Comparing Cinema’s Surprisingly Numerous Rooster Cogburns

By  · Published on June 11th, 2014

Paramount/Universal/Art by FSR

Today marks the 45th anniversary of True Grit. But just because the original is the one regarded most fondly doesn’t mean there aren’t other True Grits out there. The franchise is actually bigger than you’d think – with a novel and four films, True Grit has as much franchise moxie as Jaws does (sadly, what True Grit lacks is a theme park ride where an animatronic John Wayne heaves himself against your boat, causing a Universal Studios tour guide to blast him with a grenade launcher).

Yes, once you include the sequel Rooster Cogburn, the Coen Brothers’ remake, and the forgotten-by-society TV movie True Grit: A Further Adventure, we’ve got four True Grit movies on our hands. And with so many, we’ve also got numerous Rooster Cogburns:

  1. John Wayne in the original ’69 True Grit and its ’75 follow-up
  2. Warren Oates in A Further Adventure
  3. Jeff Bridges in the only 21st Century True Grit.

But which Cogburn is best? Which is the shaggiest, the paunchiest, the most likely to go on a drunken tirade and draw a pistol on small animals? The only way to find out is to compare our Roosters, using four distinct categories: Looks, Gunplay, Morals, and Acting Ability Of The Rooster Portrayer.

Switch your eye patch to the other eye, and let’s begin.

The Look

Rooster Cogburn is an battered down, washed up U.S. Marshal. In the original True Grit, this was symbolized by John Wayne’s ample stomach, always threatening to burst forth from his regular-sized cowboy pants. When we see him, Mattie Ross and Curiously Outdated Asian Sidekick Chen Lee eating dinner, Rooster eschews any utensils and eats with all the grace of a grumpy toddler.

But aside from that, the original True Grit and its director, Henry Hathaway, are really intent on making John Wayne’s Rooster look like the classic John Wayne Western hero. He rides across the plains on his horse as a stirring, classic Western-y theme blares across the soundtrack. When first he appears, he’s riding into town with a band of captured outlaws in tow. Then, he hauls himself off his horse and kicks one of them squarely in the buttocks. Paunch be damned, he is an American icon and always will be.

His Rooster, like the other two, is an alcoholic. But only once do we truly see him drunk and disorderly. Watch below to see Wayne in one of the rare moments when this Western classic briefly transforms into an episode of Bonanza.

This one scene aside, Wayne’s a fairly graceful Rooster Cogburn, something that can’t be said of the other two. Our first glimpse at Oates’ Rooster involves performing an HUI (Horsing Under the Influence) and singing an old cowboy song dreadfully out of pitch.

Whereas Bridges arrives in the 2010 Grit in a slightly more upright courtroom scene, then wastes no time getting to the drunken debauchery. Aside from brief moments of standing upright (primarily for the purpose of putting a bullet in a bad guy), Bridges spends his True Grit in Old Sleepy Prospector mode. Wrinkle your face in a “huh?” expression in advance, then watch the video below.

Amazingly enough, despite Wayne looking quite a bit younger than his later replacements (probably due to lack of beard), he was actually the oldest actor to ever don the eye patch. Wayne was sixty-two at the time of True Grit’s release (sixty-eight by the time Rooster Cogburn was in theaters), while Bridges was a spry sixty-one, and Oates was barely fifty. Oates, on the other hand, was the only Rooster to go without the cowboy’s signature paunch, and seemed remarkably thin for a washed-up alcoholic in A Further Adventure. At least he had a mess of wild-man curls on top to make up for it.

The Gun

Alright, so you’ve assessed each Cogburn on his outwardly physical merits. But the way they handle a gun is just as important (if not moreso, considering these are cowboy movies). The ’69 True Grit immediately makes it clear: Wayne can handle a pistol. As if we didn’t know that. Rooster extends a dinner invitation to young Mattie Ross, then sours the festivities by getting extremely drunk and pointing his pistol a rodent that’s wandered a little to close to the table. Then, blammo. No more rat.

Sure, it seems like getting drunk and shooting rats is not an indicator of a sound mental state, but the important thing here is that he can hit the rat, while plied with liquor and goofing around. If he can do that, he can kill a few men on horseback with a gun in each hand, because the first character lesson we get is that Rooster + gun = hitting of target.

Bridges, on the other hand, is not nearly so self-assured with his drunken, dinner table gunplay. When he wants to make a point by shooting something that may or may not be food, he’s not really up to the task. At all.

Also, his horse-fall is just as loopy as Wayne’s. Also, there’s the little matter of Rooster shooting LaBeouf by mistake in a heated gunfight, which comes up here.

Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is John Wayne with a little bit of drunk in him. Bridge’s Rooster is a drunk with a little bit of John Wayne in him. Oh, and Oates’ Rooster is a straight-footed, dead-eyed shot, which makes about zero sense given that the character’s still very much in the bottle.

The Morals

Oates’ version of Rooster clearly wins on moral superiority. Since A Further Adventure technically takes place after the events of True Grit and Rooster Cogburn, he’s had plenty of time to process all his past mistakes and come out a slightly less curmudgeonly old cowboy.

You see, even after two movies’ worth of drinking some things and shooting other things, the law had finally had enough of old Rooster. He rode up on a few outlaws and shot every one, and the U.S. Marshals decided that he had officially surpassed the limit of men you can shoot in cold blood while still being considered an officer of the law. Now, he’s an out-of-work caretaker to Mattie, and is escorting her to her grandfather’s for a slightly more stable home life.

This means Oates is now Mattie’s father figure, in a sense, so he’s always around to lecture her (and other young folk) in the evils of cowboy life. Which, to be honest, is pretty dull. Wouldn’t we all prefer the Rooster who has no problems bringing a young child on a dangerous manhunt?

Wayne’s Rooster is probably number two in this particular category. Yes, he’s rude to basically everyone who exists, and yes he’s probably the most blatant thief out of our three Roosters (remember the scene in the ’69 Grit where Wayne attempts to pawn off Moon and Quincy’s belongings while snickering like a naughty schoolchild? And then Mattie has to remind him not to, with a “Really, Rooster? Stealing from a dead man who plainly gave you the name and address of his next of kin while on his deathbed?” lecture?).

But he’s kind of a nice guy on top of it all. Unlike Bridges, Wayne’s Rooster, upon meeting Mattie, invites her to dinner. He even introduces her to his out-of-date Asian sidekick and nephew/house cat. A cat that he will later snuggle up to with a handful of bounty payment. Sure, Wayne might occasionally shoot off lines like:

But overall he’s a pretty chill dude.

Bridges’ Rooster is a jackass. He’s got the stealing down, and the haphazard treatment of Mattie, but neither Wayne nor Oates ever abandoned their charge in the middle of a vast, uncharted forest with naught but a single Matt Damon to look after her.

It’s basically the Wild West equivalent of “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” At the very least, Bridges also stood up for Mattie when LaBeouf decides to take a switch to her, but Wayne did that, too. Also there are things like killing the bad guys, saving Mattie’s life and being a great big hero, but that stuff is kind of a given.

The Acting

Ah, the most subjective of the four categories (unlike acting ability, it’s kind of hard to have a lengthy debate on whether someone does or does not have a beard).

John Wayne gets points for being the only Rooster Cogburn to win an Oscar (even if Bridges squeaked by with a nomination). But he must be docked a few points for his faulty commitment to authentic period dialogue, wherein all words sound like John Wayne words, but rare words like “cigar” come out like “seeee-gar.”

Jeff Bridges gets the bulk of the authentic period dialogue points, as the Coens wrote their screenplay with as much indecipherable 1800s slang as you could fit in a movie, and Bridges is all for it.

Oates, sadly, coasts his way through A Further Adventure, trying to do a John Wayne impression that’s got a depressingly small amount of John Wayne in it. He just sounds tired. And only lightly grizzled.

Let’s examine Wayne and Bridges’ Rooster Cogburns, side-by-side, in the very same scene. With some of the very same dialogue, no less.

Bridges plays it much more aloof, almost like a Law & Order interrogation scene. He seems disinterested, he chuckles to himself, and he slowly needles Moon until he gives up the goods. Wayne, on the other hand, is way more aggressive – where Bridges lays back and slowly plays the pieces against each other, Wayne interrupts everything to shout, “I’m getting at you. With the TRUTH!” Still, it’s hard to deny the appeal of that John Wayne swagger, even without much subtlety behind it.

One’s the modern slow-burn thriller, the other is a classic 60s Western with its morals right up front. It’s up to you to decide which is better.

Which is also kind of the case for our three Roosters. Weigh the categories, decide what factors most inform your selection of poultry-based cowboy hero, and choose accordingly. And once the 2047 re-remake (with a grizzled old Zac Efron in the Rooster Cogburn role) comes out, we can do this all over again.