Rooster Cogburn: John Wayne reprises his Oscar winning role from ‘True Grit’ in his penultimate movie

Rooster Cogburn(1975) is the stand-alone sequel to the 1969 Western, ‘True Grit’, with John Wayne reprising his Oscar winning character of Marshal ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, this time, opposite screen-legend Katherine Hepburn. This is the only film Wayne and Hepburn made together.

“From head to toe he is all of a piece. Big head. Wide blue eyes. Sandy hair. Rugged skin- lined by living and fun and character. Not by just rotting away. A nose not too big, not too small. Good teeth. A face alive with humor. Good humor, I should say, and a sharp wit. Dangerous when roused. His shoulders are broad—very. His chest massive—very. When I leaned against him (which I did as often as possible, I must confess—I am reduced to such innocent pleasures) thrilling. It was like leaning against a great tree.”

Katherine Hepburn on John Wayne

In his illustrious career spanning almost half a century, and about 200 films, John ‘Duke’ Wayne has never bothered to reprise any of his roles- one could argue that he always played himself, so there was no need for it. But the character of U.S. Marshal Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn from the 1969 Western, “True Grit” was different and special as far as ‘John Wayne’ characters go. This one had definite set of character tics- an exaggerated way of talking, reacting and moving, as if Duke was parodying his legendary screen persona – and physical attributes- especially that black eyepatch- which differentiated it from his usual roles. His performance also won him a much delayed and most deserved best actor Oscar. “True Grit’ was truly one of the best and the most successful ‘John Wayne’ movie from the latter part of his career. So it was understandable that Duke wanted to recreate the role once again, especially at a time when the appeal of ‘Westerns’ were waning, and Duke’s career itself was winding down- he may not have known it at the time, but this would be his second to last movie. Hence, legendary producer Hal B. Wallis put together Rooster Cogburn(1975) from a script written by his wife, the Oscar-nominated actress Martha Hyer (Credited here as Martin Julien), and with veteran director Richard Fleischer at the helm. But Duke vetoed the choice of Fleischer  as director- Duke still held a grudge against him for walking out of “North to Alaska“- and therefore, Stuart Millar, who had very little experience as film director was brought in to direct- a truly dreadful decision that would irreparably harm the film. But the filmmakers had one big ace up their sleeves- it was bringing in legendary actress Katherine Hepburn to co-star with Duke. Though Duke and Kate were both born in May of 1907 (Kate being the elder by two weeks) and started out in the film business at the same time, they had never done a film together. This was the first and only time, when these two screen legends from the golden age of Hollywood would be seen together in the same frame. Wallis’s initial choice for Duke’s leading lady was Ingrid Bergman- Wallis had made the classic “Casablanca with her and Bogart. Ingrid might have been a better choice than Kate, if only because Kate and Duke were similarly assertive personalities who could cancel each other out. Ingrid was softer, as well as sexier, while Kate was never a sexy actress; and she was more comfortable being tomboys and sexually buttoned-down spinsters. Duke, on the other hand, worried about the box prospects of a film starring two old stars- who would not be appealing to the younger audiences- and had campaigned for someone younger like Mary Tyler Moore. But Wallis persisted and signed Kate for the role. One main reason that drove Wallis to cast Kate may have been that the film- though not publicized so- was a blatant retread of John Huston’s “The African Queen“- in which, Kate, as a minister’s sister was stuck with a boisterous but resourceful drunk- Humphrey Bogart’s Oscar winning turn as Charlie Alnutt- on a dangerous river voyage to blow up a German ship – as revenge for killing her brother – during World War I. In this film, Kate is a minister’s daughter in the old-west, who teams up with a drunk Marshal, Cogburn, to track down the killers of her father- and yes, a perilous river journey is also part of the adventure. Though to give the filmmakers their due, they have attempted a fait bit of differentiation in characterization- Eula Goodnight is a far more resourceful- skilled in riding and shooting- and accomplished frontier woman than the docile Rose Sayer of “The African Queen”.

Like all late-career Duke Westerns, “Rooster Cogburn” begins with a classic Western shootout, with Duke making a heroic entrance. In Arkansas territory of the 1880s, aging U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, accompanied by a deputy, is seen trailing a bunch of criminals to their hideout. Cogburn tries to arrest them, but they open fire, killing the deputy. A mad Cogburn goes on a shooting spree, and when the smoke clears all the criminals are dead. Cogburn packs the corpses on to mules and drags them along with him to Fort Smith, the territorial capital. The sight of the corpses does not please Judge Parker (John McIntire), who’s had enough of Cogburn’s “Dirty Harry’ tactics when it comes to law enforcement. Again, like all latter-day Duke Westerns- where we get a commentary on “How the times have changed but Duke hasn’t”- the judge reprimands Cogburn for still sticking to his old-west gun-slinging ways at a time when the West is rapidly changing, and strips Cogburn of his badge. But as it so happens, the new West still needs men like Cogburn to protect itself from dreaded outlaws like Hawk (Michael Jordan). So, when Hawk ambushes a cavalry patrol and makes off with a shipment of nitroglycerin and a Gatling gun- intended to be used for a Bank robbery, the judge comes crawling back to beg Cogburn to get back in service. Cogburn agrees to take back his badge and pursuit Hawk’s gang- which includes Breed (Anthony Zerbe), who used to be Cogburn’s scout. Cogburn tracks Hawk’s gang to Fort Ruby in the Indian territory, but realizes that the gang has moved on – leaving a trail of destruction behind them in which many Natives and a missionary preacher, Rev. George Goodnight (Jon Lormer) has been killed.

Cogburn volunteers to escort the deceased reverend’s daughter, Eula Goodnight (Katherine Hepburn) and her student, Wolf (Richard Romancito), the son of one of the deceased Indians, to Fort Smith. But Eula and Wolf has other plans; both of them decides to accompany Cogburn in tracking down their parents’ killers. Cogburn protests, but to no avail, as Eula proves to be one tough frontier woman who can ride and shoot as good as Cogburn, and Wolf, who has ambitions of becoming the first Indian U.S. Marshal is a very resourceful kid too. Thus, as in the original “True Grit”, the constantly bickering threesome sets out to nab the outlaws. Meanwhile, the outlaws have split up, with Hawk and Breed going ahead to scout the bank they’re out to rob, while the rest of the gang members are to catch up with them later with the stolen shipment. Cogburn ambushes the gang carrying the shipment at a gully-crossing. Though Cogburn was promised a posse, they never materialized, but with the help of Wolf and Eula, he manages to create the effect of the gang being surrounded by a posse- forcing the gang to flee. Now Cogburn and his partners take possession of the wagon – containing boxes of Nitro and the Gatling gun. Further along on the journey, Hawk and his men ambushes them, but they once again manage to outwit the outlaws and getaway with the shipment. Cogburn steals a raft from an old ferryboat man (Strother Martin) by pointing his pistol in the complaining old-timer’s face; stashing as many boxes of bottles with nitroglycerine as possible on board, Cogburn, Eula and Wolf heads down the mountainous river facing narrow, rocky rapids and waterfalls. Hawk and his men try to ambush them from top of the rocky cliffs, but they’re repelled by the rapid-fire from the Gatling gun.

Breed and another bandit set up a trap across a broader, slower part of the river downstream with an underwater rope to nab Cogburn and his party. Just as Cogburn comes within the firing range of the bandit, and it looks certain that the Marshal is dead-meat, Breed springs a surprise by shooting his fellow bandit in the back from behind. He then stands up showing himself to the Marshal and reminding him that it was in return for Cogburn saving his life years prior. But when Hawk finds out about this deception, he brutally kills Breed by kicking him down the cliffs. Soon, Cogburn’s raft approaches massive whitewater rapids, and though the three successfully pull together to brave the fierce tides, they loose the Gatling gun in the process. But that’s not the worst of it, the threesome know that Hawk and his gang will be waiting for them downriver where the waters gets shallow and slow. So they concoct a plan- they lower some of the boxes containing Nitro into the river and gently floats them out in front while the raft follows slowly behind. Cogburn hides behind the rest of the boxes, and on spotting the bandits advancing towards them, Eula and Wolf cry out for help- claiming that Cogburn has been hurt badly. But just as the floating Nitro-boxes reaches the bandits, Cogburn jumps out from his hiding place and shoots the several explosives boxes floating ahead with his sharpshooter rifle- mouthing the punchline “It’s payday, boys, come and get it!” reminiscent of the iconic line “Fill your hands you sonavovitch” from ‘True Grit’; thereby blowing up Hawk and the several remaining bandits mounted on their horses. The film then cuts to Fort Smith, where the Judge is once again about to strip Cogburn of his badge; but Eula goes into ‘preacher’ mode and dissuades the judge from doing so- especially when she compares Cogburn to the warrior Gideon in the Biblical Scriptures and mistakenly reveals Cogburn’s true first name of “Reuben” to the old judge’s amazement. Eula and Wolf bids goodbye to Cogburn and proceeds to return to Fort Ruby, but not before Eula rides back and gets a last word in- of appreciation for the tough, old Marshal, whom she eulogizes as a ‘credit to his sex’. Cogburn can do nothing but marvel at the feisty, forthright lady riding away from him, who always manages to get the ‘last word in.’

“Rooster Cogburn” rides on the charisma and the sparkling chemistry between its two legendary stars. Every time they’re on screen, the film bursts forth with energy. The manage to milk a lot of humor out of scenes that aren’t all that comic. Also, it’s not everyday we get to see Kate firing a Gatling gun, or she ( or anyone) saving John Wayne’s life. The film also has some well shot action scenes- ‘The African Queen’ style river journey, with its random gunfights and adventures involving maneuvering the treacherous rapids, are the best portions of the film. But the film’s big defect is that beyond the bickering and bonding of the stars, the film has not much else to offer. “True Grit” had a great story, superb direction and beautiful photography by the great Lucian Ballard. Here the story is non-existent- the screenplay feels unshaped, little more than a succession of scenes; the photography by Harry Stradling Jr. is not bad, he gets some good shots of the Oregon locations, but it’s rather perfunctory and no way near the enchanting visuals of “Grit”. But it’s the direction that suffers the most. Henry Hathaway had filled “True Grit” with beautiful, well-photographed locations; he knew, as the great John Ford did, that in a western the landscape is a character, and in “True Grit”, the fluttering leaves of the aspen trees that surround the final shootout and the mantle of snow in the film’s last scene adds immensely to the mood of the film. here there’s nothing like that: much of the locations looks desaturated and claustrophobic, one just doesn’t get the colorful, big sky feel that one gets from other Westerns, especially the ones William Clothier had photographed for Duke. Hathaway also knew how best to use Duke- having directed him in many films prior, and was adept at creating scenes that suited his talent and image- this is also found lacking in this film. It’s one of those rare films that one doesn’t remember one line of dialogue spoken by Duke. Also, in the characterization of Cogburn and Eula, there’s too much harkening back to the roles that Duke and Kate has played prior in their career. In short, the characters remains pretty much on the surface and never becomes real. The supporting cast is also no great shakes- Richard Jordan hams it up as the villain, and is no patch on Robert Duvall’s antagonist from the original. Duke had hoped that Hathaway would return to direct this film, but Hathaway turned it down, mainly because he didn’t want to butt heads with three of the strongest personalities in movie-biz. The film needed a strong veteran like Richard Fleischer or Hathaway at its helm. Stuart Millar, who ended up directing the film, was totally outclassed by Duke, Kate and Wallis on this production- three of them known bullies argued with the director over everything, and literally made him invisible. In the end, Duke and Kate more or less co-directed the film, with Wallis’ approval.

Upon the film’s release, the critical and commercial reaction was pretty lackluster. Budgeted at $4.6 million, the film brought in $7.5 million in rentals in North America, which means that it made some amount of profit, but was nowhere near what was expected. Being the sequel to the massively successful “True Grit”, film was expected do really well, and Wallis was planning another sequel with Duke reprising the Cogburn character again. Duke was severely disappointed with the final result and he castigated Wallis for selecting Stuart Millar as the director; a criticism Wallis accepted wholeheartedly. Millar’s career did not recover after this film, and he would soon be relegated to T.V. work. The planned second sequel was also dropped. One good thing to come out of this films was that Duke and Kate got to meet, work and get to know each other. They had never worked together before, and politically too, they were on opposite sides. But Kate, who had a yen for tough, masculine, complex men like John Ford and Spencer Tracy was truly smitten with Duke- as it’s obvious from her feelings for the man quoted at the beginning of the piece. Duke too returned her affection and appreciation. Duke. who started out in the silent era of movies, had managed to survive well into the age of New-Hollywood and modern blockbusters. But now it was clear that time was running out. He had been the great and perhaps the last traditional ‘Western’ hero, and the genre of ‘Western’ was becoming extinct. But Duke would defiantly pursue one more Western – Don Siegel’s superior 1976 film, “The Shootist”- that would prove to be a fitting climax to one of the most illustrious and durable careers in film history.

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