Jack is a Bitter Lemmon
I will be the first to admit that when you've seen a couple of handfuls of westerns the chances are you will have watched the variety of cliche elements which make up the majority of storylines, especially when watching westerns from the 1950s. But it has to be said that "Cowboy" is a bit different, even a pleasant surprise, as whilst the story takes us on a cattle drive and as such is full of typical cattle drives scenes the actual storyline is about a city man learning the true ways of being a cowboy rather than the romanticized dreams he has. As such I've heard "Cowboy" described as a fish out of water western and also a coming of age western and in a way it is both but at the same time that little bit more.
Having fallen for hotel guest Maria (Anna Kashfi), desk clerk Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon - Fire Down Below) is left broken hearted when her father refuses him permission to see his daughter and they leave Chicago to return to Mexico. So when regular visitor Tom Reese (Glenn Ford - Jubal) and his cattle driving outfit show up for a few days rest Frank spots an opportunity to buy into his outfit and ride the trail down to Mexico in the hope of proving himself suitable to date Maria. Whilst Frank has romantic notions of what being a cowboy is the reality of the cattle drive is vastly different as he witnesses how selfish the life of a cowboy is, especially one in Tom Reese's outfit.
"Cowboy" is adapted from Frank Harris's novel "My Reminiscences as a Cowboy" and for the first half it does come across as a man giving us a look at his first experience on the trail. As such we may get the slightly amusing opening where Reese shows up at a hotel with his men demanding hot water and whisky the real story starts when Frank buys into the cattle drive and shows up for his first day.
That slight sense of comedy expectedly continues as we watch Frank quickly discover that he knows little about being a cowboy, suffering from a sore backside after a day in the saddle. But that sense of amusement is dispatched with when the reality strikes and we watch how he struggles with the darker side of being a cowboy, how people die, everyone is for themselves and Reese cares more for his cattle than his men. It does a good job of basically rewriting the stereotype of a cowboy and as such we watch as Frank goes from struggling to toughen up into a mean and bitter man.
Of course with "Cowboy" being about a cattle drive we do get plenty of what are western standards, there are fights between cowboys, danger from Native Indians, a broken heart from a romance as well as the danger from snakes. But director Delmer Daves does a brilliant job of stripping much of this back so when we see two cowboys fight it doesn't look in the least bit staged and actually looks like two actors trading blows. When it comes to the danger of herding cattle, you get right in the middle of it where dirt flies and animals trample the weak. And what is so wonderful is that in contrast to these raw and dirty scenes the actual romantic subplot which focuses on Frank's love of Maria has a more epic, sweeping feeling with big skies and melodrama. Basically Daves takes the fundamentals of a western, strips them back but then embellishes some to give this beautiful contrast.
Now where "Cowboy" sort of struggles is in the casting as whilst Glenn Ford is convincing as a tough trail boss who over the years has gotten to know what he likes and likes what he knows the casting of Jack Lemmon feels at times wrong. In those early scenes where Lemmon is playing Frank as the hotel clerk his natural comedy works yet then watching that removed as he hits the trail and learns the real meaning of being a cowboy feels slightly wrong. It's sort of unexpected to watch Lemmon play a character who goes from being a happy sort of guy to a mean and bitter one yet we do still warm to him.
The same can be sort of said of some of the supporting performances because the last thing you expect to see Dick York play is a tough trail hand. It's sort of a case of actors in roles you don't expect and whilst none of them do a bad job it just feels wrong. And what also feels wrong is that the stunning beautiful Anna Kashfi as love interest Maria doesn't get more to do.
What this all boils down to is that "Cowboy" is a rather good western which whilst serving up a variety of cliches does so in a different way because of the story of a man learning what it really is to be a cowboy. It does have various problems and it feels at times that director Delmer Daves is in a hurry to get to the next scene but because it is slightly different to be the norm it keeps you watching.