So, who’s the better Cogburn? Of course, there’s no answer to this. If I were to guess on the consensus among the populace, I’d speculate that voting would be strongly divided by age. Anyone under the age of forty (I’m guessing) would be more likely to be in the Bridges camp. Anyone over the age of fifty would favor the Duke. Chronologically then, I should be in the Wayne camp. But it’s not that simple.
These are both fine films. And even though I have fond memories of enjoying the older film over the years, I found the Coen Brothers film incredibly entertaining. And it’s going to be hard to separate my judgement on the comparative virtues of the Cogburn portrayal from my overall feelings for the two movies. But that is what I will be trying to do here.
I’ll start by comparing both film portrayals to the novel. It is fair to say that both films depart in places from the book. Overall, I’d say that the newer movie diverges by adding additional plot elements while the older film removes some elements that give the book a harsher plot. These differences in part, exist because of the differences that exist in film-making practices between 1969 and 2010.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the novel and the 2010 film portrayal of Rooster is the greater animosity between Cogburn and LaBoeuf. In the 2010 movie LaBoeuf and Cogburn have such a major falling out that the joint expedition is ended not once but twice. A subtler difference is the increase in the amount of bantering mockery that Rooster heaps on the Texas Ranger. Although the tone and even the flavor adheres to the book’s character it is an amplification of the actual text.
The obvious change to the story line between the book and the 1969 movie is the conclusion of the story. In both the book and the 2010 movie, we read that after the desperate ride to save Mattie from the snake bite, Mattie loses her arm to the venom. Also, she never sees Rooster again. In the 1969 movie, she makes a full recovery and Cogburn meets up with her at her family home shortly after her recovery.
Taking into account the conventions that existed in 1969 against grittier subject matter, I do not feel either portrayal can be shown to excel the other in fidelity to the spirit of the book. And I would say they both are excellent translations of the book to cinema.
But that’s a cop out. Somebody has to win and someone has to lose. Surprisingly, I’m choosing Bridges. Events in the last few decades have prejudiced me in favor of tougher portrayals of the world. I find the more realistic version of things more useful and more honest. And even though it has more to do with the Coen Brothers skills as film makers than Bridges acting skills in the scene, I greatly admire the affect produced by the scene where Cogburn rides and carries Mattie to save her life. So, even though the Duke is an iconic figure and his Rooster Cogburn was one of his best parts (and won him his only Oscar), I’m giving the prize to the Dude. He definitely abides.