Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) is a United States Marshal who is in trouble yet again. He has just completed a mission to track down a gang of murdering thieves, and in the process he shot and killed one of them, a fact that the judge (John McIntire) is less than impressed by. He points out to Cogburn in the courtroom that the Marshal has shot over sixty outlaws, and if the West of 1880 is more civilised than ever before, you would never know it from Cogburn's behaviour. Therefore he is ordered to hand in his badge and retire - but there may be a reprieve...
It's safe to say that this film was not welcomed with open arms when it was released back in 1975, this in spite of being a quasi-sequel to Wayne's Oscar-winning turn in True Grit, surely a film that cemented his position as one of America's most beloved iconic stars, if not one of the world's. Yet here, there were grumblings that this was some cynical cash-in, that Wayne was over the hill, and the film was simply not up to snuff as Westerns went, the genre falling out of favour as it was by this time. Rooster Cogburn was not one of those revisionist works that rubbed the audience's nose in the grime of the era, and wore its traditional stylings on its sleeve.
Not even the presence of the Duke's co-star Katharine Hepburn could ensure popularity here, no matter that it was the only pairing of this odd couple of stars and novelty value was surely high. She played the religious Eula Goodnight (traditional values being paramount here), but essentially was, like Wayne, reprising her role from another movie, not a Western in that case, but The African Queen which if anything was more affectionately thought of than True Grit. Not that Wayne was stepping into the Humphrey Bogart role, as he was very much playing his part as he had before, yet this apparent hubris, to echo a far better movie in this middling one, similarly did not go down well.
Really, once you forget about all that baggage and the story of Rooster Cogburn gets underway, it's a fairly painless experience. Eula meets up with the Marshal when he is on the trail of two villains, played by Anthony Zerbe and Richard Jordan, and their gang of randomly assembled ne'erdowells who have purloined a number of boxes of nitroglycerin and plan to use them to secure a horde of gold. As if that were not bad enough, they also have a tendency to kill off innocent bystanders, as Eula discovers when they murder her even more aged father, a preacher tending the spiritual needs of the Indians in that territory. So when Cogburn rides up, she insists on going with him to see justice done.
The filmmakers had fun with Hepburn as she is introduced as a pious, godfearing but not man-fearing old biddy, and over the course of the adventure she turns out to be less moral than we might have initially expected, but only for the purposes of comedy. So she is revealed to be an expert sharpshooter which comes in handy when the gang start to shoot back, and will help herself to an expensive pocket watch from one of the dead outlaws when nobody is looking, that sort of thing. Nothing if not predictable, the movie sets up the two stars as chalk and cheese, but has them enjoying newfound respect for each other by the close, which is possibly how they got on in real life. Accompanied by the Mattie Ross-reminscent Indian boy Wolf (Richard Romancito), this redoubtable duo are about as fun to watch as you'd expect in their elderly manner, but the naysayers had a point when they accused this of being lazy and sentimental; just right for undemanding viewing, of course. Music by Laurence Rosenthal.