife. The screenwriters elide over this detail in their movie; thus when Ruth, weeping, says to Sonny, “You really don’t know, do you?” she seems to be referring, not to his ignorance of her husband’s furtive sexuality, but to a general naïveté in the boy’s personality. Since Genevieve warns Sonny, “One thing I know for sure. A person can’t sneeze in this town without somebody offering them a handkerchief,” we can be sure that in Anarene the Coach’s “secret” is clandestine only in his own guilty brain. It seems accepted, the way the teenagers in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys accept their teacher’s expected groping of their groins when he takes them home on his motorcycle — with a shrug and, maybe, a curious, virginal thrill.

The Last Picture Show - Leachman and Bottoms

It’s been several years since I read The Last Picture Show, so I no longer recall whether the Coach acts as a kind of procurer, sending Sonny to Ruth in the hope that he’ll satisfy her, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, the relationship between Sonny and Ruth is, along with the lingering love Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) feels for a girl he once romanced, the movie’s heart, and it is to the point that it is in no way sentimentalized. Their first sexual congress is, on Sonny’s part, oddly tentative and, on Ruth’s, so emotional her tearful gratitude is quietly agonizing. Even at the picture’s climax, when she confronts Sonny with his caddish selfishness with white-hot fury, she is pathetically incapable of not needing him. As Bottoms sits at her kitchen table, devastated by a death he probably could have prevented and by his guilt over that and his treatment of Ruth, she holds his hand to her face, beaming tearfully. It’s a shattering moment, filmed by Bogdanovich with his customary grace and measure and his laudable avoidance of the overly emphatic.

It became fashionable to knock Bogdanovich in the 1970s, for — in the eyes of his (possibly envious?) former fellow critics, anyway — making nothing but hommages to his favorite filmmakers. Ford and Hawks were the two most often cited, but if those reviewers had really been paying attention they might have noticed that if there was a true referent in Bogdanovich it was Orson Welles. Not the Welles of busy tracking sequences and kinetic editing but the Welles who made The Magnificent Ambersons and Othello: The Welles who pulled off extensive scenes without an edit while not calling your attention to his having done so, and whose concerns were more with the small and revealing moments between people, and with limning their loneliness and loss of innocence — to borrow from Thoreau, their quiet desperation — than in dazzling your eyes, although only a fool would fail to note that he did that as well. As with the idea of a young man’s falling into a bass viol during a drunken serenade having, ultimately, tragic repercussions in Ambersons, the memory of a man and a young married woman carrying on a long-ago affair, the girl lacking the courage to break with convention or her own need for security becomes heartbreaking by the end of The Last Picture Show.

Peter Bogdanovich - The Last Picture Show

If Bogdanovich took from Welles (or Ford, or Hawks) any particular stylistic or pictorial cues, it was those Old Masters’ penchants for long, sustained sequences played in full before a static camera lens. It is, pace Martin (“Look at Me!”) Scorsese, the richest and most assured form of motion picture photography, requiring, as Welles told Bogdanovich, “much more confidence from the director, and a great more skill, and presence, from the actors,” to pull off. Bogdanovich was defeated in this technique only once during The Last Picture Show, and crucially, when due to the clouds overhead and to Timothy Bottoms’ actorly pauses he was forced to make what looks like an extraneous cut to the foreground near the end of the otherwise beautifully sustained dialogue between Sonny and Sam the Lion as the latter reminisces about his one great love affair.

Bogdanovich’s director of photography on The Last Picture Show was the excellent Robert Surtees, whose career stretched back decades and who was responsible for the look of a number of superbly-shot movies: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Ford’s lush Mogambo (1953), the exquisitely mounted Oklahoma! (1955), Ben-Hur (1959), The Graduate (1967), the gorgeous Sweet Charity (1969) for Bob Fosse, William Wyler’s criminally under-seen and underrated The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), The Cowboys (1972), The Sting (1973) and The Turning Point (1977). The look of the movie is almost more Depression-era Texas than the headiness of post-War, oil-boom 1951; if there were tumbleweeds in Anarene, they’d be blowing down the un-paved streets. But that, it seems to me, is the point; Anarene is one of those places in America, if you have any sense or push, you run from as soon as you can.

The Last Picture Show - Shepherd, Burstyn

I once had a woman friend who referred to Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy Farrow in the picture as a girl “who gives bitches a bad name.” Yet even she is explicable, if perhaps the furthest thing from admirable. Jacy is that emptiest of small-town miracles, the wealthy beauty with no brains and nowhere (and no one) on whom to truly focus her desires, which are in any case so vague and diffused they are only a nagging overall sense of futility she can neither name nor dismiss, much less escape from. In her first acting role, and at 21, the former model is not only strikingly lovely but remarkably assured. You can see, observing her, why her director fell in love with her. And even when Jacy is cavalierly playing with people’s lives, she’s almost impossible to hate, although you’d rather she was more like her unhappy mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn), who at least has developed some poise — although we suspect she’s always had it, and by the end proves it — and a clear vision of what she cannot change, regardless of how much she drinks or how many lovers she takes on to ameliorate her essential loneliness. “Everything gets old,” she warns Jacy, “if you do it often enough.”

I see I have scarcely begun to limn the beauty of Bogdanovich’s great ensemble cast, which includes the always-splendid Jeff Bridges as Duane, Sonny’s best friend and Jacy’s doomed squire; Timothy Bottoms’ gentle, if Callow, Sonny; his younger brother Sam’s sweet, docile Billy who loves as, in my experience anyway, only a retarded individual can, and cannot be made to hate even when he’s the unwitting butt of misguided adolescent cruelty; Eileen Brennan’s warm, sad and maternal Genevieve; Leachman’s achingly needy Ruth; and Johnson’s simple, understated Sam the Lion. Sam was a role Welles badly wanted — he knew it would win the actor who played it an Academy Award ™ — but Bogdanovich was correct in going for Johnson, who was vaguely familiar, mostly to Western movie habitués, and that Welles would have over-balanced the part. The director was also convinced that Ruth Popper was a certain Oscar-winner, and both he and Welles were right, as Johnson and Leachman took home the Supporting Actor and Actress trophies in early 1972. For Leachman it’s the role in toto, and the raw vulnerability with which she plays it. For Johnson, I suspect, it was that long monologue about the perfect love of his past that did it.

The Last Picture Show - Bottoms, Johnson, Sam Bottoms

It’s interesting to note that although she praised the movie Pauline Kael (whose spurious essay “Raising Kane Bogdanovich would blast the following year in Esquire) also found Bogdanovich’s rise as a filmmaker troubling and wrote that “even Nixon could like The Last Picture Show.” This is as bone-headed a view as those of critics a couple of years later who thought American Graffiti an exercise in nostalgia. The people in Bogdanovich and McMurtry’s picture are no less desperate than the kids in George Lucas’. If you have axes to grind, or when you see only what you want to, you miss the big picture. Speaking of which, The Last Picture Show does hold a certain nostalgic reference for me, as I first saw it in the mid-1980s when it was the final booking at a local art-house just before, like Sam’s Anarene movie house in the picture, it closed its doors for good. But McMurtry and Bogdanovich differ on that ultimate offering: In Bogdanovich’s movie it’s the 1948 Red River, clearly a special booking (and by a woman who confesses she doesn’t know how to run the place.) In McMurtry’s novel, it’s a standard 1951 “B” oater, one presumably chosen months in advance.

I suppose the director couldn’t resist making an affirmative statement in the picture he chose to run clips from. But I prefer McMurtry’s solution — it’s just another undistinguished movie, for a town that probably doesn’t merit anything better, and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.


*Bogdanovich also, under the pseudonym Derek Thomas, directed something called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) for Roger Corman, who gave him the opportunity to make Targets.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/paper-moon-1973/

Between Hay and Grass: The Cowboys (1972)

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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’ screen 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 included 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.

The Cowboys poster

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.

Cowboys Deluxe_grande

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