There are a lot of westerns that have been made over the years, most of them pretty bad (although usually fun enough to watch) but some of them truly stand out as works of art. The Cowboys is one of the very best.
The film has a few really amazing moments, such as John Wayne being shot to death - my aunts couldn't believe it happened, much like movigoers at the time. John Wayne only died in a few movies, and the only Westerns he ever got killed in were this one, The Alamo, and The Shootist.
It has very strong performances from everyone, especially the three main stars John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Bruce Dern. This was typical work for Dern, who up to that point was mostly known for western roles and had regular appearances in TV series like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Big Valley and others, usually as a villain. Dern actually was in a string of classic westerns like War Wagon, Support Your Local Sheriff, Hang 'em High, and Will Penny.
When the film came out (1972), Westerns were starting to fail in popularity, and hippies were all the rage. Dern's character is named "Long Hair" Asa Watts, which seems to be a reference to the long-haired hippie types. He was a hippie himself, and considered John Wayne to be a neanderthal, a throwback conservative brute.
Yet when they met, Dern said Wayne taught them all a lot about filmmaking (and with hundreds under his belt, he'd know), was a complete gentleman and very friendly. In the final battle between Bruce Dern and John Wayne, Wayne apparently hammered Dern against the tree so badly he had bruises all over his body, and they didn't film the shooting of Wayne in the back until the next day. Dern relates the story where John Wayne told him "they'll hate you for this." Dern scoffed at this idea, knowing his hippie buddies would consider him a hero.
But people did hate him for it, and apparently his daughter Laura Dern got a lot of grief at school for being the daughter of the coward who shot John Wayne in the back.
The movie was filmed in New Mexico and Colorado, except for the night scenes which were filmed in a studio to control lighting and weather. The boys were either actors or kids from ranches, and most of them already knew how to rope and ride. You can see their skill in the movie because almost all of the riding and cowboy stuff is done by the actual kids. They took a course in cowboy ways for several weeks before filming and all of them became very good at it.
Stop for a moment and imagine you're a boy, age 11-14, who gets a chance to do a movie with John Wayne, as a cowboy. You get to ride and rope and fire guns at bad guys and do a cattle drive. Now days that might not seem like the ultimate dream to boys but back then it was like winning the lottery ten times over. And Wayne was fantastic with the kids.
Several of the young riders became rodeo stars, with the youngest actually becoming a national champion several times over. A Martinez played the surly, proud Cimarron, who was actually the best of the cowboys in terms of raw skills. He has had regular work since, and now can be seen as the somewhat shady Native American investor Jacob Nighthorse in the recommended show Longmire.
The Cowboys is one of the best westerns made, and is both entertaining and moving. It pays proper homage to the beautiful countryside and the themes of the old west (although its landscape is odd given their stated journey roughly Bozeman to Belle Fourche South Dakota - they start on the plains and end up in the Rockies, which is the opposite direction). It contains the finest acting ever by John Wayne and is well worth viewing.