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Entertaining little Disney comedy-western
on May 19, 2004
In the early '70's, James Garner made two films for Disney studios, "One Little Indian" and "The Castaway Cowboy." Of the two, "Cowboy" is by far the best: a slight but entertaining little comedy-western co-starring the lovely Vera Miles (who was also in "Indian"). She plays Henrietta McAlvoy, the owner of a failing Hawaiian (known here as the Sandwich Islands) potato plantation whose native workers fish a nearly drowned deserter named Costain (Garner) out of the ocean. While Costain waits for a ship home to Texas, he hatches a plot to save the farm by turning it into a cattle ranch, using the Hawaiian workers as ranch hands. Of course, in Disney films of the era, there is always a villain, and "Cowboy" features Robert Culp as Bryson, a local businessman who romances Henrietta in order to get her land and when she won't sell, stoops to some nasty business to sabotage Garner's plan.
Everything is predictable and ends just like you think it might. Also quite predictably, Henrietta is a widow with an irrepressibly cute (i.e. cloying and obnoxious) preteen son played by "The Poseidon Adventure"'s young Eric Shea, who gives an even more annoying, don't-say-your-line-shout-it performance than he gave in the previous film. The only other performances of note are given by native Hawaiians playing the workers as stereotypes who exist merely as goofballs to be laughed at. (More about that later.) Only Elizabeth Smith as Henrietta's housekeeper escapes with her dignity intact, since she manages to make her character more than a one-note stereotype.
Finally, about Anchor Bay's DVD presentation. Even though the copy I received was in fullscreen format (instead of the advertised widescreen--grumble, grumble) I kept it because of the excellent remastered print and the addition of a cool copy of the original poster art from the 1974 release on the back of the scene breakdown card. I still would prefer widescreen, but at least the picture and sound are much better than the awful transfers Disney have been ripping us off with on its own lazy releases.
Now, a word of warning about the presentation of the native Hawaiian characters: if you are sensitive about racial issues and potential racism in the movies, you may want to steer clear of this film. The Hawaiian workers are stereotyped as lazy and undisciplined men-children who would rather swim and play than work. This fact may make the film as offensive to some as "Song of the South" is to African-Americans. However, the natives do become better, more competent workers by the end of the film, so proceed at your own risk!