The Cowboys is a 1972 Western motion picture starring John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Slim Pickens, A Martinez and Bruce Dern. Robert Carradine makes his film debut with fellow child actor Stephen R. Hudis. It was filmed at various locations in New Mexico, Colorado and at Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank, California. Based on the novel by William Dale Jennings, the screenplay was written by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr., and Jennings, and directed by Mark Rydell.
A screenshot from the film.
When his ranch hands abandon him to join a gold rush, rancher Wil Andersen (John Wayne) is forced to find replacement drovers for his yearly 400-mile (640 km) long cattle drive. He rides into deserted Bozeman, Montana. There, Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens) suggests using local schoolboys. Andersen visits the school but departs unconvinced. The next morning, a group of the boys show up at Andersen's ranch to volunteer for the drive. Andersen tests the boys' ability to stay on a bucking horse. As the boys successfully take turns, Cimarron (A Martinez), another young man slightly older than the others, rides up. After successfully subduing and riding the test horse, Cimarron gets into a fight with Slim, the oldest of the boys. Andersen, though impressed by Cimarron's abilities, has misgivings because of his angry nature and sends him away. Andersen reluctantly decides to hire the boys.
While Andersen and the boys prepare for the cattle drive, a group of mysterious men led by "Long Hair" Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) show up asking for work. Andersen catches Watts in a lie about his past, and refuses to hire them. Jebediah "Jeb" Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), a Black camp cook arrives with a chuck wagon, making Anderson's trail crew complete.
Under Andersen's continued tutelage, the boys learn to rope, brand and herd the cattle and horses. Much to Andersen's concern, Cimarron follows the drive from afar. However, while crossing a river, Slim slips off his horse and, unable to swim, starts to drown. Although Slim is saved by Cimarron, Andersen berates one of the boys for his stuttering problem which nearly caused Slim's death. The stuttering boy swears at Andersen repeatedly, losing his stutter in the process. Satisfied, Andersen decides to let Cimarron stay. During another episode, the boys steal Nightlinger's whiskey and drink it, all of them getting severely drunk. Afterwards, one of the boys falls off his horse and is trampled to death by the herd. Slowly, the boys learn under Andersen's tutelage and become rather good cowhands, impressing both Andersen and Nightlinger.
Soon after, Mr. Nightlinger's chuck wagon throws a wheel. As the cowboys continue to drive the herd, Mr. Nightlinger stays behind to fix the chuck wagon. That night, the rustlers surprise Andersen and the cowboys in night camp, leading to a fistfight between Andersen and Watts in which Andersen ultimately gets the upper hand. Watts mortally wounds Andersen and steals the herd, the horses, and in Watts' words "everything but the fire." The following day, Nightlinger catches up to the group to find the boys tending to the dying Andersen. Before succumbing to his wounds, Andersen tells the boys how proud he is of all of them, that every man wants his children to be better than he was, and that they have become so. Following Andersen's burial and on a prearranged signal, the boys overpower and bind Nightlinger, seizing the weapons stored in his chuck wagon and vowing to re-take the herd and finish the trail drive. When the group catches up to the herd and the rustlers, Nightlinger offers to help the boys make a plan to overcome the outlaws. Using ruses, trickery, and ambush, the boys kill the rustlers to a man, including Watts.
After the boys complete the drive to Belle Fourche and sell the cattle, they use some of the proceeds to pay a stonemason to carve a marker with Andersen's name and the legend "Husband and Father," in clear reference to the position that Andersen had earned in their lives. They place the marker in the approximate location of Andersen's grave and head for home.
Some critics debated the film's implication that boys become men or confirm their manhood through acts of violence and vengeance. Jay Cocks of Time Magazine and Pauline Kael of The New York Times were especially critical of these aspects of the film.
Film historian Emanuel Levy noted that Wayne frequently appears in a fatherlike role: "Aware of his repetitive screen roles as a paternal figure, [Wayne] said the movie was based on a formula that worked in Goodbye Mr. Chips andSands of Iwo Jima. In all three films, an adult takes a group of youngsters and initiates them into manhood by instructing them the 'right' skills and values. Wayne did not hesitate to appear in The Cowboys, despite the fact that 'no actor in his right mind, would try to match the antics of eleven kids on screen,' but for him it became 'the greatest experience of my life.'" 
- John Wayne as Wil Andersen
- Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger
- Bruce Dern as Asa Watts
- 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 Peterson
- Lonny Chapman as Homer's Father
- Sarah Cunningham as Annie Andersen
- Allyn Ann McLerie as Ellen Price – teacher
In 1974, Warner Bros. developed The Cowboys as a television series for ABC starring Jim Davis, Diana Douglas, and Moses Gunn. David Dortort, best known for Bonanza, The High Chaparral, and The Restless Gun, produced the series. Only A Martinez, Robert Carradine, Sean Kelly and Clay O'Brien were in both the film and the television series. At the last moment, ABC decided to change the show's format by reducing its run-time from one hour to one half-hour, a change which made it difficult to tell stories effectively considering the show's large cast.