This is when Wayne became restless. He didn’t want to do small-scale westerns. He longed for the epic reach of Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and John Ford’s “The Searchers.” He found this project in “The Cowboys” by Mark Rydell, based on a novel by William Dale Jennings. The story of an aging rancher forced to hire a group of teenagers to drive cattle down a rugged 400-mile trail stretching from Montana to South Dakota was a perfect companion to “True Grit.” Jennings’ background was less relevant. The author, a WWII veteran (something Wayne wasn’t famous for), was an openly gay man who co-founded the Mattachine Society. Wayne’s feelings on homosexuality were just as uncharitable as his views on racial justice.
Wayne didn’t know or care about Jennings’ sexual preference. The story was of paramount importance to him, which involved him turning a band of recalcitrant whippersnappers into top-notch cowboys. Jennings, however, who had been involved in the adaptation process with screenwriting duo Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., did not want to be part of Wayne. He had written the character of Wil Andersen for George C. Scott.
Rydell agreed. According to Scott Eyman’s “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” the director dug in until the star finally broke through his defenses.
“”I didn’t want John Wayne for ‘The Cowboys,'” director Mark Rydell said. “But Warners was heavily invested in John Wayne, who I was poles apart politically and emotionally and in every possible way. I didn’t admire him. But he seduced me mercilessly. “I promise you I will as best I can,” he said. “Let’s not talk about anything but acting. No politics or religion, just acting. ‘He completely won me over and I was okay with him playing the part.'”