Wil Anderson (Wayne), the grizzled proprietor of the Double O Ranch, has a herd of cattle he needs to get to market before winter. Unfortunately, all the able-bodied and available men have run off to join a nearby gold rush. His friend Anse Peterson (Slim Pickens) convinces him that he could hire local schoolboys. Initially reluctant, Anderson is eventually forced to go with the idea. He ends up with 11 boys between the ages of 9 and 15. Joining them on the drive is Jebediah "Jeb" Nightlinger (Browne), their Camp Cook, and the first black man the boys have ever seen.
The boys learn quickly to do a man's job, but the group is being followed by a gang of ruthless rustlers led by "Long Hair" Asa Watts (Dern)...
This show provides examples of:
- Anyone Can Die: Including children and John Wayne
- Badass Boast: This, from Jebediah Nightlinger (said while he's tied up and about to be lynched):Nightlinger: "I regret trifling with married women. I'm thoroughly ashamed at cheating at cards. I deplore my occasional departures from the truth. Forgive me for taking your name in vain, my Saturday drunkenness, my Sunday sloth. Above all, forgive me for the men I've killed in anger..." (looks directly at Asa Watts) ...and those I am about to."
"We've seen what you can do to a boy. Come see what you can do with a man."
- Anderson, after Asa Watt bullies Dan:
- Bad "Bad Acting": the boys attempt to act casual prior to stealing a bottle of whiskey...fooling absolutely no-one.
- Bad Boss: Asa Watts shoots one of his own men in an attempt to get away in the end.
- Bittersweet Ending: Wil Anderson is dead, leaving a widow behind. But the kids avenge him, complete the drive, and make sure to honor his memory.
- Camp Cook: Nightlinger. Unlike most examples of this trope, Nightlinger's food is actually pretty good.
- Cattle Drive: The main scenario of the movie.
- Coming of Age Story: For the boys.
- Dropped Glasses: What leads to Charlie's death.
- Improbable Age: The boys are too young to be cowboys, but Anderson doesn't have any other options. After some rough starts and coming of age, they're able to ride, rope, and avenge their father figure.
- Innocent Bigot: The boys have never seen a black man before, and ask Nightlinger several questions that range from insensitive to outright offensive. Nightlinger takes it in stride, having faced much worse.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Cimarron, whose first scene features him picking a fight with the rest of the boys—and second is rescuing Slim from drowning.
- Let's Get Dangerous!: The boys' reactions to the death of Wil Anderson.
- Loophole Abuse: Wil draws a line on the school blackboard and says anyone shorter than it shouldn't come on the drive. What he doesn't know is that just before he came in, the teacher raised the board a few inches so the kids at the back could see it, and when he leaves they just lower it back down.
- Mentor Occupational Hazard: Anderson dies, leaving the boys to complete the run without him, then avenge his death.
- Miss Kitty: At one point the boys encounter a group of what Nightlinger calls "soiled doves". Naturally, they have their madam with them.
- Only One Name: Cimarron is this, due to being a bastard.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: The boys' vengeance on Asa in particular gets downright brutal.
- A Real Man Is a Killer: One of the more controversial bits of the movie. Though the film does seem a bit cynical about it.
- The way Anderson recruits young boys to serve on the cattle drive reminded critics of how young men were getting drafted into The Vietnam War.
- Sacrificial Lion: Anderson. Charlie too, though it's Anderson's death, actually brought about by Watts, which motivates them to take action.
- Stutter Stop: One of the boys on the cattle drive wasn't able to warn them of danger due to a stuttering problem. Wil Anderson (Wayne's character) proceeds to give him a brutal tongue-lashing, and the boy stutteringly calls Anderson a "s-s-s-s-s-son-uh-uh-uh-of-a-buh-buh-bitch". Anderson then continues to antagonize the boy until the youth explodes into a verbal tirade of completely stutter-free profanity. Anderson then calmly congratulates him on getting over his stutter, and warns the boy to not get used to cursing at him like that. The boy never stutters once for the rest of the film.
- Team Dad: Anderson is harsh, believes in Tough Love, and works to cultivate the boys' manliness.
- Team Mom: Nightlinger acts as a gentler, more emotionally intelligent parental figure, and reprimands Anderson at least once for being too harsh on them.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Played for Laughs when the boys sneak off with a bottle of whiskey from the chuck wagon and get drunk. The youngest cowboy, by the way, is nine years old. Anderson and Nightlinger find them when they start drunkenly singing "Home On the Range". Wayne and the cook keep quiet about it. Next day, Nightlinger gives them a remedy for their "cold". John Wayne rides by, ordering the cook to make a heavy meal for dinner. The nearest boy runs off to throw up!
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: the plan to avenge Anderson and recover the herd is not stated out loud.
- Would Hurt a Child: He doesn't actually follow through, but Asa Watts, the leader of the rustlers, makes it pretty clear he has no qualms about it.