In horticulture, a ‘sport’ is a bud or flower that somehow deviants and distinguishes itself from all the others. In life, we label ‘sports’ the overachievers. In Hollywood, they simply call them ‘stars’. John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn remain two of the biggest in the cinema firmament. Each has had enviable longevity; beloved amongst the movie gods and goddesses. But it took Stuart Millar’s Rooster Cogburn (1975) to bring them together. If nothing else, the film embraces the time-honored cliché, ‘an irresistible force’ (stalwart missionary woman, Eula Goodnight) meeting that ‘old immoveable object’ (Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn).
Wayne had, in fact, played the curmudgeonly, patch-eyed Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit – an iconic western that eased his ensconced public persona into its emeritus years. In the scant six years separating these two pictures, time had indeed written its own history across the Duke’s weather-beaten visage. In retrospect, Rooster Cogburn is book-ended by Wayne’s 1964 bout with lung cancer, and subsequent death from stomach cancer in 1979. The Duke had only one more film in him before retiring after a staggering run -184 movies. Now, that is a body of work!
In Rooster Cogburn, Wayne ingeniously assuages feisty heroism with a lighter side of sexism via comedy. This had become something of his stock in trade throughout the early 1960’s; harmless enough, though nevertheless incurring the wrath of some outspoken feminists. At the same time, Wayne’s reputation was also being tested by the anti-war movement, in conflict with his own conservative pro-war stance on Vietnam. To both factions, the Duke must have seemed something of a relic. Yet, to his fans, he could do no wrong. And in pitting Wayne’s galvanized western he-man against the formidable woman’s libber – Kate Hepburn – it must have appeared as though one would give the other that proverbial ‘run for their money’.
Truth to tell: Hepburn and Wayne are an endearing combination; the determined law man stupefied by this resolute spinster, who harbors a quiet, but growing attraction to this burnt out shell of a man. Eula Goodnight cannot abide Rooster Cogburn’s ‘shoot to kill’ principles. After all, they fly in the face of her Bible-fearing ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophies. Here is a character Kate the great Hepburn was born to play. When we think of Katherine Hepburn today, we tend to remember, and perhaps confuse her own forthright, no-nonsense, New England blue nose with such characterizations: the unrelenting and self-reliant gal who wouldn’t take guff from arguably, even the good Lord - much less any man.
Rooster Cogburn would be nothing at all without its peppered exchanges between these two stalwarts of the American cinema, beginning with their not so cute meet; Cogburn informing Eula he intends to take her, either willingly or by force, to the nearby village for her own safety. Herein, the film crackles with robust dialogue, as when Cogburn admonishes Eula by suggesting “That shows you know more about the Lord and His Good Book than you know about men!” to which Eula proudly rectifies, “That's my good fortune. I know enough about men to steer clear of them.”
Of course, first impressions being what they usually are in the movies – Eula’s are bound to change – and do; profoundly, in fact, as she bids Cogburn farewell in the final reel; admitting, “Reuben, I have to say it. Livin' with you has been an adventure any woman would relish for the rest o' time. I look at you, with your burned-out face and your big belly and your bear-like paws and your shining eye, and I have to say you're a credit to the whole male sex, and I'm proud to have you for my friend.” True to Hepburn’s built-in persona, Eula doesn’t wait for his reply.
After all, this isn’t a romantic comedy, but a parting of the ways for two people so utterly right for one another, yet somehow destined to spend the rest of their days quietly apart. “I'll be damned if she didn't get the last word in again,” Cogburn mutters with a smile as Eula rides off and the credits role. They’ve said all they need to each other and the film bravely preserves the duality in their personalities instead of concocting a forced romantic pas deux for this pair in the sunset of their lives.
In Rooster Cogburn we’re not getting characterization so much as an extension of Wayne and Hepburn’s own selves, affectionately feeding off each other’s creative energy and the sheer joy of working together for the first and only time. It’s plainly obvious the two enjoyed the experience; Wayne allowing Cogburn’s mask of caustic bitterness to slip into spells of genuine humility and even, admiration. Stars of Wayne or Hepburn’s caliber are no more, and more’s the pity too, because our present-day movie culture continues to struggle at a deficit in their absence. Writing under the pseudonym ‘Martin Julien’, screenwriter Martha Hyers doesn’t terribly concern herself with a tight narrative, relying on these stellar personages alone – and, oh yes, cinematographer, Harry Stradling Jr.’s sumptuous vistas to buoy the rather straight-forward tale of a U.S. Marshal out to get his man…or rather – men.
The scenario is clumsily hacked together; starting with Cogburn’s removal from office – stripped of his tin star by Judge Parker (John McIntire) for having ‘gone to seed’ and using the law to put a bullet into four desperados he was supposed to bring back alive. The Judge, however, has immediate second thoughts after a union wagon of nitroglycerin is ambushed by Hawk (Richard Jordan) and his motley crew of outlaws, who intend using it to rob a bank. Hawk’s entourage includes Breed (Anthony Zerbe), Luke (Paul Koslo), Red (Jack Colvin) and Leroy (Lane Smith). Breed is their lookout. Hawk rules by fear rather than loyalty and has absolutely no compunction about killing his own for even the slightest infractions. Cogburn accepts the Judge’s assignment to apprehend Hawk and his banditti, passing by Bagby’s (Warren Vanders) general store on the way to the frontier. A short while later, we catch up to Hawk, terrorizing a small missionary outpost run by the decrepit Reverend Goodnight (Jon Lormer) and his aged spinster daughter, Eula.
Eula attempts to preach the gospel to Hawk, who responds by firing several rounds directly at her feet in an attempt to frighten her away. Instead, Eula holds her ground without fear, reciting the 23rd Psalm, effectively rattling Hawk’s determination and causing him to momentarily withdraw. That evening, however, Hawk provokes a brawl amongst the Indian community who live around the mission, setting fire to their wigwams and killing several of the menfolk, including Rev. Goodnight and the father of a heroic young Native American named Wolf (Richard Romancito). Hence, when Cogburn arrives at the mission the next morning, he finds Wolf and Eula saying prayers over the graves of the newly deceased. Cogburn explains his mission. Eula is, at first, skeptical, spouting Biblical passages to illustrate the wayward nature of man. But she soon elects, along with Wolf, to accompany Cogburn on his quest, determined to see justice served for those who were murdered.
Cogburn is understandable miffed by their accompaniment. He was prepared for a posse (one that never materializes). But an old maid and a young buck out to make his bones? They’re more a liability to him than anything else…or so it would seem. However, Rooster has grossly underestimated Eula. In short order, both she and Wolf prove their merit, after Cogburn stages a daring ambush on Hawk and his men, confiscating the wagon of nitroglycerin under the pretext they are surrounded by a posse. Hawk retreats. But a short while later, he regroups and pursues Cogburn, Eula and Wolf with a vengeance; momentarily taking Wolf hostage. The boy bravely escapes Red’s clutches at knifepoint and Red is later wounded by Breed, then murdered by Hawk who has absolutely no use, or respect for a dying man.
Cogburn, Eula and Wolf next encounter McCoy (Struthers Martin); a very tetchy prospector-type who owns a raft Cogburn commandeers in the name of the law to take them down river, sailing the nitroglycerin and his human cargo to safety. Hawk and his men make several attempts to stop the trio as they navigate the rough currents down river. But they are kept at bay by Eula who – despite her ‘thou shall not kill’ ethics, nevertheless operates the raft’s gatling gun like a pro. Hawk sends Breed and Luke on ahead to keep an eye on Cogburn while he plots his ambush several miles down the river. Luke decides instead to rig a trap, snagging the raft with a thick cord of rope barely submerged beneath the water. As Cogburn attempts to cut the raft loose, Luke takes dead aim. Instead, Breed shoots Luke dead, explaining to Cogburn he once saved his life. That debt is now paid in full. Returning to Hawk’s camp, Breed lies that Cogburn killed Luke. But Hawk doesn’t trust Breed and wounds him in the shoulder. Breed loses his footing and plummets off the side of a steep cliff to his death.
Cogburn, Eula and Wolf proceed down river. The raft enters some violent rapids and Wolf is thrown into the water; rescued at the last possible moment by Eula tossing him a rope. Seemingly in answer to her prayer, the waters suddenly calm and Cogburn and Eula give their thanks – Cogburn declaring he has decided to give up drinking. Unhappily, Hawk and his remaining posse are waiting for the trio down river. Cogburn sets several crates of nitroglycerin afloat, concealing Eula, Wolf and himself behind the rest, fooling Hawk into believing they have not survived the rapids. As Hawk attempts to corral the wayward floating crates, Cogburn emerges with his gun drawn, exploding the nitro and killing Hawk and his men. Back in court, Eula defends Cogburn’s actions to Judge Parker. After it is understood Cogburn will be allowed to keep his badge, Eula and Wolf depart for their new mission, Eula declaring she finds the Marshal a fine man whom she deems it a great honor having known.
Rooster Cogburn is a mildly charming western/adventure. Its best moments are undeniably the slightly adversarial exchanges between John Wayne’s outwardly astringent law man and Hepburn’s genial missionary, equally as determined to have her own way. The film satisfies both characters’ intensions and thus, fans of its stars, who arguably expected no less. Rooster Cogburn was produced by the legendary Hal B. Wallis – a work horse at Warner Bros. then later, Paramount, and whose uncanny knack for overseeing some of the most memorable entertainments of all time, yielded an impressive canon of 376 movies; this one being his last. Wallis’ inimitable stamp of quality is all over the production; from Laurence Rosenthal’s understated, but lyrical score, to E. Preston Ames’ impressive art direction. Rooster Cogburn may not be in the same league as True Grit (the first Wayne/Wallis alliance that introduced this character to movie audiences), but it nevertheless provides a sort of satisfactory and penultimate epitaph to the character and Wayne’s movie career, more bitter-sweetly capped off in The Shootist (1976).
Rooster Cogburn arrives on Blu-ray via a fairly impressive transfer from Universal Home Video. Colors are not altogether as vibrant as one might expect, and occasionally the image can appear ever so softly focused, but otherwise, this is a fairly film-like 1080p presentation that will likely not disappoint. Contrast is solid and film grain has been accurately reproduced. Age-related artifacts are nonexistent. There are two very brief instances of edge enhancement, but these do not distract. The 2.0 DTS mono is well represented, with crisp dialogue. Obvious limitations exist within this dated sound field. But these have been faithfully reproduced without undue distortions. The film sounds about as good as it looks. Universal hasn’t favored us with any extras – save a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)