Rooster Cogburn was the right role at the right time for John Wayne.
The screen icon said in his Oscar acceptance speech that he would have done the part long before if he’d known that award would result for him, but 1969 was ideal for the classic Western “True Grit” — now streaming on Paramount+ — since it came when the movie industry was making a major thematic shift. Tales of the Old West were being phased out for more modern stories, in both plotting and execution, and “True Grit” turned out to be a sort of victory lap for an actor and a category that had served audiences well for decades.
Wayne would continue working for several more years until his death, but he didn’t really get another part that fully equaled the impact of Cogburn (though he reprised the character in a sequel). In the Henry Hathaway-directed adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, the eyepatched lawman is enlisted by spirited young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby, a bit older than needed here, but still enjoyable) to help find her father’s killer.
The murderer is known to be one of the victim’s employees (played by Jeff Corey, among the many familiar and great character actors in the cast), but locating and capturing him proves tricky because of his alliances with other criminals. Some of them are quite familiar with Cogburn and vice versa, and their showdowns prove to be threatening and amusing at the same time.
“True Grit” also is notable for the presence of music star Glen Campbell, who had acted a couple of times previously, but this was his first major screen credit. He plays La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger with his own reasons for wanting to apprehend the man who killed Mattie’s dad; logically, Campbell also is given a chance to sing, though that happens offscreen as he croons the Oscar-nominated title tune.
As for that roster of “True Grit” co-stars, anyone who knows their actors has to appreciate a group that also includes Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Jeremy Slate, Strother Martin, John Fiedler, John Doucette and two uncredited players: Jay Silverheels, who was Tonto to “The Lone Ranger” on television, and Wilford Brimley.
While the Coen brothers made an even grittier, widely praised remake of “True Grit” in 2010, the original picture holds a special place with many film-lovers. A huge reason has to be Wayne, seen in his full movie-star glory right down to the picture’s final image … and since it’s the one and only John Wayne we’re talking about here, that is reason enough.