The Cowboys (1972), directed by Mark Rydell

cowboys posterEvery father wants his son to be successful. In the course of my career as a synagogue rabbi and school principal, I have had conversations with parents who are disheartened because their hopes and dreams for their children have not come to pass. Sometimes fathers and mothers are regretful about the way they parented their kids; others wax philosophical, expressing no regrets. They feel they have done their best, but are not in control of outcomes. And so they accept the reality of unfulfilled dreams.

One case of unfulfilled expectations, in particular, comes to mind. When I was a Jewish high school principal, I tried to convince a boy’s parents to send him to Yeshiva University where he would be able to continue his general and Judaic studies. Moreover, I told his parents that the college years were critical, defining years of a young person’s life and it is likely that he will meet his future marriage partner during this time. They ignored my entreaties and enrolled the young man at a very fine state university, where he did well academically. He also met his wife there, and she was not Jewish. It was a classic case of intermarriage. Emotions ruled over logic. For many years after, the parents rued their short-sighted decision.

Rancher Wil Andersen, played by the iconic John Wayne in the twilight of his career, also is a parent whose kids didn’t fulfill his dreams. In a quiet conversation with a friend, he reflects: “My oldest son would have been forty this year. Middle aged. But they went bad on me… or I went bad on them.” He wonders if their choice of lifestyle was because he wasn’t the father he should have been. Perhaps his stern approach turned them off from all his instruction, and their wayward ways were a form of rebellion against his rigid parenting persona.

The Cowboys begins with Wil wanting to bring his cattle to market in Belle Fourche, a 400-mile long cattle drive. The problem: all his drovers want to postpone the drive while they pan for gold. A friend suggests he train and use local schoolboys to replace the drovers. He does not want to do his; but faced with little alternative, he reluctantly hires them. And so begins his arduous trek to Belle Fourche. Jebediah Nightlinger, the camp cook who is a repository of wisdom and life experience, suggests to Andersen that he now has a second chance to be the father that he could have been for his own two boys.

Andersen ponders this message as he teaches the boys to rope, brand, and herd the cattle and horses. Things go well for a while until rustlers attempt to steal the herd. Then all the skills that Andersen has taught the boys come to the fore as they attempt to bring the cattle drive to a successful conclusion.

Wil Andersen is the surrogate parent of these young teenagers and he imparts wisdom to them both explicitly with words and implicitly by being a role model for the boys to emulate. The Cowboys demonstrates that, when it comes to parent-child relationships, children learn by example as well as by words, by what is caught as well as by what is taught. This reflects a Jewish sensibility. It is not only the parents who instruct the young. The prime responsibility to educate the child is the father’s. However, if he is unable to do this, he can hire a surrogate. Nowadays, the surrogate is the Jewish day school with its staff of rabbis and teachers who transmit the wisdom of the ages to students by explicit instruction and by being role models for them. Outside of the school, children learn by observing the adults around them. Therefore, it is wise for adults to be always aware of what we say in front of children, and how we behave in front of them as well.

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