The Cowboys: Deluxe Edition (John Williams) – Score Review

A success in its time but now largely overlooked, director Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys was late career success for actor John Wayne, playing a wizened rancher leading a cattle herd. The film’s success was aided in no small part by composer John Williams, who crafted a rollicking western score that marked his first project after his first Oscar win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof.

While The Cowboys was just one of the memorable scores Williams put out in 1972 (Images and The Poseidon Adventure remain fan favorites), it has had perhaps the most enduring legacy of the lot, frequently showing up in concerts despite the film itself fading from memory. Its endurance is a testament to how well Williams melds the traditional Copland approach to the genre with his own knack for memorable themes and dynamic soundscapes. That its CD album has been out of print for years is a crime finally rectified by Varese Sarabande’s deluxe re-release of the score, providing a much-deserved expanded treatment of William’s most significant western work.

One of the more notable additions to this set is music for the roadshow presentation. We get a taste of this immediately in “Overture,” as Williams plunges right into his primary string-led action motif before showcasing several of the score’s themes. The same approach animates the “Entr’acte” and “Exit Music,” with slight variations between them. It is a great reminder of how these opportunities were a boon for composers, giving them multiple chances to showcase their themes in robust settings while giving viewers a chance to latch on to them.

Ever the tunesmith, Williams’ four themes for The Cowboys are all solid, which is nice since they absolutely saturate the score. The main theme, which has naturally come to represent the score in concert performances, is explored frequently in both the “Overture” and “The Cowboys – Main Title.” It is a bouncy rhythmic idea that is a perfect synthesis of standard western sounds and Williams’ trademark progressions. The main title introduces the theme on keyboard at 0:15 before moving into the more romantic string interlude that pops up several times as a secondary theme. A more somber theme is introduced in “Graveyard,” employing standard Williams tones for drama and gravity, and finally is the rhythmic action motif, opening “Overture” on strings and “The Cowboys – Main Title” on rapid-fire brass.

Almost every track on the album explores at least one of these ideas, keeping the album’s cohesion high. Given the increased length of this presentation, though, it can also lead to some monotony.  The first half in particular, with its many action tracks, suffers from having the overture and main titles explore the themes in driving action  settings. By the time a track such as “Training Montage,” the sameness that runs through the more energetic material becomes apparent.

Luckily, as the score continues on, Williams provides the tension and playfulness required. Tracks such as “Sour Mash” underscore comedic moments with the appropriate mood before the score dives into William’s trademark suspense stylings for much of the latter half of the album.

The suspense material here is fairly standard within William’s discography, but the subtle interpolations of themes and western instrumentation keep it fresher than it otherwise would have been. “Afraid of the Dark” is the perfect example of this. Coming off of the energetic “Entr’acte,” it opens with ominous harp and rattlesnake-emulating percussion to evoke the desolation and fear of the open range before strings are slowly brought in with harmonica providing snippets of the romantic interlude and dramatic theme. Williams continues to layer these melodies over ominous harp and bass strings to let us know that not all is right, providing a masterclass in how to play comfort and fear against eachother.

This attentcarries through the rest of the score until the “Drums of Manhood and The Execution.” One of the more memorable action tracks on the album, it alternates between bombast and tension throughout, conveying the competing emotions of fear and excitement in equal measure. Unfortunately, the film’s finale receives minimal scoring, with “Into the Trap” and “The Battle” constituting less than 4 minutes combined. While the latter track is fairly underwhelming as a conclusion, acting as more of a single building crescendo, the former track employs competing brass, strings, and guitar in its midsection to interesting results. All that is left is the “End Title and End Cast,” which sends off our heroes on a serene note before hopping into a credits arrangement of the main ideas.

While the previous CD release of The Cowboys featured enough highlights to gain the score a solid reputation, it was still missing almost half of the music Williams had written for the picture. The previously-unreleased material on this new set and a chronological track order do much to clarify the score’s narrative, while expanding the amount of suspense material included. The remaster and rebuild of the score by Mike Mattessino must also be praised, as many tracks here sound like they could have been recorded yesterday. For that reason alone, this new version is worth fans picking up.

The extended presentation does bring with it a downside, though. While the ordering and selections of the previous album were limited, its length and sequence provided a quick and exciting presentation. In film order, the repetition of much of the more driving music becomes more noticeable, as does the long stretch of suspense music that makes up much of the album’s midsection.

While not a true masterpiece, Williams’ The Cowboys remains a fun jaunt that is well served by this overdue expansion. Fans and newcomers alike should opt for this deluxe edition, which has effectively made the previous album obsolete. While some trimming and re-organizing can result in an easy listening experience, it is much better to have every second of this great score available in pristine sound quality to choose from.

The Cowboys: The Deluxe Edition is now available from Varese Sarabande records.

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