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For anyone with even a passing interest in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Rooster Cogburn (1975) is required viewing. The admittedly formulaic Western brought together the iconic screen figures John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn--for the first and only time, and in the twilight of their careers - and demonstrated each one's considerable personal charisma to be wholly complementary.
As the film's title makes plain, Wayne was called upon to reprise the role that had garnered him an Oscar six years previously, that of the one-eyed, surly, profane, hard-drinking, rule-breaking federal marshal of True Grit (1969). His badge suspended for the latest in a string of routine arrests that ended in bloodshed, Cogburn is offered reinstatement for the purpose of bringing down a ring of bank robbers that has hijacked a wagon shipment of nitroglycerin.
In an apparent bid to ensure Hepburn her equal share of center stage, Rooster Cogburn features the actress in a part that recalls one of her signature roles, that of Rose Sayer in The African Queen (1951). Hepburn's Eula Goodnight is the dutiful daughter of a New England minister performing missionary work with the local Native Americans. Unfortunately, the villains of the piece choose their ministry to decamp, and leave only Eula and a teenage boy (Richard Romancito) alive in their wake.
Cogburn rides up to the destruction as the survivors bury their dead, and is prepared to guarantee them retribution. What the gruff old lawman is completely unprepared for is Eula's determination to join the manhunt, and to prove she can ride and shoot as well as any of the marshal's absentee deputies. Her resolve wears on Cogburn, who warily allows her to join the quest.
The two legendary leads, who were each 67 years old at the time of filming, had no prior acquaintance and could not have been more diametrically opposite in their personal politics, but the mutual admiration and respect for one another's skill is obvious onscreen. In her 1991 memoir Me (Alfred A. Knopf), Hepburn had warm recollections of filming with the Duke: "His shoulders are broad-very. His chest massive-very. When I leaned against him (which I did as often as possible, I must confess-I am reduced to such innocent pleasures), thrilling. It was like leaning against a great tree...Good legs. No seat. A real man's body."
Wayne was comparably impressed by his co-star's willful nature, as evidenced in Anne Edwards' Hepburn bio A Remarkable Woman (William Morrow and Company). "You should have seen her up on those mountain locations. She can't ride a hobby horse. But she climbed right up on those horses and gave 'em hell. We had a great girl stunt rider for her, but Kate said, 'She doesn't sit as straight in the saddle as I do.'"
Though Rooster Cogburn is first and foremost a star vehicle, nods are deserved for Richard Jordan as the criminal gang's homicidal chieftain; Anthony Zerbe, memorably sleazy as the traitorous scout who betrayed the nitro shipment's route; and Strother Martin, with a scene-stealing cameo as a crabby riverside merchant.
While Hepburn continued to work into the '80s, and Wayne would have a genuine onscreen elegy with The Shootist (1976), Rooster Cogburn marked the final screen credit of Hal B. Wallis. The prolific producer's career began with Little Caesar (1931), and dozens of classics such as Casablanca (1942) , 42nd Street (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Sergeant York (1941), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and True Grit marked his resume.
One last note: Rooster Cogburn's screenplay is credited to "Martin Julien." By various accounts, "Julien" (who never received another writing credit) was a pseudonym for actress Martha Hyer. Hyer, a pretty blonde second lead of the '50s and '60s, was an Oscar nominee for her work in Some Came Running (1958), and (for the last 20 years of his life) Mrs. Hal B. Wallis.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Stuart Millar
Screenplay: Martha Hyer (as Martin Julien)
Art Direction: Preston Ames
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Editing: Robert Swink
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cast: John Wayne (Rooster Cogburn), Katharine Hepburn (Eula Goodnight), Anthony Zerbe (Breed), Richard Jordan (Hawk), John McIntire (Judge Parker), Paul Koslo (Luke), Lane Smith (Leroy), Strother Martin (McCoy), Richard Farnsworth (Rooster's deputy).
C-108m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg