John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. Both stars had been just that, stars, non-stop since the 1930s and by the mid 1970s were in the later parts of their careers. But even with all those classics films, classic roles and interesting pairings of stars, the duo had never worked together...until 1975's Rooster Cogburn, also known as Rooster Cogburn...and the Lady.
Still working as a U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) is up to his old tricks again. Not too interested in how the law says he should bring suspects in, Cogburn has been suspended for his overzealous ways...for now. He's given his badge and title back if he promises to bring in a dangerous gang of killers led by a maniacal outlaw, Hawk (Richard Jordan). The outlaw's gang murdered an army convoy carrying nitroglycerin, shipments of rifles and a Gatling gun. Their goal? Knock off a federal depository up in the mountains. Cogburn is on their trail quickly, but he's got a problem. In Hawk's wake, the marshal finds an older woman, a missionary of sorts, Eula Goodnight (Hepburn), who saw her father and his mission almost wiped out by the gang. Cogburn hopes to bring her back to safety, but Eula has other plans. She intends to go with, helping bring her father's killers to justice.
I'm usually completely against sequels, especially when the first movie wraps up everything so nicely. That's the case with 1969's True Grit, a western that brought Wayne his only Oscar win for a long, distinguished career. It isn't a great western, but it has stood the test of time because of Wayne's scene-stealing part as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. This 1975 follow-up from director Stuart Millar takes the formula and takes it a step forward, pairing Wayne with Hepburn in a similarly scene-stealing part. Much the same way 'Grit' resonates, so does 'Rooster.' It's typical of many other late Wayne entries, straightforward and entertaining, likable, fun good guys versus dastardly bad guys, and just a lot of fun throughout. Laurence Rosenthal's score is solid, tweaking Elmer Bernstein's score from the original. Listen HERE for the theme. The Oregon locations go a long way too, the backgrounds for the shots providing a stunningly good-looking backdrop to the story.
Who are we kidding though? This is a movie that exists solely to put John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn together. The wait was worth it, the two Hollywood legends stepping to the plate in a big way. They make it look effortless. We learn some more about Rooster (including his first name), but he's still the same fat, one-eyed marshal who likes a good drink and is a tough as nails peace officer. Hepburn is not quite a spinster, but an older woman who looks to religion for answers, nagging Rooster about his drinking, his language, his boasting, a little bit of everything. The chemistry is on display from their first scene until the final scene. They argue, they bond, they talk about their pasts, finding there's plenty of differences between them, but there's also more similarities than they would have originally thought. Along for the trip is Wolf (Richard Romancito), an Indian boy in his teenage years, a capable rider who looks up to Rooster.
If you're going to have a great hero to lead the way, you need an equally bad villain to put in his way. In steps Richard Jordan, an underrated actor who never became a huge star. His Hawk is beyond intense, his upcoming robbery of a gold depository becoming almost an obsession. In some nice touches with Hawk and his gang, we learn about some past meetings with Cogburn. In his gang, look for Anthony Zerbe as Breed, a tracker/scout who used to ride with Rooster, now on the outlaw trail, and Hawk's maligned right-hand man, Luke, played by 1970s tough guy Paul Koslo. John McIntire makes a quick but memorable appearance as Judge Parker, the court representative who always has to deal with Rooster. Strother Martin hams it up in a one-scene appearance as McCoy, a cantankerous veteran of the sea now renting his raft for river crossings.
Heading into this movie, if you're looking for any sort of groundbreaking western, you're going to be disappointed. The focus is clearly on Wayne and Hepburn, the highpoints their scenes sitting around a campfire, talking while riding on a wagon, moving along the trail. The potential was there for a darker western with more shoot 'em up and gunplay, but for the most part Jordan as Hawk is underused. This is a good, old-fashioned western that plays like comfort food. Just sit back and enjoy this one.
Rooster Cogburn (1975): ***/****