The Cowboys (John Williams)

Mark Rydell‘s western The Cowboys (1972) was a John Wayne vehicle late in the actor’s career. Uneven in message and execution, legendary film critic Roger Ebert mused the following on the film’s ending: “It takes a lot of heroic music to paper over [it]”. Of course, that’s just what John Williams delivered.

In 1972, 40-year-old John Williams had four movies in the theatre. While Robert Altman’s Images might have been the most artistically ambitious and Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure the biggest commercial hit, The Cowboys showcased a composer who had already spent years exploring the musical stylings of the western genre.

Although thematically oriented and epic in sound, it only received a promotional LP release at the time. This was rectified in 1994 by Varese Sarabande’s premiere CD release. In 2018, Varese revisited the score for a complete release, remastered by Williams’ confidant Mike Matessino from better music elements.

In this first “conversation review” on Celluloid Tunes, Thor Joachim Haga, Nils Jacob Holt Hanssen and Sigbjørn Vindenes Egge discuss the recent expanded release of the score to The Cowboys.


Thor Joachim: OK, first things first — have any of you seen the film? I had owned the soundtrack for about 10 years when I saw the movie for the first time in 2009. While it’s a pretty decent western, I do have some ethical issues with a few scenes. It’s expected that a John Wayne vehicle is right wing-oriented, perhaps, but some of the character portrayals and story elements didn’t sit right with me. Surprising for a Mark Rydell film; he’s usually more adept at capturing nuances of the American spirit in films like Cinderella Liberty (1973) and The River (1984) (also scored by John Williams, incidentally). So I think it’s crucial to separate between an evaluation of the film as a western piece on one hand — with its impressive production details and music, for example — and then the messages it tries to convey on the other.

Nils Jacob: I haven’t seen the film, though I do know its basic storyline, including the often debated, morally ambiguous and controversial elements – which, as I understand it, have to do with the depiction of the coming-of-age of the young boys in the film, and how that doesn’t always look pretty. Producer Mike Matessino’s liner notes for the new release supply some great background information for both the film and the score, by the way.

Sigbjørn: I’ve also yet to see the film, so I’m approaching the album from a purely musical perspective. What’s interesting to me is that the assignment gave us Williams’ first original score to a theatrical feature with strong elements of his trademark grand sound. It also contributed to a young director asking Williams to score his first theatrical feature, and the same director later recommended the composer for a film by one of his pals. I’m of course referring to Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).

TJ: Yeah, The Cowboys and even more specifically The Reivers (1969) were both on Spielberg’s radar when he decided to meet with Williams. I think the first score that consistently showed us the ‘classical’ Williams that we know today, is Heidi (1968), but The Cowboys is unquestionably his best, most lavish and outrovert western score, in my opinion, compared to The Rare Breed (1966), The Plainsman (1966), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) and The Missouri Breaks (1976), for example. Or even TV stuff like Wagon Train (1958-1964).

NJ: Williams delivered three very different scores in 1972 – the avant-garde Images is almost in a category of its own, and while The Poseidon Adventure stands beside The Cowboys as one of his biggest movies up to that point, that score had as much in common with his 60s TV scores (Lost in Space, Time Tunnel etc.) as it had with his later, bigger blockbuster scores. So yeah, The Cowboys was definitely his biggest and most expansive work at that point.

TJ: When seeing the film, it’s remarkable how loudly mixed it is – whether the rambunctious, in-your-face Americana for the open vistas and herd sequences or the grit for the suspense and shoot-out scenes.

S: Scores were indeed more often allowed to shine in older films. Alas, the current trend seems to be that the score should not take away attention from the film, which often leads to overly simplistic and bland results. According to Varese, the old release was incorrectly mixed from the three track master tapes. The new mix does bring out instruments that I don’t hear on the old album – just listen to the low brass hit in the overture when the theme really ignites, after 15 seconds of suspenseful build-up.

TJ: Yes, it’s true that certain issues of the old Varese pressing had a wrong mix (reverse channels, with brass and strings switching places). I actually have that album myself, and if memory serves I got it in a trade with Nils almost 20 years ago…correct me if I misremember, Nils! I’ve never had any issues with it, though. Despite being an error, I thought it was a neat ‘oddity’ that didn’t really detract from the listening experience at all. But after listening to the new, expanded release, there’s no doubt that the sound quality has been drastically improved. For such a dry and close-miked recording, it seems amazingly “spacey” — packing the same punches it did while watching the film.

NJ: You’re right, Thor – lots of years ago, we did a CD exchange that included the original Varese Cowboys CD! I actually also have the original LP release of The Cowboys – although “original LP” is a bit of a misnomer, as it wasn’t an official release. To quote Matessino’s liner notes – “we’ll diplomatically call it a ‘promo’”! And on a personal note: that LP was one of the first albums I ordered via mail – this was 1986, so that’s snail mail we’re talking about here – just after I had become aware that there were actually record shops that sold – gasp! – only soundtracks!

I agree that comparing the old and new releases reveals a definite improvement in sound quality. It’s marvellously open and rich, while the old one sounds a bit compressed. The only thing I could wish for would be a bit more punch in the bass. I guess you can’t get everything from a recording that is more than 45 years old – and I’m not complaining!

S: Especially the strings in the lower registry would have benefited from a stronger presence, but it’s just about good enough not to be an annoyance. Otherwise I’m quite happy with the sound, but it falls short of being state of the art for its time (unlike La-La Land’s new release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Although the score was recorded in the early 70s, it doesn’t sound as good as the best orchestral recordings from a decade earlier. However, that’s probably not a fair comparison considering the film studios’ notoriously sloppy score archiving.

NJ: I have to admit it’s been a long time since I last listened to this score, and one of the first things that struck me now is that I had forgotten how thematically rich it is. There are four main themes (and several subordinate ones): Two quick and upbeat ones – the “training” and “cowboys” themes (again using Matessino’s appellations) – and the more quiet “paternal” and “trail” themes. While they are all quite different, the themes are cut from the same tonal and harmonic cloth, so to speak, which enables Williams to switch very quickly from one to the other, while making it sound completely effortless and natural.

TJ: Yes, it’s quite rich as a singular piece, although ironically also comes off as a bit repetitive at times. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of the main theme, and its many appearances and variations. This is obviously where the new expanded release falters, in my opinion — as many in the film music community know, I generally dislike C&C (complete & chronological) soundtrack presentations, and this is no exception. The structure is whimsical and repetitive, and there’s quite a lot of “filler” material that I could easily be without.

I mean, you obviously need other things beyond the overt themes to have a representative selection, but tracks like «Longhair Trails» just seem to meander to me. I think the selection of such cues on the original 1994 soundtrack, like «Into the Trap», weren’t only better ‘suspense setpieces’, but also better placed in the overall listening experience. On the other hand, there are a few highlight tracks among the softer material on the expanded release, like «The Hands Quit», «Will and Ann» or «Learning the Ropes (The Vivaldi Concerto in D)» that perhaps could be inserted into the original soundtrack programme without losing too much of the listening flow.

NJ: Expansions… sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I always receive Williams expansions with open arms, because he rarely writes downright bad cues. And I have to say The Cowboys falls mostly in the “works” category for me. To my ears, the more somber material is a nice contrast to both the extrovert themes and the more lyrical ones. Granted, the latter part of the album does drag on somewhat and gets a bit unfocused, with the frequent use of the Long Hair theme (more like a motif, really), which isn’t that interesting, along with other dark and dissonant sequences. So yeah, trimming the main programme (excluding the bonus cues) from 60 down to around 50 minutes, would make the album work better overall.

That being said, there are exciting sequences with attention-grabbing orchestrations in the last half also – you mentioned «Into the Trap», Thor, and I love the frenetic, harmonized woodwind runs and the (Leonard) Bernstein-like off-kilter rhythms in that cue, as well as «The Battle», especially with the string ostinato churning away under the main theme. And given that this is arguably his first large-scale, “adventurous” symphonic score, it’s not surprising that we get some hints of what is to come later – I can hear foreshadowings of Close Encounters in both «Charlie’s Demise» and «Drums of Manhood and the Execution», for instance, as well as hints of Jaws elsewhere.

S: You have both touched upon my biggest problem with the score – the Long Hair motif, which dominates the mentioned «Long Hair Trails» and really permeates the whole score. With its distant and reverberant harmonica, the motif gives a claustrophobic expression. Williams clearly took inspiration from the harmonica theme from Morricone’s score to Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), but without achieving the same memorability. The result is a motif that easily outstays its welcome and it frankly becomes quite grating during the album’s 73 minute duration.

On the positive side, the expanded edition does include Williams’ arrangement of Vivaldi’s lute concerto in D (RV catalogue No. 93, written in the 1730s). What we get is an excerpt of the slow movement, Largo. It starts in its original version with string accompaniment and about halfway through, Williams jumps in, adding wind instruments. Too bad he didn’t do the whole movement. The concerto is in fact used partially as source music in a scene where a boy plays it on the guitar. This is a funny nigh-impossibility, as Vivaldi’s music fell into obscurity after the Baroque era and was virtually unknown until his scores were rediscovered in dusty libraries in the early 20th century.

NJ: The Vivaldi piece actually doesn’t seem too out of place in the middle of the album – it fits in quite nicely with Williams’ score, strangely enough. And the first time I listened to it, before knowing of its use in the movie, I thought, “Hey, this sounds like something cowboys could have played by the campfire!” Turns out that wasn’t too far from the mark!

TJ: Speaking of non-Williams material, the original soundtrack also had the «Alternate Main Title» which everyone assumed was an original Williams piece until it was revealed to be Harry Sukman’s adapted theme for the shortlived The Cowboys TV series spinoff. Another reason to keep the original soundtrack, because this track is not included on the expanded release.

On a more general note — the interesting thing to me is how the score is a hybrid between Williams’ two “Americana modes” — the more open, coplandesque variant that is evident in the main theme, but then also the grittier, dirtier, folksier variant that we’ve heard in scores like The Reivers, Conrack (1974), Rosewood (1997) and others.

S: One of the highlights of the old album was its three “main titles” with their wealth of catchy themes: the overture, the main title, and the alternate main title. On the new release we’ve understandably lost the alternate, but are compensated with «Entr’Acte», «End Cast» and «Exit Music». Following the serene «End Title», which ended the old album in an alternate form erroneously named «Summer’s Over», we have the upbeat march-like «End Cast», which quickly disappoints with its long, repetitive fade-out. To me, the decision to end the old album with «End Title» was a strange one. It sounds like a play-up to a grand finale… which never comes. The new release remedies this by ending on a high note with the infectious but short «Exit Music». It’s also interesting to finally hear the correct «Summer’s Over» cue, with its calm guitar and horn.

The Overture, Entr’Acte, and Exit Music were featured only in the roadshow version of the film. The latter two tracks consists mainly of existing music; the first one-and-a-half minute of «Entr’Acte» is lifted directly from the overture recording, while «Exit Music» is edited together from sections of «The Kids and Crazy Alice» and the overture.

TJ: That’s a good rundown of the differences and variations, Sigbjørn. I’m personally more interested in how it all comes together as a singular piece. For me, the only value of the expanded release is the drastically improved sound quality. If there was a way to use the tracks on the expanded release to duplicate the original soundtrack programme, I surely would, but I’m not sure it’s doable. Perhaps even add an extra calm track or two to break up the many main theme variations here and there. In a concept setting, it’s a piece that on the one hand celebrates the American pioneer spirit and youthful vigor, and on the other plays to the dark undercurrents of the moral dilemmas. So it’s about approximating that on album, and making it representative without overstaying its welcome.

NJ: Yes, we certainly get plenty of presentations and variations of Williams’ themes throughout the score. And as mentioned, although they are abundant, they gel very well with each other, creating great unity in the score – overexposure or not. Except perhaps the Long Hair Theme – which doesn’t seem to get any love around here! My favorite is definitely the “paternal” theme, and I think I know why: It’s basically an early, tentative version of what came into full bloom six years later as the “Smallville” theme from Superman: The Movie (1978) – which is one of my absolute favorite Williams themes of all time.

In general, I prefer the score’s more quiet, pastoral themes – the “paternal” and “trail” themes, as well as the theme for Wil and Ann, which is lovely but unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of exposure. But I’m also fond of the “training” theme, with its toe-tapping, infectious energy. All in all, this means that the first half of the album, with its alternating lyrical and lively Americana, is the main attraction for me. Still, there are some wonderfully orchestrated moments in the darker and more action-oriented tracks in the last half as well.

S: The similarity with the beautiful Smallville theme is indeed striking, Nils. The score sure has its moments spread out throughout its duration, but to me, it’s not the most coherent listening experience, while it also gets a tad too repetitive. But there’s plenty of good material to create one’s own playlist of personal highlights, which is one of the benefits of such expansions. Williams did that himself when he distilled the score into a rousing nine minute long concert overture in 1978, possibly to compensate for the lack of an album release at the time. To me, that sums up the score nicely and makes a soundtrack album less essential. The concert overture is basically an extension of the Main Title, with elements from the Overture. The ten seconds of light pop arrangement found in the Main Title was wisely rearranged into a classical idiom, while the Long Hair motif was thankfully omitted! The end result is what I consider one of Williams’ finest concert arrangements, but when it comes to the complete score I’m not that impressed.

NJ: It’s not among my top 10 Williams scores, or albums. But, as usual with Williams, there’s still lots to enjoy! 3.5 stars from me. Thanks for the discussion – it’s been fun!

S: It indeed has! And just for fun, Nils, I want to point out to the readers that this is the same rating that you gave The Last Jedi. To me, the score to The Cowboys doesn’t warrant more than 3 stars.

TJ: Seems like we’re more or less in alignment, rating-wise. I’m on 3.5 stars. This is one of those ‘middle’ scores in Williams’ career — not among the most obscure, and also not among the most famous. But I maintain that it’s his best western score; so rich in orchestrations and themes that it’s a solid recommendation for anyone wanting to explore his filmography beyond the obvious classics — and still within the style he’s so known for. The expanded release does it no favours in terms of musical presentation, but makes up for some of it by improved sound. Anyways, thanks for the discussion, guys. Let’s do this again!


The deluxe edition of The Cowboys is currently not available in streaming format, but can be purchased at the Varese Sarabande site.


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