The beginnings of the 1960s saw the sun set on the Western audiences were used to seeing. John Wayne going off to bring back Natalie Wood had only happened two years prior, but even by then the questions raised about the treatment of Native Americans and the growing revolution defining the new generation of the sixties saw John Ford’s depiction of the West as too sentimental. Director Delmar Daves name doesn’t conjure up a John Ford-esque style, but he was a fantastic journeyman director who put his stamp on every genre, from the gritty noir of Dark Passage (1947) to the film he made just a year before this, the romantic An Affair to Remember.
Cowboy tells the story of two men with differing conceptions of the West. Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) is a Chicago hotel clerk who believes by proving his cowboy mettle he’ll secure the love of a wealthy Mexican lady. Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) is the cowboy extraordinaire Frank pays to teach him how to be tough. The two end up influencing the others’ personality along the way, realizing that the West they once knew may no longer exist.
The tenderization of the tenderfoot isn’t new to the Western world, but Cowboy takes the formula in order to answer the term “cowboy” truly means. For Frank, cowboys are connected to the land, and their toughness lends them respect and power, both traits which he’s lacking. The simple task of riding with Tom’s crew lends Frank to believe he’ll be accepted, but the cowboy name is earned, not given.
The real Frank Harris wrote an autobiography of his alleged experiences as a cowboy, and what transpires is the meeting of two ships in the night. Frank gaining respect is one thing, but what’s grander is his ability to work as a team and become, effectively a man. As his foil, Tom Reese is that admired cowboy, one not too far removed from John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, but he wallows too much in drink and has no loyalty to his men. For Tom, each cowboy lives and dies alone, regardless of how big the crew is.
When a man ends up dying in a silly accidental snake attack, another member of the crew is eager to take the deceased’s boots. Frank expresses outrage, but Tom reiterates that just because one dies with their boots on doesn’t mean they’re taking them with. When Frank tries to come to the defense of a flirtatious associate – played by a wily Dick York – who might be seeing the wrong end of a gun, Tom callously says Frank should let things happen. The audience reveres what Tom stands for – the majestic symbol of the Old West – but at what expense?
Tom surrounds himself with a gang of red shirts he could care less about, creating a clique that makes him no better than a high school mean girl. We understand Frank’s a bit of a wimp, delegating responsibility and unwilling to rough it, but he cares about people. He hasn’t had his love of people beaten out of him by the unfeeling rock and desert heat. Watching a Western where characters grow up is rare. John Wayne and others of his ilk never start out as adolescents, simply blossom from men into grander men with a stronger moral compass. Or, the other track, go from men to men who don’t feel. Their personalities change, but only adjacent to where they started. Cowboy sees the characters admit their faults, acknowledge they don’t truly know everything and maybe, just maybe, someone else should take the reins.
Jack Lemmon sticks out like a brand on a cow, but his uncomfortable utterances of the dialogue works to his advantage. The audience is meant to see him as an outsider who doesn’t belong in the 1800s, let alone on a horse. Ford and Lemmon represent the diverging trends of cinema, as well – with Ford being Old Hollywood and Lemmon the zippy comedian of the 1960s.
Twilight Time’s latest is just as well-produced as their other features with exemplary picture clarity and sound. Also included is an audio commentary, isolated score and trailers, as well as another fantastic essay from Julie Kirgo.
By taking an unconventional approach to the conventions of the Western, Cowboy sets itself apart. The man tall in the saddle is seen for the lonely figure he is, while the scrappy newcomer threatens to lose his humanity on the trail. Lemmon and Ford are well-suited, the character actors astound, and it presents a fitting end to the West of old.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.