The Cowboys

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
The Cowboys Movie Poster Image
Classic action-packed Western has lots of cursing, violence.
  • PG
  • 1972
  • 134 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Keep your promises. Pay your bills. Stand up to bullies. Work hard. Treat people fairly. "I don't hold jail against ya, but I hate a liar." "Sometimes it's hard to understand the drift of things."
 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Wil is a tough, hard-working, decent man of his word who takes care of his wife, and his workers, and fulfills all his obligations. The boys he hires are serious, responsible, loyal workers. One teenager seems like a tough troublemaker but he turns out to be a good person.

Violence

Outlaws steal a herd of cattle and viciously attack the trail boss. Along with the only adult left in the group, the boys valiantly carry out a dangerous and well-laid plan to take down the rustlers and bring the herd to market. A bloody fistfight is shown. A man bashes another's head repeatedly against a tree trunk. A noose is placed around a black man's neck and white men prepare to hang him. Men shoot each other to death. Boys kill people with guns. Someone is trampled to death by cattle. A wounded bad guy is dragged to death by his horse. Cattle are branded. Young boys are seen off by crying parents. Crossing a river with the herd, a boy on horseback falls into the river and is saved by another boy.

Sex

Boys riding the range encounter a troupe of traveling prostitutes who are lounging at a campsite in their underclothes (which look like long dresses). When an adult arrives he asks the madam that she not tempt the boys and she agrees that first sexual experiences are best when love is involved. The madam speaks in euphemisms about sex. Seeing a black man for the first time, curious young boys ask if his penis is black. A boy says he peeked into an adult show and saw a naked woman.

Language

"S--t," "hell," "damn," "bitch," "bastard," "jackass," "t-ts," "old iron nuts," and several utterances of the "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Boys steal whiskey and get drunk, then suffer hangovers. A man spits out some chewing tobacco.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Cowboys, a 1972 Western based on the novel by William Dale Jennings, is an ode to good values. Without evoking cliché, it embodies the rewards of hard work, loyalty, honesty, responsibility, treating others with dignity, and admitting mistakes. It presents adolescence as a time when such values are imprinted and first put into practice. Many other firsts are also represented. A tween boy discusses the first naked woman he's seen. The boys encounter a traveling troupe of prostitutes. Upon meeting their first black man, some white boys ask what color the man's genitals are. The boys have their first drinks, too, and suffer their first hangovers the next day. And they are called to be brave for the first time when ruthless rustlers kill a man and steal his herd. The bad guys are punished violently. One boy is killed in a stampede accident .A bloody fistfight is shown. A man bashes another's head repeatedly against a tree trunk. A noose is placed around a black man's neck and white men prepare to hang him. Men shoot each other to death. Boys kill people with guns. A wounded bad guy is dragged to death by his horse. Cattle are branded. Young boys are seen off by crying parents. Crossing a river with the herd, a boy on horseback falls into the river and is saved by another boy. Language includes: "s--t," "hell," "damn," "bitch," "bastard," "jackass," "t-ts," "old iron nuts," and several utterances of the "N" word.

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What's the story?

In THE COWBOYS, Montana rancher Wil Anderson (John Wayne) is a tough, honest man of principle who can't round up enough hands to help him bring his 1,500 head of steer to market several days' ride away. He is forced to turn to a classroom full of school boys aged 10 to 15, "The Cowboys" of the title, to assist in this dangerous mission. Wil trains the inexperienced children and then in a fatherly manner treats them with dignity and respect. They fear Wil at first but his decency and fairness is rewarded with their loyalty.  Younger kids may be frightened by the violent cattle rustlers who kill one of the group and steal the herd. The boys show how much they've learned from Wil about doing the right thing when they devise a clever but risky plan and bravely carry it out.  

Is it any good?

This film is a classic Western for a reason. It could have been a conventional, 90-minute, action-packed, violence-laden Western but director Mark Rydell and writers William Dale Jennings, Irving Ravetch, and Harriet Frank Jr.  took their time instead (134 minutes), opting to tell a wide-ranging, human, and emotional story about a life dedicated to doing the right thing, even in the face of hardship and difficulty. The Cowboys feels more like a good novel than a movie, with moments set aside for observations about the cycle of life that most movies would do without, but those moments are exactly what enrich the movie's otherwise simple plot. Two bulls are fighting, one older and one younger. Wil observes that the young one has more muscle, but the old more experience. When the older one wins, we know that Wil, at 60, still believes he has a few good moves left. Although he is a strict employer, he lets the boys be boys even if it means allowing them to steal the whiskey and drink too much. This is about as sensitive a performance you will see at the end of John Wayne's long career and it's beautifully balanced against Roscoe Lee Browne playing the trail ride's erudite and self-possessed cook. His conversations with Wil range from discreetly discussed first sexual experiences to their first tastes of alcohol. One of them got drunk after his first broken heart, and the spot-on performances keep the scene from being sentimental. Also moving is a scene in which a boy learning to play guitar picks out a melody by Vivaldi, which then becomes part of the score. This is not your usual cowboy movie.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the reason Wil must hire young boys to help bring his cattle to market in The Cowboys. What happened to the guys he usually hired for the job? How does Wil feel about get-rich-quick schemes and why?

  • How do you think the boys are different by the end of the movie? Why did they change?

  • How do you think their attitudes toward Wil changed from the time they first met him to the end of the movie? Why?

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