Gregory McNamee writes in his Encyclopaedia Britannica blog about the great John Wayne western, The Cowboys. McNamee calls the movie a contrarian film, not because of the poor treatment Long Hair, played by Bruce Dern, gives to Wil Anderson, Wayne’s character, but because Anderson dies from the wounds then the story fits into the antihero film ethic of the early 70’s he calls contrarian. It could be, but did anyone really even notice any antihero bias back when the film came out? Anderson had to die. That gave the young cowboys he had recruited the incentive they needed to finish the job they had started. That was the story line.
Wasn’t it just that simple?
A man has to complete whatever tasks he starts, no matter if he is an old fogey of 75 or a fresh, young sprout of 13. And when he is just 13, and put into an impossible spot because of the death of a father figure at the hands of an irresponsible snake-in-the-grass like Long Hair, he has to do it in spite of not being full-grown and with all the odds against him.
And in the movie the young cowboys took care of Long Hair and the low-life rustlers and got Anderson’s cows to market. They did the job they were hired to do in spite of the odds. That was the message, an inspiring one for teenage boys everywhere. Have you seen another movie with a message that good for boys that young anytime lately?
But I’ll throw my lot in with the cowboys of every age, every time, and every ilk and with all the movies, books and TV shows that send a positive message, a message that says, “Yes, I can.”
Call me contrarian if you wish.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.