What’s interesting about Rooster Cogburn (1975) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)? Not the plot or even the acting. These are four legends playing their iconic selves transcending any conceived character on a script. Through the lens of hindsight, we can see similarities beyond the obvious–these films are more than two westerns depending upon the chemistry between a man and a woman. The female in each role is as smart and strong as the male. I suspect your decision whether which film is better has more to do with the star’s ability to claim your emotions than the films themselves. Let’s see.
Rooster Cogburn and the Lady
John Wayne plays U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in a reprisal role of the character that garnered him an Oscar from the film True Grit (1969). In Rooster Cogburn, he attempts to bring down a band of outlaws who have stolen a pallet of nitroglycerin and murdered the father of Eula Goodnight, a determined Christian spinster who becomes his accomplice for justice.The bad guys, Hawk (Richard Jordan) and Breed (Anthony Zerbe), didn’t stand a chance against these two old grizzly bears. Filmed in Oregon, the gorgeous scenery and light-hearted banter between the two is why most find it a charming western. Born in 1907, both Hepburn and Wayne spent their lives surviving the wilds of Hollywood, and they both put a large stamp on it. By 1975, they arrived on-screen for the first time together as symbols of manhood and womanhood, each a strong model for their gender.
John Wayne had a sweet center inside that rock hard personality when he solved all of life’s problems. He took care of the bad guy, protected his women and property, and was loyal to those who deserved it. In a John Wayne world, there was order, and it appealed to many who suffered through a century filled with depression, world wars, riots, and mayhem. His conservative integrity combined with his giant-like stature made him an American hero.
Katharine Hepburn was as unwavering and explosive as a wagon of nitroglycerin. Her characters quibble with intelligence, sarcasm, or religious morality, and she was an equal to her male counterparts whether played by Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, or Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951). Although Katharine herself was an atheist, Hepburn’s Eula Goodnight and Rose Sayer were beacons of Christianity and paired with gruff sinners for the purpose of dramatic tension. Who wins the battle of wills? It’s a draw, but her softened heart concedes to Bogart’s Charlie and for Wayne’s Rooster. Only Katharine Hepburn could have played the dynamic character so effortlessly. Regardless, many critics panned Rooster Cogburn as a formulaic repeat of The African Queen. Hasn’t Hollywood been doing that since its inception? Several worried that John Wayne breathing at a high altitude with one lung would collapse and that Hepburn was too old. To her critics, I imagine Katharine would retort with a line from Eula Goodnight: I do not fear the skunk; I simply do not care for its odor.
You can read all about the facts and trivia of Rooster Cogburn and the Lady at TCM HERE
Two Mules for Sister Sara
Interesting facts and trivia at the TCM site are found HERE.
Shirley MacLaine embodies with perfection all that signifies the Madonna/whore complex. With her melodious voice and porcelain skin she charms and loves devotedly. On the other hand, she has portrayed the complicated temptress with ease. Behind the scenes in Two Mules for Sister Sara, she intimidated director Don Siegel as well as Clint Eastwood with her bitchy personality like the older characters you’ve seen her play later in her career such as Steel Magnolias, Guarding Tess, or Rumor Has It.
Could there be better way to open a film than with a score by Ennio Morricone? I think not.
I love the opening scene in the deft hands of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa as he suggests the wilderness of the Mexican frontier by focusing on the dangerous creatures such as the rattlesnake and the mountain lion. Clint Eastwood plays Hogan, a mercenary who rescues a nun under attack by three outlaws. She convinces him to take her to a French garrison as she is aiding Mexican revolutionaries against the French government. He is interested in a strong box of money he has been told is hidden there. It’s a dark comedy with plenty of charm. Hogan is sexually attracted to Sara who manages to keep him at bay. Their escapades such as the arrow shot through Hogan’s chest, the attempt to blow up the train bridge, and the garrison attack are some of the reasons for its popularity. Sara’s revelation toward the end of the story makes it a fun plot twist, although, only strengthens the stereotype that women are either saintly Mary or seducing Eve.
In the end, I presume their iconic selves became interchangeable with their real selves. Of course, I don’t know, but after decades playing certain roles, don’t you think their roles shaped the person? Four icons. Four imprints.
John Wayne, Herculean; Katharine Hepburn, self-important queen; Clint Eastwood, scowling rogue; Shirley MacLaine, sweet and sour crab.
If you threw a dinner party and could invite one of them, which one would it be?