[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Rooster Cogburn is a sitting duck for both moviemakers and movie reviewers. Given the prospect of a picture costarring John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, all Hal Wallis, Stuart Millar & co. had to do was to turn on the cameras and have them pointed in the generally right direction; and all the reviewers have to do is to note that they’ve done it. If you love Wayne and/or Hepburn you certainly won’t cease to love either as a result of this film. If you don’t love them you probably won’t start because of this film. It’s rather sad to see two axioms of the cinema turned into tautologies. For Rooster Cogburn does tend to sit and point and say Aren’t they wonderful?; and even as we admit They are! They are!, we can still fervently wish they’d been given something beautiful to do—which they do beautifully—instead of simply stroked and petted like a couple of senile Beautiful People whose bedtime is drawing nigh while the party threatens to drag on without them.
I stand second to none in my admiration of Wayne as a great star and an inimitably fine actor, and while I understand the moans of other diehard Wayne fans who protested the self-parody of True Grit (where were the Academy and all those fawning, previously hostile reviewers at the time of The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, In Harm’s Way, et glorious al,?), I still cherish that earlier Cogburn outing as a generations-deep exercise in self-(re)discovery shared by performer and viewer alike. In the new film Wayne goes through now familiar motions, so that the wheezy, single-eyeballed performance has in effect caught up to the disenchanted reaction of the Wayne diehards who registered discomfort with the earlier movie. Not that the process is hateful—just, again, sad. And not that Wayne entirely fails to remind us he has forgotten more about timing, grading, and topping than most other screen inhabitants will ever begin to learn: midst all the splay-pawed self-satirizing bravado there are uniquely wonderful moments like his invisibly considered doubletake after the departing Hepburn, at a point in time when he appears to have changed the subject as well as conversational partners, and then interjects, “She’s frightening!”—without any discernible emphasis at all, at the same time a whole professional lifetime as frontier cornball (Cogburn) and ace film professional (Wayne) lends its authority to the remark.
Martin Julien has written mostly lackluster and pretty shameless recalcitrant-love duets for the disreputable, inveterately homicidal U.S. marshal and the ramrod-straight spinster schoolmarm—but especially for John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—and it’s really too easy … one protests, even as one damn well can’t not tear up when Rooster/Duke squints at Miss Goodnight/Kate and allows, “Bein’ around you pleases me.” The conscious echoes of previous Wayne and Hepburn triumphs—True Grit and The African Queen, respectively—aren’t really echoes, true hommages, just insurance-policy reiteration and belaboring of what ought to be a very resonant biographical subtext in this essentially trivial film tale. As a western and as a movie in general, it’s more pleasant if not really more satisfying than McQ, Cahill, Brannigan (curiously, one doesn’t think to read the film as part of a more erratic recent history including The Lion in Winter, The Trojan Women, Love among the Ruins). Stuart Millar and Harry Stradling Jr. display selective eyes as seekers of creeks interestingly streamed with water plants, fields adrift with wind and leaning grass, but not very resourceful eyes as far as narratively dynamic landscape is concerned—a separation between attractive pictorialism and narrative urgency (even urgency at the pleasant level) that one never finds in the seasoned work of True Grit‘s Henry Hathaway. Wayne’s villains continue to be unworthy of him (Robert Duvall and his colorful crew were the last who really mattered, even registered their presences onscreen): the excellent young actor Richard Jordan plays a one-note madman named Hawk who doesn’t even make good his early boast as “the worst sinner along the Arkansas River”—and his failure to come close lacks the comic flavor of Strother Martin’s enjoyable (but also easy) bit as a wilderness reprobate named Shanghai McCoy who pathetically tries to persuade Miss Goodnight “I seen ever’thin’, I done ever’thin’—that’s how I know people are so miserable!” As for Miss Goodnight’s companion Wolf, neither the script nor Richard Romancito’s amateurish acting succeeds in concealing a tokenist gesture to certify that Big John is acceptable to Indians or, God help us, Young People.
Direction: Stuart Millar. Screenplay: Martin Julien; developed from the character “Rooster Cogburn” created in True Grit by Charles Portis. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Editing: Robert Swink. Music: Laurence Rosenthal. Production: Hal Wallis.
The Players: John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Jordan, Anthony Zerbe, Paul Koslo, Richard Romancito, John McIntire, Jon Lormer, Strother Martin.
Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson