ReWatch: The Unfairly Maligned Rooster Cogburn

  • Directed by Stuart Millar
  • November 1975

This is a reappraisal/edit of my original review of the True Grit sequel Rooster Cogburn. Read and enjoy.


A curmudgeonly old marshal is joined by a preacher’s daughter in his hunt for her father’s killers.

I think Rooster Cogburn gets unfairly maligned. It’s an entertaining film. There is a good story and the performances by the actors are solid. Is it as good as True Grit? Few films are. I cannot imagine any film equaling its Oscar winning predecessor. The bar was set far too high. Judge this on its own merits.

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. This is a great gift to movie fans. In both of their long and storied careers this was their first and only film together. How? It is unfortunate because their chemistry was very good. There is real magic between them.

I saw a portion of a John Wayne interview not too long ago and Wayne had his concerns over this movie. Truth be told from what I have read on his various statements about his assorted movies he seemed to be his own harshest critic. Then again, I guess we all are. This is an entertaining movie.

Rooster is hot on the trail of a criminal that has stolen guns and nitroglycerin from the United States Cavalry as part of their plan to rob a local bank. Pretty basic Western plot but with the presence of John Wayne it becomes special. He had star power which is something lacking in the celebrities of today. You did not go to see The War Wagon or True Grit or The Cowboys. You went to see a John Wayne movie or John Wayne in The War Wagon or True Grit or The Cowboys. The power of the presence of an actor to draw viewers rather than the movie by itself to draw viewers is what separates a star from a celebrity. Another example is you watched Carson and not The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was a star as well.

This time around Rooster is hot on the trail of the villainous Hawk played by the great Richard Jordan. Jordan was a fantastic actor and appeared in such films as Logan’s Run, Les Misérables, Raise the Titanic (a personal favorite), The Yakuza, Dune, The Secret of My Success, Valdez is Coming, The Hunt for Red October, Posse and Gettysburg along with ten episodes of the original The Equalizer series and an episode of Tales from the Crypt to just scratch the surface. Richard Jordan as Hawk played the character a bit over the top reportedly because he thought the movie would flop. He was great in the role though.

Anthony Zerbe may not be world famous, but he was one of those actors that always delivered when he still performed. He is one of the great character actors and has such a varied resume. During his career he was in everything from Westerns to Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park to the second and third Matrix movies. Here he plays Breed, a tracker hired by Hawk. Breed is not quite a villain but not quite a hero either. He is in it for the money and this is just a job. Breed clearly dislikes his boss and there is clear tension between Breed and Hawk during the film. On the other hand when it comes to Rooster he clearly has respect despite knowing Rooster would shoot him if he needed.

In an effort to bring her father’s killer to justice, Rooster is accompanied by Eula Goodnight (Katherine Hepburn). She is as strong willed as Rooster. Eula is a religious woman who is a teetotaler in sharp contrast to Rooster’s hard to living ways. Hepburn makes Eula just as forceful of a character as John Wayne does with Rooster. Hepburn does not shrink into the background at all when she and Wayne 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.

By this point Hepburn was about 68 years old and her character’s father of Rev. George Goodnight is played by Jon Lormer who was only a year older than Hepburn. It strikes me as odd that they did not make them siblings. Was it necessary to have him be her father? Not really. The story would not have changed if they were brother and sister.

On their journey, Rooster and Eula are accompanied by a young native American boy named Wolf (Richard Romancito)from the settlement that Eula ran. Despite being an important character, he is poorly defined and gets little development. His family was slaughtered by Hawk and his gang but not much is done with that. He is an eager young sidekick.

This is a John Wayne film that I felt he should have ridden off into the sunset with the woman. Traditionally John Wayne’s characters ended up with some woman at the end of almost every film he was with in. Most times it felt kind of forced. I often thought 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 as friends at the very end. I know he was getting up there in age, but you give him a romantic interest in a film, they work very well together, and he doesn’t get a happily ever after? There seemed to be a real affection between the two characters. You could buy Rooster trying to settle down with her even if it was briefly. I don’t think I needed a definitive answer that they had a future together but rather something that hinted it was going in that direction would have sufficed.

It makes one think they were planning more sequels should this film be successful. Wayne being settled would make sequel stories a little harder. Supposedly they were considering a third film called Someday that never came to be. I have not been able to find hints on what the story might have been sadly. Westerns were declining in popularity and Wayne was considered too old to carry a successful film. Toss in the fact that this movie was only a moderate success and Paramount executives said “Nope.”

Can somebody explain to me why Strother Martin did not return as his character of Col. G. Stonehill from the first film? Though Rooster apparently not having strayed far from the area of the first movie, it wouldn’t have taken much of an explanation to establish his character from the last film as running this boat crossing here.

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 an 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.

There are moments in this film, though small, where Rooster seems to be acknowledging that his time is passing. One could look at that as either an acknowledgment by Wayne or the director that the type of Westerns Wayne was making were on their way out or even that Wayne himself would soon be passing. There was a different type of Western film on the rise, the revisionist Western (blech!), and the type of Western that mythologized the era were being made less and less.

Rooster Cogburn is an entertaining sequel to one of the best westerns ever made. It’s exciting and fun and just a very good watch.

Published by warrenwatchedamovie

Just a movie lover trying spread the love.

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