A look back at the stirring John Wayne classic with new insights from Duke’s youngest son, Ethan.
Fifty years ago, when The Cowboys opened at theaters and drive-ins everywhere, many moviegoers responded with startled gasps — or angry howls of protest — when John Wayne’s heroic Wil Andersen was shot in the back by Bruce Dern’s despicable Asa Watts. But Ethan Wayne, The Duke’s young son, took it all in stride. Although he was not quite yet 10 years old at the time, Ethan already was enough of a Hollywood professional not to get too rattled by on-screen mayhem.
Even when his dad was on the receiving end of the gunfire.
“I grew up seeing that sort of thing on movie sets,” Ethan recalled during a recent chat with C&I, “so it didn’t affect me. But it did affect Marisa, my younger sister. She was traumatized by watching the film.”
“We were watching it at my father’s house,” Ethan said. “They did a screening there, for friends and family. There was like a big couch in the back, and a smaller couch in the front where the kids were. And man! When he died, she just let out this noise of despair. Even though her dad was right there, in the room, it was still so traumatic for her.
“But it wasn’t for me. I figured, ‘It’s only a movie, they’re playing pretend.’”
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: The Cowboys — directed by Mark Rydell (The Reivers, On Golden Pond), and adapted by scripters Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr. and William Dale Jennings from Jennings’ novel — is a gritty coming-of-age story that many John Wayne fans, including Ethan, rank among The Duke’s very best films. The pitch? When cattle rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) finds his ranch hands have galloped off to the gold fields, he hires some school-age greenhorns — including newbies played by Robert Carradine, A Martinez, and future world champion team roper Clay O’Brien Cooper — to drive his herd to market. But when Andersen is killed by a vicious rustler (Dern), the boys must become gunmen to avenge his death.
Ethan got to spend quality time with his father while on location in New Mexico, sharing a house with The Duke — who turned 64 during the production — and Los Angeles Times writer Wayne Warga, who was working on a never-completed Wayne biography. And even though Bruce Dern was unforgettably fearsome onscreen, “I remember liking him in person. I was impressed with him because he was really athletic. He would run to the set — he was staying at a place six or eight miles away — so he’d show up kind of sweaty and then put his stuff on. And I thought, ‘Man, that dude’s cool.’ And he was a nice person to be around when I was a little boy.”
On the other hand, “When I saw the final film, I was taken aback by how bad he could be, and how you found yourself just hating him. Like I said, I was old enough to know that it was all just make-believe, and what he did was all part of the story. But he had all the character traits that you don’t want in yourself. You just hope you’re never that guy when things get difficult. Dern did a great job.”
When asked about his own favorites among his father’s films, Ethan names some of the classics — The Quiet Man, The Searchers, True Grit, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — and admits that, while he “never looked at Big Jake as one of his better films,” it’s a sentimental favorite because he was cast as The Duke’s kidnapped grandson in the 1971 western. Still, he’s much fonder of The Cowboys, which he views as having been the right movie at the right time for both of them.
“I wasn’t an adult,” Ethan said, “but I was old enough to be aware of things that were happening, interactions between people spending time with my dad. We could go on horseback rides together. He’d let me drive the car to the location — and he’d be yelling at me the whole time he’d let me drive. I got to hang out with him a lot. And now, looking back, that character that he plays in The Cowboys really reminds me of my father.”
Ethan currently devotes most of his time to John Wayne Enterprises, which manages the name, image, and likeness of his father, and the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. And when it comes to hiring new employees, there is one movie above all others that he encourages applicants to study.
I got to hang out with him a lot. And now, looking back, that character that he plays in The Cowboys really reminds me of my father.
“I’ll also tell them some other ones to watch,” Ethan said, “but start with The Cowboys. Because I think The Cowboys really represents what I’m trying to do with the John Wayne brand now. I feel like my father was an honest character in that movie. And he was really honest with those boys, and was a great leader for them, and a great example. And he tried to give them a foundation to build a life on — and their manhood on. Being tough, but fair. Tough, but with compassion. Tough for the good of the other person, not for the detriment of the other person. He was being tough to help them face life.
“And that’s one of the main reasons I think it’s a wonderful movie.”
From our February/March 2022 issue
Photography: (Cover image) RGR Collection/Alamy Stock Photo; (Ethan Wayne) courtesy Ethan Wayne