Many looks at John Wayne's career seem to believe that between winning an Oscar as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit and his valedictory final role as J. B. Books in The Shootist, the Duke spent most of his time grousing about hippies and thinking Richard Nixon got a raw deal.
Any movies he made during that time, if mentioned, get dismissed as forgettable formula, like Chisum or Big Jake; odd Clint Eastwood-echoes like McQ and Brannigan (which owe a lot to Dirty Harry and Coogan's Bluff, respectively); or no-pretense crowd-pleasers like Rooster Cogburn (...and the Lady), in which he dons Cogburn's eyepatch again for a sparring session with Katherine Hepburn.
And they're more or less dismissable despite some fun points in almost all of them. The Cowboys, though, offers a little bit more. Wayne challenged himself as an actor pretty rarely during his "icon" years of the 1960s and 1970s, other than in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Shootist. But The Cowboys was one of those times, with Wayne underplaying his role as rancher Wil Anderson as much as he could manage facing off against a collection of boys, teenaged and younger.
Anderson's ranch hands, lured by news of a gold rush, desert him and leave him unable to mount a drive to take his cattle to market 400 miles away. He winds up with a crew of boys he has to teach the basics of cattle management, along with the kinds of life lessons old men have to offer younger ones. The drive is mostly successful, although the boys' discovery of the adult men's liquor stash has tragic consequences.
Shadowing the drive are Bruce Dern's Asa Watts and a collection of similar ne'er-do-wells, who will force a confrontation that forces Anderson to choose what kind of a sacrifice he will make for the boys he has hired and led.
Wayne softens his usual granite bluffness with signs of age and vulnerability as he realizes some of the boys are facing dangers that many men would not. At the same time he distances himself more than usual, since most of the cast members he plays against are not the grown men of his usual work but boys separated from him by their youth, his wisdom and the generation gap that's been with us since Adam and Eve wondered when Seth was coming home. The competing moves make for a nice balancing act when Wayne pulls it off, showing what he could do on screen when he put forth the effort.
Roscoe Lee Browne brings his natural dignity and depth to the camp cook, Jeb Nightlinger, and Dern is appropriately creepy as Asa "Long Hair" Watts -- he may or may not have been acting. The cast of youngsters all handle their roles more or less well, since the experience of being a kid making a movie with John Wayne may not have been too different from the experience of being a kid driving cattle across Montana.
The Cowboys is definitely a nice find in Wayne's later career and holds up pretty well today. And by virtue of the casting of two of the teenaged cattle hands, it probably plays a part in more "Six Degrees of Separation" games than you'd think. "Slim" Honeycutt, one of the older boys on whom Anderson relies for leadership, is Robert Carradine in his screen debut and looking just about the same as he would 12 years later in Revenge of the Nerds. Yes, John Wayne is one step removed from Revenge of the Nerds.
Cimarron, another older boy, is A Martinez, later of the soap opera Santa Barbara and the recent Sci-Fi Channel thriller Mega Python vs. Gatoroid. Which means you can get from Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, 1980s teen popsters who also starred in Mega Python, to John Wayne in one step: All three co-starred with A Martinez. If you win any money with that, feel free to put a cut in the offering plate for me.