Directed by Stuart Millar
In order to get his U.S. Marshal badge back, Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne) must track down an outlaw that has robbed an explosives shipment and plans on using it steal some gold all the while with Miss Eula Goodnight (Katharine Hepburn) following along to catch her father’s killer
Rooster Cogburn is a good film. Some people have talked smack about it and called it a rehash of True Grit but honestly how do you follow up the greatness of True Grit? I do see their point but Cogburn is a marshal in the Indian Territory (eventually Oklahoma) so tracking people down is kind of his thing. Even if you think the sequel is inferior to or just a copy of the first film you have to admit that the pairing of John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn on screen is awesome. In both of their long and storied careers this was their first and only film together. It is unfortunate because their chemistry was very good.
John Wayne is all cockiness and bluster once again as Cogburn. He is still cantankerous and stuck in his ways. Wayne cast a larger than life shadow and he shares some of that once again onscreen as the character of Cogburn. Cogburn is a giant of a character perhaps a bit stuck on his own legend at this point.
Katherine Hepburn makes Eula Goodnight just as forceful of a screen presence as John Wayne does with Rooster. She does not shrink into the background at all when they are together which is no small undertaking considering Wayne’s unique screen presence. No matter your opinion of him as an actor, he owned the screen when he was up there, and Hepburn was able to be just as noticeable in a film in a genre which Wayne defined for decades.
This is a John Wayne film that I felt he should have ridden off into the sunset with the woman. All too often, and it was done not just in his Westerns but in other films with other actors of his time, Wayne would be paired up definitively with his female costar in an implied happily ever after at the end. Most times it was kind of forced. I often felt parting as friends after a brief romance might be more appropriate if there was any expression of feelings at all. But ending up together was not always necessary. Here it definitely felt like they should have been paired at the end. The story certainly looked to be heading in that direction, but Cogburn and Goodnight parted ways at the very end. I know he was getting up there in age, but you give him a romantic interest in a film and they work very well together and he doesn’t get a happily ever after? It made me think they were planning more sequels should this film be successful.
The character of Wolf (Richard Romancito) was basically there to replace Texas Marshal La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) from the first film. The character even wanted to be a marshal after meeting Rooster in an attempt to make the character similar. He was little better than a place filler and there was little resolution to his story other than he went back home with Eula.
Strother Martin, a regular John Wayne supporting actor, also shows up here. Previously in True Grit he was the horse-trading Colonel G. Stonehill that faced off against Mattie Ross in a battle of wits early in the film. In this movie he is Shanghai McCoy who runs a ferryboat at a river crossing that Rooster and the gang must use. The character is not even connected to Stonehill but Strother Martin was not a character actor that faded into the background easily. You knew who he was. And if you watched enough John Wayne films you definitely knew who he was. I do not think it would have been too much to ask for him to play the same character just having took up a different profession. One or two lines would have made the connection without slowing the narrative.
It is one of those things that has always bothered me. It is an irritant when they cast the same actor in a different role in a sequel to a film they were in. It was easier to get away with it in the mid-70s than it is today, but it is still on egregious cinematic sin. I even picked up on it at a young age and I was at a young age before VCRs were common. I get that certain people like to work together and I begrudge no one for that ever. It just felt lazy to not have him as the same character.
They have a strong cast with no slouches among them. Anthony Zerbe is a great character actor. He has a varied resume. He has been in everything from Westerns to Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park to the second Matrix movie. Here plays Breed, a tracker hired by the film’s villain Hawk (Richard Jordan). Breed is not quite a villain but not quite a hero either.
Richard Jordan as Hawk goes the direct opposite of how Robert Duvall handled Lucky Ned Pepper. While Duvall was subdued and controlled, Jordan was all wild-eyed and violent. Hawk reveled in killing while killing for Pepper it was only done when needed.
The film Rooster Cogburn can be characterized as one long chase. Either Rooster is chasing the bad guys or the bad guys are chasing Rooster and his companions with one always plotting on how to outwit the other.
When I wrote on True Grit, I noted the four actors in that film that also appeared in Star Trek TOS. It was something that as a Trekker I could not help but notice. Well this movie has a Star Trek connection too. Jon Lormer who played Rev. George Goodnight here appeared in three separate episodes which were “The Cage” (and “The Menagerie”) as Dr. Theodore Haskins, “The Return of the Archons” as Tamar, and in “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” as the ‘Old Man’ who speaks the episode’s name. Not as heavy of a connection but still an interesting one in my opinion.
In other geeky connections we have Jack Colvin as Hawk’s man Red that appeared as the tabloid reporter Jack McGee who was pursuing Banner/Hulk in The Incredible Hulk television series. Andrew Prine who appears as a husband in an uncredited role went on to appear in V the Miniseries and V: The Final Battle as Steven/Stephen. Lane Smith who also is connected to the V franchise via V the Series where he played biotech mogul Nathan Bates (though he and Prine never appear together) plays another of Hawk’s men called Leroy. Just nerdy connections.
Is Rooster Cogburn as good as True Grit? No but few movies can be. Still it is an entertaining Western adventure that pairs two screen legends for the only time and they are fantastic together. Wayne delivers his usual good one liners but all parties have good dialogue so no character really suffers even if they are filler. If you enjoy good Westerns, this movie is for you.