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Although onscreen credits include a copyright statement that reads "Sanford Productions, Inc. and Warner Bros., Inc.," the copyright registration lists the claimant as "Warner Bros., Inc. & Sanford Productions, Inc." Prior to the opening credits, a title card reading "Overture" appears onscreen as John Williams' score is heard on the soundtrack for approximately two-and-a-half minutes. Approximately eighty minutes into the film, just after "Dan" is sent back to the drive by "Long Hair," the action stops, followed by a title card reading "Intermission," then another reading "Entr'acte," which remains on screen while the score is heard for approximately two more minutes until the action resumes. After the cast credits at the end of the film, a final title card reading "Exit music" appears on screen for two minutes while the score again is heard on the soundtrack.
In the opening cast credits, the young actors portraying "The cowboys" are presented after the name of actress Maggie Costain, while the end credits list them after actress Colleen Dewhurst. According to a December 10, 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item, producer-director Mark Rydell purchased the rights to William Dale Jennings' novel The Cowboys prior to its publication. Jennings (1917-2000) had written numerous articles and plays prior to publication of The Cowboys, which was his only work to be adapted for the screen.
According to a November 9, 1970 Daily Variety news item, Rydell's Sanford Productions, which Rydell co-owned with director Sydney Pollack, received financing for the production and distribution of the film by Warner Bros. Some news items in 1971 indicated that The Cowboys was supposed to be a Cinema Center Films production, but parent company CBS had shut down production operations of Cinema Center earlier in 1971.
The South Dakota destination of the cattle drive, spelled Belle Fourche but commonly pronounced "Belfush," as it was in the film, became one of the largest livestock railroad shipping points in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. Although set in South Dakota, the film was shot on location in and around Santa Fe, NM, according to Hollywood Reporter production charts. News items indicate that three weeks of shooting took place on the San Cristobal Ranch, twenty-eight miles from Santa Fe, as well as the B-B Ranch, with additional locations including Pegosa Springs and Canon City, CO, near the Arkansas River. Other news items state that the film had a $6,000,000 budget
Narration on an eight-minute short made during production of The Cowboys and included as added content on the film's 2007 DVD release, states that the boys portraying the cowboys consisted of six experienced riders, many of whom had been juvenile rodeo performers and five child or teenaged actors, none of whom had previous riding experience. Within the film, many of the roping and riding stunts featuring the young cowboys were performed by the experienced riders. Most of the cowboys made their acting debuts in the film, although Robert Carradine, son of prominent character actor John Carradine, A Martinez, Nicolas Beauvy and Sean Kelly previously had appeared on television or in minor roles in films. Carradine and Martinez went on to long careers in front of the camera, while Stephen Hudis and others continued as stuntmen as well as actors. Although the CBCS includes actors Frank De Kova as "Chief Joseph" and Charlie Bird as "Warrior," neither the actors nor their roles were in the released film.
Reviews for The Cowboys, while praiseworthy of John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne and the juvenile actors, were generally critical of the picture's violence, particularly by the boys. This general feeling was expressed by critic Jay Cocks, who wrote in his Time magazine review: "Ultimately, The Cowboys suggests that you are not a man until you have murdered" and by Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, who chided Warner Bros. and director Rydell for being "in the business of corrupting minors, because this movie is about how these schoolboys become men through learning the old-fashioned virtues of killing." They and other critics also expressed dissatisfaction with sequences in which the boys became drunk and met a group of prostitutes led by Colleen Dewhurst.
The novel and film were also the basis of a 1974 ABC television series, also entitled The Cowboys, which took up the story of the young cowboys after the death of "Wil Andersen." The television series starred Moses Gunn and Diana Douglas, along with Martinez and Carradine recreating their roles from the film and Kelly, who portrayed "Stuttering Bob," and Clay O'Brien, who portrayed "Hardy Fimps" in the movie, appearing as other characters in the series. Modern sources add the following stunt performers: Floyd Baze, Jerry Gatlin, Walt LaRue and Walter Scott.