The character of Rooster Cogburn appeared twice, once in the eponymical 1975 film and once in 1969’s True Grit. The similarities between the two films are obvious. In each, John Wayne plays fearless, hard-drinking lawman Rooster Cogburn who, against his better judgment, gets involved in a manhunt with a woman by his side. Old Rooster would rather trail alone, but faced with strong females who won’t take no for an answer, he reluctantly relents. Each of the female co-stars has her own reasons for tracking down the bad guys, reasons that don’t always jibe with Rooster Cogburn’s motives. The differences in the films are equally obvious, with one featuring Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, a mere adolescent, little more than a girl, and the other featuring Katherine Hepburn as a tough old bird. The friendship that develops in both movies makes the good-byes at the end all the more bittersweet. Let’s have a look and compare.
True Grit: Let’s face it: Mattie Ross can be a little annoying, what with the overly formal way she talks, her blind persistence, and her lack of interpersonal skills. But here, in the movie’s final scene, she very sweetly offers to bury Rooter Cogburn in her family’s private cemetery. Rooster is clearly moved (“If you’ll excuse me if I don’t move in too soon,” he says wryly), and you get the feeling he heads for his horse pretty quickly so he won’t get choked up over Mattie’s thoughtfulness. The final line—“Come see a fat old man sometime!”—is classic Wayne, and the horse-leap over the four-rail fence is an outstanding way to close the film.
Rooster Cogburn: Just as the two films have some superficial similarities, so too do the endings, although the closing of this film is like True Grit turned on its head. It’s Eula Goodnight (Katherine Hepburn) who makes the final speech. She starts to ride away, then comes back one last time to sing Rooster’s praises (“You’re a credit to the whole male sex, and I’m proud to have you for my friend”). Then as opposed to Wayne riding off toward the horizon, it’s Ms. Goodnight who does the departing, as Rooster remonstrates with himself for letting Eula get in the last word, as she has done on previous occasions.
The Verdict: There is a lack of earnest emotion in Rooster Cogburn, despite Ms. Hepburn’s superb acting, that leaves the final scene feeling a little flat. Eula’s final benediction is overly effusive, somewhat out of character. Richard Romancito, playing Eula Goodnight’s Indian friend Wolf, gets in the way of the scene’s potential intimacy between Eula and Rooster. The ending of True Grit, on the other hand, is satisfyingly emotional precisely because the two characters play down any obvious emotion. But we feel it, and it’s meaningful. But lest the scene become maudlin, Rooster smiles at Mattie, offers up his brilliant final line, then rides off to other adventures, but (we are made to feel) with a lump in his throat. The irascible, independent, cocky peace officer has found a sort of familial love at last. In our opinion, there’s no doubt that True Grit has the better finale, by far. Disagree? Leave a comment below.