Saturday, August 2, 2008

Olde Review: Rooster Cogburn

Written October, 27, 1975

"Rooster Cogburn" (Stuart Millar, 1975) Stopped by the Renton* to see Stuart Millar's "Rooster Cogburn." It was...pleasant. Not particularly exciting, but...pleasant. When I think of all the possibilities of a script involving John Wayne building on an earlier role and Katherine Hepburn....

I can even think of the possibilities of direction within the limitations imposed by the script....

Well, anyway, with the talent showcased there, let's just say the glass could have been cleaned a little better. The "Rooster Cogburn" character is described as "having gone to seed." I must agree. Cogburn is but a shadow of the characterization Wayne created in 1969, and as if to off-set it, Wayne overplays it, especially in the opening sequences, but his efforts come out looking like amateurish mugging.

Hepburn fares much better in her role but then why shouldn't she? She played the same type of character in "The African Queen." The action sequences lack the punch that a more seasoned director like Howard Hawks or Henry Hathaway might've delivered. For example, the shoot-out at the Goodnight mission where a number of Indians and Eula Goodnight's father are murdered by a gang of desperadoes--the scene should have been frightening, a horrible thing to watch, as it must have been to the Hepburn character.. But after a well-used slow zoom into the growing commotion, Millar shows us the massacre from high overhead at least 30 feet away, showing all the action encompassed in the frame, keeping us at a safe and unparticipatory distance.

Another sequence that had great had great potential was the character "Breed's" (
Anthony Zerbe) showdown with Hawk (Richard Jordan), as he is exposed for being a traitor to him. After a very lengthy series of shots between the two characters as Breed hesitates in handing over his gun, Hawk kicks him and he slides down the slope. Then, there's a shot of Breed's hat sliding down the slope (nice try, but it just doesn't work, symbolically or otherwise), and ALL OF A SUDDEN ** there is a shot of Breed falling over a cliff (I remember thinking to myself "Was there a cliff there?" Yes, but we didn't know that until the character fell off it!) There was no suspense in this scene, but there certainly would have been if Millar had told us, somehow, that there was a cliff behind him. We would have been able to think ahead even further than we had when "Hawk" asked to see "Breed's" gun. We would have seen what was coming and squirmed a bit for the character. this way, nothing. A momentary shock and it's over.***

"Rooster Cogburn" is full of missed chances like this, and it really is too bad.

It really was. I remember reading about the trials and tribulations director Millar had with his iconic, and feisty and flinty stars out on location. How they'd do a scene, and not do a re-take if they thought it was good. Wayne wasn't in the best of health, but felt he had to do his own horse-riding in front of Hepburn--the male-pride thing. And though Wayne and Hepburn got along like a house afire, it was just an unpleasant shoot. And Millar was more of a producer than a director. He was 44 when he directed "Rooster Cogburn" but his "legacy" stars treated him like a kid.

It is too bad. This is the only movie that Wayne and Hepburn did together--at this time, she was starting to go the rounds of veteran actors with whom she hadn't sparred before, like Fonda, Wayne, Olivier--and it would have been nice to have a good, decent script instead of this hashed-together combination of "The African Queen" and warmed-over "True Grit." And whatever talents Millar had, he didn't know how to gather enough material to make a film that could be cut together smoothly, or build anything approaching dramatic tension. Sometimes projects are brought together on a whim and star-power, but without the good foundation of a solid script, and a director who can find gold in a coal-mine, it'd be like building a cardboard house on the sea-shore. The whole thing collapses before there's any equity. It usually happens when a screen-couple are re-united after a big hit. Anybody remember John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John's second pairing after "Grease?" Me, neither.****

* The Renton Cinema, demolished in the 80's, is now the AMC Renton Village 8. Same location, though.

** Emphasis, mine.

*** This is the basic "Hitchcock Rule:" A scene is much more exciting if you give the audience more information. If a bomb goes off on a train *BOOM* it's over, a little disorientation and shock and it's done. But tell the audience there's a them where it is and what time's it's going to go off...and show all the people who might see it but don't, with the clock ticking down and you have a long period of suspense where people know the situation and are helpless to do anything about it. It's a much more effective scene.

**** Okay, I lied. "Two of a Kind."

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