In American history there was never anything quite like the generational transition between Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation. That a generation would differ from their forebears is almost a given, but these two often fell into culture wars both literally and figuratively.
Once the Boomers started to get into positions of power they immediately started creating Westerns--that most popular form of moral-espousing matinee fare--that were a complete rejoinder to the simple good guys/bad Indians narrative structure that formed the backbone of the genre. The clutch of Anti Westerns remain challenging to this day.
The stalwarts of the classic Western were still active during this time. Unmistakably past their prime, trying in vain to find a way to make the formula work in an era of cultural upheaval and armed conflicts. Among these The Cowboys stands out. It is not an Anti Western, but its message is just as bleak.
The greatest screen presence of the American Western, John Wayne plays Will Anderson, a cattle baron with only a few more drives left in him. He needs to get his cattle to market lest fall into debt. And here’s where the symbolism gets thick. Anderson’s relations with the younger generation are completely sour. His normal cowboys have turned their backs on stable income--honest work for honest wages--to chase a get a rich quick scheme in a gold rush. His own children are long since dead. While we never hear exactly what happened to them, Will bemoans whether he was a bad father, or if they went wrong. Words that don’t imply they met their ends honorably.
Anderson is forced to instead skip to the next generation. He goes to a school and makes a reluctant offer to hire the boys there as cattle hands. In contrast the boys fight for the chance to take part in the ride.
There’s one final surrogate for the Boomers, and the film doesn’t even try to hide the association. Bruce Dern’s character is literally named “Long Hair”, a popular epithet for hippies and rock-n-roll culture at large. He is memorably menacing--leading a party of thieves waiting for the opportunity to steal the herd; torturing the children; and shooting Anderson in the back. If the “Cowboys” errs anywhere though, its that Long Hair is the only person of the band of thieves with dialog or any measure of will. He barks an order and his fellow thieves obey, no questions no drama. It invites disbelief that a band of fearsome scoundrels would follow obediently.
The Cowboys is remembered primarily as a film that breaks some of the core “gentlemen’s rules” of mainstream filmmaking. Children die. The main character dies, and that death sets up the climax of the film. But still some attention should be paid to the finale of the film. The generation X surrogates avenge their father figure by laying siege and slaughtering all of Long Hair’s thieves. Its not too different from the same premise as in the great Anti-Western Lawman, but here is played as a heroic act. So the ultimate theme of The Cowboys is enshrined as the Greatest Generation completely giving up on their children in favor of their grandchildren. Bleak indeed.