Directed by Delmer Daves
Produced by Julian Blaustein
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Edmund H. North
Based on the novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy by Frank Harris
Cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr.
Edited by Al Clark, William A. Lyon
Music by George Duning
Phoenix Pictures, distributed by Columbia Pictures
(1:32) Twilight Time Blu-ray
The John Williams novel Butcher’s Crossing (1960) shares the same basic story as the Delmer Daves’s Cowboy (1958), which was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Frank Harris called My Reminiscences as a Cowboy (1930). I haven’t read the Harris book, but the other two works convey a common western theme: young men conditioned by the comforts of ordinary life who dream of adventure in wide open spaces. Given the opportunity for adventure, these men discover that those spaces can be tainted by unrestrained human desire, greed, and hate. Butcher’s Crossing is a superb novel that holds nothing back in its description of the brutal nature of buffalo hunting, and while Cowboy is a more sanitized examination of a cattle drive, its core existence owes far more to darkness than to campfire camaraderie.
Jack Lemmon stars as Frank Harris, a Chicago hotel clerk who longs to break into the cattle business, mostly to win the love of Maria (Anna Kashfi), daughter of hotel guest Señor Vidal (Donald Randolph), a wealthy cattle baron from Mexico. Señor Vidal knows Harris’s intentions and isn’t pleased, letting Harris know in no uncertain terms that he can never marry his daughter.
Yet with the arrival of famous cattleman Tom Reece (Glenn Ford) and his entourage to blow off some steam after a long cattle drive, Harris becomes determined to become part of Reece’s team. Reece - who loves opera, raising hell, and shooting bugs off the walls - isn’t even mildly interested in taking on Harris. But when Reece’s money runs out during a poker game and Harris offers to loan him $3,800 to become a partner, Reece is forced to take him on.
Lemmon is a great choice for the role of Frank Harris. Like his character, Lemmon doesn’t seem to be the type of actor that belongs in a western unless it’s a comedy, which is exactly what we’re being set up for in Cowboy. Daves gives us the obligatory scenes of the neophyte cattleman trying to break a wild horse, follow Reece’s orders, and generally learn the ropes (sometimes literally) before he’s completely exhausted. A lesser film in the hands of a lesser director would’ve played the bulk of the film for laughs, but thankfully Daves has other things in mind.
Also joining the group is Doc Bender (Brian Donlevy), a former lawman who now only wants to trade in his badge for a position as a trail hand, showing the audience that the allure of a cattle drive isn’t confined only to the young. Donlevy’s role is mostly reserved and his appearances infrequent, but it’s a nice touch.
The way Daves establishes tone in the film is impressive. After Harris goes through some hard knocks, he voices his disagreements with how Reece runs the drive and handles his men. Although Harris directly challenges the boss, Reece begins to respect him. To a point. This is far more than a film showing men trying to prove themselves. This is an examination of moral and idealistic conflict worked out without the tired cliches we’ve come to expect in both westerns and films from the 1950s in general. Cowboy also shows that behind the thrill and allure of adventure, there’s also the inescapable fact that - regardless of how many men are on the drive - you can easily become isolated.
More people are no doubt familiar with two other Delmer Daves westerns, Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), both of which also star Glenn Ford, but it’s time people paid more attention to the neglected treasure Cowboy, which appears to be available as a Sony DVD, a Twilight Time Blu-ray, and streaming as an Amazon Prime rental. If you check it out, let me know what you think.
Photos: Mike’s Take on the Movies, DVD Beaver, The Movie Database