Drama / Western
Directed by Mark Rydell
John Wayne as Wil Andersen
Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger
Bruce Dern as Long Hair
Colleen Dewhurst as Kate Collingwood - traveling madam
Alfred Barker Jr. as Fats - Cowboy
Nicolas Beauvy as Dan - Cowboy
Steve Benedict as Steve - Cowboy
Robert Carradine as Slim Honeycutt - Cowboy
Norman Howell as Weedy - Cowboy (as Norman Howell Jr.)
Stephen R. Hudis as Charlie Schwartz - Cowboy (as Stephen Hudis)
Sean Kelly as Stuttering Bob - Cowboy
A Martinez as Cimarron - Cowboy
Clay O'Brien as Hardy Fipps - Cowboy
Sam O'Brien as Jimmy Phillips - Cowboy
Mike Pyeatt as Homer Weems - Cowboy
Slim Pickens as Anse
Lonny Chapman as Homer's Father
Sarah Cunningham as Annie Andersen
Allyn Ann McLerie as Ellen Price - teacher
Aging cattle rancher Wil Anderson has a problem. Every able-bodied man in town has run off to strike it rich when gold is discovered in the hills, and Wil needs men to help with his cattle drive from Montana over to the train depot in Belle Fourche, South Dakota . General store owner Anse Peterson points out that the only males left in town are the schoolboys over at Miss Ellen Price’s school. Wil dismisses the idea, but somehow the word gets around town to the boys. The next morning at dawn, most of the boys from the school are all at Wil’s ranch. Wil is still skeptical, so arranges a test for the boys by riding an unbroken bronco Wil has been trying to settle down. One by one, the boys pass the test . A Mexican teenager, and outcast from the rest of the boys, Cimarron , shows up and wants to prove to Wil that he is already a better rider than the other boys. Wil is impressed with the boys’ gumption, but also knows that they have no idea of the rough life they are getting into. He tells them that he will think it over, but having no other options, he goes to the school the next day to make his offer. He offers to hire the boys for the summer at a wage of $50 when they reach their destination. The boys agree and on the next day they begin their training.
Wil begins to teach them riding, roping, and all the cowboy skills they are going to need to make it through the drive. Cimarron again shows up, expressing interest in joining as well, but is told to leave after getting in a fight with Slim, the oldest of the cowboys. To prevent any more trouble, Wil takes the boys’ guns and locks them in the chuck wagon, and tells the boys he will give them back at the end of the drive. During the training, a long haired stranger named Long-Hair Watts arrives with two other men. They heard that Wil needed men to drive cattle. Wil now has a full complement of riders that have impressed him, despite their youth, with their skill, drive and determination, so he no longer really needs men to go. However, Long-Hair pushes, laughing at the fact that Wil is going to go with just young boys. Wil shoots him a couple of questions to gauge his experience and credibility, which Long-Hair blows when he lies to Wil about some of the places he has worked. Wil turns him down, stating that he knows he lied and Long-Hair comes clean about just getting out of jail. Wil informs him that he wouldn’t have held that against him if he had just come out and told the truth, but he cannot abide a liar, and tells him to leave.
A short while later, Wil gets another disappointment when his regular chuck wagon cook fails to show, replaced instead by a former slave, Jebediah Nightlinger. In addition to convincing Wil that he is fit for the job, Jebediah also has to come to grips with the boys. The fact that they are so young is one thing, but couple that with the fact that they are fascinated by him because they have never seen a black man before, and Jebediah begins to feel that he is in for much more than he bargained for on this drive.
The drive begins, and the boys say goodbye to their parents, and Wil says goodbye to his wife Anna. The drive doesn’t get far when Wil and Jebediah notice they are being followed. Wil recognizes the rider as Cimarron and sets Jebediah’s mind at ease. That night the boys are completely exhausted and settle down to a well-earned night’s sleep, only to be awakened by Jebediah’s 3:00 a.m. call to chow. Wil is already up and ready to go, and tells the boys to get a move on. The boys grumpily break camp and get ready for another long day. While crossing a swift moving stream, Slim falls off his horse, and as he cannot swim begins to drown. Stuttering Bob sees the event, but cannot get the words out through his impairment to notify Wil. Thankfully Cimarron witnesses the event and rides to Slim’s rescue, despite the fight they had gotten into earlier. Wil thanks Cimarron and welcomes him into the camp, then turns and tears into Bob for almost getting Slim killed. Bob begins sobbing but becomes so angry he starts to curse at Wil. While he is angry and cursing, they notice that he has no problems stuttering while cursing, curing the ailment. That night Jebediah and Wil talk about their lives, and Wil confides in Jebediah that he had two sons who “went bad” that he feels responsible for. It is implied that he is afraid of making whatever mistake he made with his sons on these boys.
After the initial harsh break-in period, the boys become more adept at their tasks and used to the long days, and Wil accepts them more and more as men, not just boys. A young bespectacled boy, Dan, has to chase a stray horse into some trees to catch it and runs into Long-Hair, who has been following the drive and threatens to kill the boy if he says anything to Wil about them. Dan is terrified by the encounter and returns to the drive, shaken. That night when it is Dan’s turn to stand watch he resists, saying that he is scared of the dark, when in actuality he is scared of Long-Hair and his men. Wil insists that Dan stand watch, and another boy, Charlie Schwartz, who can see that something is wrong with Dan, goes to comfort him. As they lay up on a ridge overlooking the herd of cattle, Dan’s glasses fall off of his face and down amongst the cattle. Charlie offers to go get them, but once he is surrounded by the cows they get spooked and begin to move, knocking Charlie to the ground and trampling him to death. The boys learn a grim lesson regarding life, and death, on the trail as they bury Charlie, but Dan still cannot bring himself to tell Wil about the danger following them.
Three days away from their destination, the axle of the chuck wagon breaks and Jebediah sets to fixing it with the help of Weedy. The rest of the drive continues on ahead, and Wil notices Long-Hair and his men following them, although he is not sure of who it is. Realizing the time has come, Dan tearfully confesses to Wil and tells him about the incident in the woods. Wil comforts Dan and tells him not to worry about it. He sends Homer back to tell Jebediah and Weedy to get back to the rest of the group as soon as possible. Jebediah and Weedy have not returned by nightfall, and the group is forced to set up camp. Long-Hair strolls into the camp with several other outlaws, producing a shaken and bruised Homer, who they intercepted before he could reach Jebediah. Long-Hair goads Wil, explaining that it will be easy to take the cattle from the unarmed boys and sell them as his own. Knowing that he’s outnumbered and outgunned, and not wanting to risk the boys’ safety, Wil plays it cool, but when Long-Hair begins to taunt Dan, breaking his glasses, Wil has had enough and challenges Long-Hair to a fight. Long-Hair agrees, and at first gets in a few good punches on Wil, but the older man’s superior stamina and endurance wins out and he beats Long-Hair to a pulp. As Wil is walking away, Long-Hair shoots him in the back. When Wil continues walking, Long-Hair fires several more times until Wil collapses from his wounds.
The next morning, Jebediah arrives to find the boys huddled around Wil, who is barely alive. The boys explain the situation to Jebediah, but there is nothing that he can do to help Wil, who tells Jebediah with his last breath, that a man’s sons should be a better man than he is, and the boys are. Jebediah and the boys bury Wil. Jebediah is about to head home defeated when the boys jump him and tie him up. Taking the keys to the chuck wagon from him, they retrieve their guns and proclaim they are going after Long-Hair to get their cattle back, finish the drive, and avenge Wil. Jebediah reluctantly agrees, knowing that he cannot dissuade the boys, and that they will stand a better chance with his help than alone. Together, they devise a plan.
The boys catch up to the outlaws, and slowly pick them off one by one, distracting them to get them away from the group, and then taking them out. Wearing the outlaw ’s clothes and hat, each boy then takes an outlaw’s place herding the cattle. When Long-Hair returns to the herd, he sees through the disguise, and the boys scatter as Long-Hair and his remaining men give chase. The boys lose the outlaws, but Jebediah and the chuck wagon have been placed close by as bait. Not smart enough to spot the trap , and underestimating the boys, Long-Hair gives in to his racist tendencies and goes down to the chuck wagon, determined to lynch Jebediah. Jebediah stalls Long-Hair by saying he needs a few moments to atone for his sins, and at that moment, the boys ride in, guns blazing and make short work of the band of outlaws. Long-Hair has fallen off his horse, his broken leg still caught in the stirrup. He asks for help, but Cimarron shoots in the air, scaring the horse who takes off at full gallop, dragging the wounded Long-Hair by his broken leg.
The boys arrive in town to sell the herd, and the townspeople are amazed at this band of boys who drive the herd into town alone. After selling the cattle, the boys take a portion of the proceeds and buy a headstone for Wil’s grave, with the inscription ‘Beloved Husband and Father’. They ride back out to where they buried Wil, but the marker has been blown away by the wind, and they cannot find the exact spot where Wil is buried. Jebediah assures the boys that they are close enough, and they begin the long trek home as men.
The film is renowned for being one of the few films where John Wayne’s character is dead at the end of the movie, and is distinguished from most of the others in the cold-blooded way that he is gunned down in the back. Bruce Dern was typecast as a villain for most of his career due to this movie.
During the filming of the murder scene, Wayne warned Dern, “America will hate you for this”, to which Dern replied, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.” Wayne was correct, as Bruce Dern would receive death threats because of the scene after the movie was released.
A failed attempt at turning the film into a TV series was made in 1974, starring several of the original cast; however, ABC decided to shorten the episodes from one hour to just 30 minutes, making it difficult to tell a good story with such a large cast of characters.
Originally Mark Rydell wanted George C. Scott to play Wayne’s role, as he did not want to work with Wayne because of his political views on the Vietnam War. In an interesting twist of irony, some critics used the way Wayne’s character “drafts” the boys out of school for a dangerous journey far from home as an allegory of the Vietnam War. John Wayne pleaded with Mark Rydell to allow him to play the role.
The movie is scored by music legend, John Williams.
Colleen Dewhurst, who played a travelling madam in the movie is most well-known for her career in the theater and in a much different role in the acclaimed Canadian miniseries, “Anne of Green Gables”.
Although the characters are supposed to be driving cattle from Montana to South Dakota , most of the movie was filmed in the much more desolate location of New Mexico .
Many of the boys in the film were recruited from junior rodeo riders.
Some critics panned the film for suggesting that one makes the passage from boy to man through violence.
This movie was the first appearance of Robert Carradine, son of John Carradine.