The irascible, bad-tempered, eye patch-wearing Rooster Cogburn is probably John Wayne’s most memorable character. Because he won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar in 1969 for his performance in “True Grit”, I thought it was an appropriate opportunity to re-watch the film last Oscar weekend.
What a marvelous film it is, beautifully paced and filled with memorable characters, glorious scenery, a wonderful Elmer Bernstein score and a showdown that is one of the greatest scenes in western movie history.
The story is simple. Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) seeks out a man with “true grit” to go after Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), the man who shot and killed her father. She determines that U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is the man for the job, but he is an ornery cuss, to put it mildly, with little use for social niceties and even less use for Mattie. But she is willing to pay handsomely, and that’s good enough for Rooster.
A Texas Ranger named Le Boeuf (Glen Campbell) is also hunting Chaney for killing a Texas Senator. He proposes they join up together to capture him. Mattie insists on going along, and despite their attempts to evade her, she matches them every step away of the way. (“My God, she reminds me of me,” Rooster says admiringly.)
The first half of the film establishes the relationship between Mattie and Rooster. Mattie is mannered in her speech and is tight with the buck, but only wants to get what she paid for. It’s a lot of fun to see Mattie and Rooster both become warmer, more accessible people during their trek for Chaney. They see a lot of themselves in each other, and all the good and bad that entails.
During one scene at night when Mattie and Rooster are on stake out of an outlaw’s cabin, she learns about Rooster’s past: how he lost his eye in the Civil War and his relationship with his ex-wife and son. Wayne is superb in this scene. Anyone who says John Wayne can’t act should watch this scene and they will be quieted forever. His delivery is spot on, playing all the humanity and humor of the scene for maximum value.
The second half of the film really shines, when the manhunt begins. The on-location filming in Colorado is breathtaking; there’s always a piece of absolutely gorgeous scenery to take in.
One problem with contemporary westerns is they always make the countryside and towns look so dirty and dinghy, everything cast in a sepia-toned pall. Surely these mountains, forests and streams were every bit as majestic and magnificent as they are now. Why not photograph the magnificence of the West as it is? Put a rip roaring western story in this magnificent scenery and audiences will respond.
Rooster is keen to hunt for Chaney when he hears Chaney is riding with his adversary, Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). After several adventures, all parties meet in a great Colorado forest: Mattie, Le Boeuf and Chaney in the forest by an open snake pit; Rooster and the Pepper Gang on an open plain.
The scene with Rooster challenging Ned Pepper and gang is one of the great scenes in the movies. It’s five against one. Director Henry Hathaway establishes the scene from a high overhead shot. They look like ants in the field. Rooster and Ned exchange insults, but neither backs down.
Then the charge begins.
When Rooster puts those reins in his teeth charges forward with a gun blazing away in each hand, and the triumphant Bernstein music cue kicks in, well if you don’t just about jump out of your seat in sheer exhilaration, I’ll come to your funeral, because you’re likely dead.
The film’s final scene, a snow-covered mountain top cemetery with Mattie and Rooster, is the perfect ending, with touching musical accompaniment by Maestro Bernstein. I can watch that final scene forever and never get tired of it.
“True Grit” is loaded with memorable scenes and characters. So many great character actors here, like Alfred Ryder, Jeremy Slate, Dennis Hopper and John Doucette. In his two scenes with Mattie, the great Strother Martin almost steals the movie as an exasperated horse dealer. You can bet he’s never dealt with anybody like Mattie before. The cherry on the character actor sundae is mousy John Fiedler as the feared lawyer J. Noble Daggett. So many great scenes, one after the other.
Darby is excellent as Mattie, though she is truly annoying in the movie. But that’s the way the character is and she does a fine job of it. But the journey changes her, and she’s more human, and humble, than when she started out.
The film’s sore spot is Glen Campbell. Making his film debut here, he’s OK in the role, but is still learning the ropes and at times offers some goofy facial expressions. On the plus side, he does a fine job singing the title song over the opening credits, one of Bernstein’s nicest melodies.
Whenever there are articles about past Oscar winners who didn’t deserve to win, John Wayne’s name invariably comes up. He was just playing himself, they proclaim, worst Oscar ever handed out. Bosh and twaddle.
It’s a marvelous performance in every way. You see his character evolve, from coarse, uncaring Marshall to a caring father figure. Wayne was interested in exploring all aspects of the American man, and he does so here in a most winning fashion. Besides, who would they have given the Best Actor Oscar to, those two mopes from “Midnight Cowboy”? Nope, the Academy made the right decision.
Rating for “True Grit”: Four stars.
In 1975, Wayne reprised the role in his penultimate film, titled simply “Rooster Cogburn.” In that film he co-starred for the first and only time with Katharine Hepburn.
It’s pretty much a remake of Hepburn’s earlier “The African Queen” (1951), with Kate again the missionary forced to undertake a mission with a crude and uncouth man whom she disdains before ultimately he earns her respect, and her love. They even ride down some river rapids together, just like Kate and Bogie did in the Congo.
It’s fun to see them play off against each other. Despite their political persuasions, they took a great liking to each other when making the movie and their affection is translated to us.
Still, it’s odd to see Rooster brandishing a Gatling Gun in one scene. One would think Rooster wouldn’t have much use for one of those new fangled guns.
“Rooster Cogburn” does boast Richard Jordan and Anthony Zerbe in the cast, so that’s a huge plus in its favor. Any movie that has Zerbe in the cast is already up on the competition. The Oregon locations are beautiful, and there’s a very pleasant score by Laurence Rosenthal.
I remember seeing “Rooster Cogburn” on a Saturday night at the Dolton Theater, on a double feature with a “B” police flick starring George Peppard called “Newman’s Law.” It was OK, but not nearly as good as watching the Duke in his new movie.
The next day I went, for the first time, to my high school where they were having a preview day for new students and their parents. At the orientation where a family I knew from the neighborhood whose daughter would be a classmate. By coincidence I had seen them the previous night at the Dolton, so I asked them how they liked the double feature. Father, mother, daughter and son all said “Rooster Cogburn” was OK, but they all really liked “Newman’s Law.” I was appalled.
Rating for “Rooster Cogburn”: Three stars.