AFF Film Review: ‘Cowboys’, I Never Knew You, Till Now

We’re not talking about John Wayne, Buster Crabbe, or Roy Rogers. Cowboys, a documentary which had its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival, last month, takes us into the world and psyches of modern-day cowboys who make sure that filet mignon or beef brisket make it to your table.

This documentary received an extra showing at the festival as a “Buzz Screening” – a film everyone was talking about.

Buzz is right. From the very opening moments until the end of the film, I found myself mesmerized by the stories, the photography, and the experience of a way of life I had never considered. After the film, directors John Langmore and Bud Force answered questions from Austin Film Festival Marketing Director Samantha Levine and the audience.

An office bigger than Rhode Island

Bang! It Starts

I’ve seen dozens of documentaries over the years, and with few exceptions, they have a National Geographic or PBS look and feel and quickly fade from my memory. Not so with Cowboys.

The opening shots, taken from a drone, reveal the immense and beautiful terrain in which cowboys operate. As we look at the open spaces stretching to the horizon, we hear a cowboy comment, “My office is bigger than Rhode Island.” That was no exaggeration.

The impressive cinematograph doesn’t end with grand vistas of the American west, from Texas up to Montana. It swings to the other extreme, with super close-ups of the cowboys being interviewed about their lives. These close-ups reveal faces worn by weather and time and tell a subtle story beyond what comes out in words.

Year-Long Journey

The film is structured by showing the cowboys at work in each of the four seasons. We learn that there is a lot more to cowboying than riding your horse, although that’s a major part of it, to keep the cattle in “mobile corals.” The cowboys are also caretakers of the cattle.

Horses still play a key role in cowboy lives

In the Spring segment, we see a cowboy giving penicillin shots to a sick heifer. Then another cowboy helps with the birth of a calf, reaching far in with his arm and using specialized equipment to aid with the difficult delivery.

In the Summer segment we see cowboys checking water supplies and making sure tall grass is growing. One of them quipped, “Then we harvest the grass using cows.”

The Autumn is a special time. A cowboy explained, “The trucks show up, the buyers pick what they want. We can load 500 cows by noon. This is a critical time because we operate 12 months of the year, but money only comes in for two months.”

In Winter it’s back to caretaker mode as the cowboys deliver bales of hay and use axes to break the ice on streams so the herds have enough water.

For a cowboy’s wife, buying groceries can mean an overnight trip.

In between these action scenes we learn about the cowboy motivation, what it’s like to be a cowboy’s wife, and their joys and fears. A comment I found particularly touching was, “Cowboys don’t retire. They just keep doing it until they can’t do it anymore. Those that do retire, it doesn’t usually work out well.”

Author and Hippie

After the film Langmore and Force answered questions about making the film.

Levine asked them about their motivation for making Cowboys.

Langmore explained that when he was twelve, he kept asking his father to get him a job as a cowboy. He said, “My father arranged it with the ranch you see in Montana in this film. My father told the ranch that I was 13, so he said to tell them that when I got there.”

He kept that up for 12 years until after his first year of law school. He worked part time for a law firm and made more money there than he’d ever made cowboying and that changed his mind. Later in life when he had the time, he got into photography and that enabled him to return to his love of the cowboy life, publishing a book about it.

John Langmore, left, and Bud Force answered questions from Austin Film Festival’s Samantha Levine

Langmore continued, “Then some guy – Bud – who looked like a hippie, walked into my office and wanted to make a movie out of it.  He knew some things about ranches in the panhandle that most people would never have heard of, so I listened.”

Rodeo to ICU

Force also got his cowboy knowledge firsthand. “I grew up on a family farm,” he explained. “So, there were some horses and cattle but nothing like the herds you saw in this film. I rodeoed for 5 years. When I was 20 there was an accident with a bull, and I was in ICU for a week and 6 months in a wheelchair. When I could, I decided to go to Texas A&M and major in Journalism. Today I have a film production company.”

‘Cowboys’ uses extreme close-ups to help tell the story

Levine asked what the most important factor was in making the film.

Langmore said, “Relationships. Bud knew the ranchers in north Texas and from my book I had established relationships with the others. These are the kind of people who need to trust you before they open up and without those relationships it would have never worked out.”

You can listen to an Austin Film Festival On Story interview with Langmore and see the trailer on Vimeo.

The film is still seeking distribution, so to find out when and where you can see it, check the website.

Leo Sopicki @@LeoOfMars

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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