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Rooster Cogburn

Universal // PG // May 6, 2003
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 10, 2003 | E-mail the Author
A movie that's simultaneously enjoyable and mediocre, Rooster Cogburn (1975) marked the only teaming of two of Hollywood's most stellar figures: John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. The filmed turned out to be Wayne's penultimate film (his last, The Shootist, was released the following year), and well as the last film of legendary producer Hal Wallis. Many have suggested that Rooster Cogburn is little more than a half-baked remake of The African Queen (1951), and there are, inarguably, many similarities.

Like The African Queen, Hepburn plays a strong-willed missionary, this time called Eula Goodnight, whose father has been murdered by a band of outlaws. Hot on their trail is hard-drinking and-a-cussin' Rooster Cogburn (Wayne, reprising his Oscar-winning character from 1969's True Grit), and like Hepburn and Bogie years before, the mismatched pair travel downriver through the wilderness, accompanied here by a young Indian named Wolf (Richard Romancito). Wolf, incidentally, seems to exist solely to give someone the two leads can complain about the other to.

(minor spoilers ahead)

The similarities between this film and African Queen are many. In both films, Hepburn grieves over the murder of a fellow missionary, and chastises her traveling companion for drinking too much. In both there is a scene where the characters ride dangerous rapids and both stories are resolved with massive explosions that kill all the bad guys. That said, Wayne's broadly-played, confident and sociable Rooster is actually quite different from Bogie's inarticulate and solitary Charlie Allnut. Allnut's reformed, however reluctantly and temporary, by Hepburn's strong-willed missionary, who refuses to give even an inch. In The African Queen, Hepburn's Rose tried to maintain a Christian, ladylike dignity in the African jungle, but Eula Goodnight is a genuine frontierswoman, who takes life as it comes, and can shoot with the best of them. In Rooster Cogburn, the two leads are more or less equals. They may needle each other, but also clearly respect the other's strengths, and are fascinated with one another. The film doesn't shy away from their age, either and, admirably, they don't fall in love like Kate and Bogie in John Huston's film. For all of Rooster Cogburn's shortcomings, the companionship of its leads is more believable than the romance which blossoms in African Queen.

Part of this, of course, comes from the stars themselves, and the inherent contrast of the seminal feminist actor (never actress) who attended Bryn Mawr, and the ex-football player, cowboy star-turned voice of the Silent Majority. As it turned out, offscreen as well as on, the two adored one another. This obvious affection, combined with Hepburn and Wayne's considerable star power, makes their scenes together memorable. They are, simply, a joy to watch, both so good one easily forgives the film's derivative story and its other glaring faults. There's real magic when they're together onscreen, which fortunately is most of the time.

The script is credited to one Martin Julien, but that turns out to have been a pseudonym for Martha Hyer, who also happened to be Mrs. Hal Wallis. Wallis had produced True Grit, while Hyer had co-starred with Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), so both had a pretty good grasp of Wayne's appeal. Wisely, Hyer's script is more dialogue than action; by the early-1970s, Wayne's best movies (The Cowboys, The Shootist) were more reflective than packed with action. That Wayne sits on his horse or in a wagon rather than punching bad guys was a good idea; symptoms of the cancer that finally killed Wayne began appearing during this film's production. In one scene where Wayne loads a river raft, the actor is uncomfortably gasping for air.

Hyer's script is pretty much a dud as far as the main story is concerned. The bad guys are like football players who never seem to have possession of the ball. Wayne and Hepburn get a hold of their wagon of nitroglycerin early on, and the old-timers outshoot and outwit the hapless outlaws at every turn. Richard Jordan's villain is a cliched psycho-screamer-type, and you know you're in trouble when Anthony Zerbe is the band's voice of sanity.

As usual with Wayne's latter-day films, Rooster Cogburn is loaded with familiar character actors, all playing variations of their well-established screen personae, from Strother Martin's tobacco-spitting riverboat captain to John McIntire's folksy judge. Thoroughly ridiculous, though, is the notion of 69-year-old Jon Lormer as 68-year-old Kate's father. One suspects the much-younger Hyer may have had herself in mind when she wrote the script.

Video & Audio

Rooster Cogburn, along with another Wayne title, The War Wagon (1967) were among Universal's first DVD titles. Earlier this summer, both were reissued in new packaging and marketed with a dozen or so other Westerns making their DVD debut. The Wayne titles, however, have not been remastered. (Actually, in Japan these titles are 16:9 anamorphic!) Presented in 4:3 letterbox with an aspect ratio of about 2 to 1 (the film was shot in Panavision), the image is simply not up to today's standards. What might have looked great on laserdisc 10 years ago now appears dirty and discolored (the clouds and white rapids are frequently pinkish), and there is much digital artifacting throughout. The mono sound is unimpressive. This is a title sorely in need of an overhaul.

Extras A trailer is included, also in non-anamorphic letterbox format, along with some enlightening production notes and less useful star bios.

Parting Thoughts

Rooster Cogburn isn't a great Western. It's not even a good one, but in the end it doesn't matter. This is a star vehicle in the good sense of the word. The script doesn't do them any favors, but Wayne and Hepburn make the most of their scenes. These two old pros make their acting seem effortless and, more importantly, their charm and humor and tenderness is equally genuine.

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