“Cowboy’s not what you do; it’s who you are, It’s just something in you.”
One of the key mythic icons of American life is the cowboy. Most young boys, and probably many girls as well, dream of being a cowboy when they grow up. Few actually become cowboys. In Cowboys, directors Bud Force and John Langmore, both of whom have spent time working as cowboys, have created a portrait of what the cowboy life is in the 21st century.
Filmed at several large ranches (some close to a million acres) in states ranging from Texas to Montana, the film shows glimpses of a year of cowboy life. We meet a few of the men and women who have chosen to live this life. It is one of the jobs that is done in somewhat the same way as it was done for the last couple of centuries. There are some technological changes, but for such large operations, it often comes down to men, horses, and cattle in the open range.
It is certainly not a recruitment video looking for new cowboys. It makes it clear that this is hard work, with not much monetary reward. (Starting pay is about $1500 a month.) It is also a challenging life. We meet the wife of a cowboy who is raising their children four and a half hours from the nearest town. Going to the store becomes a three day trip. As she says, if you spill a bag of sugar, it’s nine hours of driving to get more.
The men and women we meet find fulfillment in this life. One of them mentions that his office is about the size of Rhode Island. For many people that kind of isolation would be devastating. For these people it is an opportunity that few people get. They enjoy the outdoors. They get to see beautiful vistas. They get to spend their time with animals. An interesting look at how that isolation can feel to the cowboys is when we talk to a retired cowboy who mentions going into town and living in an apartment feels like jail.
Of course all of this is hard physical work. It involves catching and holding calves for branding or breaking a horse for riding. It can involve riding all day, or camping in a small tent. It’s not always pleasant—as when we watch a cowboy assist a cow delivering a calf that is stillborn, or when a horse is bitten by a rattlesnake.
It is really the mythic aspect that made me interested in the film. The cowboy is the epitome of the rugged individual. These men and women certainly fit that characterization. But they also know that they have other needs. One cowboy relates the death of a child, and how he and his wife needed their faith to get through that crisis. We can see that for these people, this lifestyle suits them well. The concept of rugged individualism is one that has value, but it can also be a very difficult and lonely existence. It is one that fits these men and women, but is clearly not for all.
Cowboys is available on VOD.
Photos courtesy of 1922 Films.