Cowboy Lessons


There are only seven films in which John Wayne dies on screen. One of those movies is an especially great resource for living life.

There’s a scene in ”The Cowboys” where one of the eleven boys (a stutterer) hired for a cattle drive, curses out The Duke.

Another character in the film was drowning, and the boy who stuttered couldn’t get the words out to tell what was happening. Wayne provokes the boy until he curses him out, and in the process, the boy loses his stutter.

The scene shows how tough guidance can often be the best thing for you.

I was 10 years old when I saw this movie and for a number of reasons every facet of the film has stuck with me. I believe that each of the life lessons, including guidance, overcoming obstacles, and standing up for yourself, can be gleaned from “The Cowboys.”

Released in 1972, the movie is the story of an aging rancher who, just as he’s about to take 1,200 head of cattle across a 400-mile stretch, loses his hired hands when they head off in search of gold.

With no help, Wayne reluctantly takes on boys from the local schoolhouse to get his cattle to market. The story demonstrates that, quite often, the so-called ‘adults’ aren’t always the most-reliable folks in your world.

Like real life, the story is rife with good people, bad people, obstacles, and lessons. Some of the boys won’t reach the end of the film, while the rest will graduate to men.

I sat in the now long-gone Williams’s Theater in my hometown taking in this movie. I consumed a large, buttered popcorn and drained a Coke as I watched who I consider to be the best Western actor (John Wayne), best Western character actor (Rosco Lee Browne, who played the chuckwagon cook), and the best villain (Bruce Dern), respectively become Wil Anderson, Jedediah Nightlinger, and Long Hair.

The three are magic together. When you throw in Slim Pickens as the man who directs John Wayne to the school boys who will help him deliver the cattle, this movie has one of the best casts ever to be assembled.

The reasons that my feelings about this movie are strong are many, but mostly, I associated each of the characters with real people.

I still do.

Who among us hasn’t known or been the kid that was the outcast? The young man in the film who stuttered was picked on for being different, but Wayne taught him that you don’t have to accept the treatment you receive. Standing your ground is the best way to find your place in the world and to let others know that you won’t take any hooey.

Roscoe Lee Browne played the wise, yet quiet, person we’ve all known. He represents those who impart wisdom, but don’t do it often enough.

My mother’s father was like that. He didn’t say a lot, but when he did, you knew to listen.

Oh, that we all had the sense to listen more than we talk.

And then there’s Bruce Dern’s character, “Long Hair.”

Dern, the former husband of actress Diane Ladd and father of actress Laura Dern, is arguably the best movie bad guy ever.

When I saw “The Cowboys” for the first time, I hated Bruce Dern’s character. I remember equating him to the school bully I knew, and hoping that the worst possible thing that could happen to him, would happen to him.

You know that an actor is good at their craft when they become so real to you that you have actual feelings toward them.

What’s interesting is that, on short notice, Dern agreed to a request from his agent to play the guy who kills John Wayne.

Upon reaching the set and preparing to film the scene where he kills The Duke, Wayne told him that he hoped he understood that America was going to hate Dern for his role.

At the time, Bruce was not a very well-known actor, and neither was Burt Reynolds. Burt later shared a story on TV about how he and Dern had been in a bar shortly after “The Cowboys” had been released, when a guy in the bar recognized Dern from the movie and yelled, “There’s the $#*! $& #$&@ that killed John Wayne! Get him!

They both ran out of the bar to keep from enduring the same fate as Wayne in the film, and fortunately, according to Reynold’s account, were able to avoid confrontation.

I don’t watch many new movies. It seems that most of them are either made from weak storylines, or, they’re remakes of movies that were never very good in the first place.

But, Westerns, and particularly ones that star John Wayne, are always relatable.

Both my father and grandfather, God rest their souls, loved good movies. Especially films that taught a lesson to the viewer.

I always looked to both of them for guidance on what movies were worth watching. If my father praised a film, I knew that it was good. If he laughed at a film, I knew that it was funny. If he watched it over and over, I knew that it held up.

My dad died on July Fourth of this year. After he passed, I thought about how much the movies that had influenced him had also influenced me. He watched different types of movies, but he really appreciated well-made films. One of those was “The Cowboys.”

My dad loved this movie, and he loved the lessons that it taught. 

So do I. 

I won’t tell you how it ends. I’m hoping that you’ll watch it.

©2018 John Moore

John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon at

Email John at

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