True Grit (1969)

Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) leads a party in search of justice. "True Grit."

Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Charles Portis. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Photographed by Lucien Ballard. Production designed by Walter H. Tyler. Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Jeremy Slate, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Alfred Ryder.

An interesting difference sits between Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version of True Grit and the 2010 remake by Joel and Ethan Coen, one that helps chart the evolution of the western genre over the 30 years and change between the two. Here is much the same story (both versions inspired by Charles Portis’ book), involving the same characters, invoking the same themes…but quite different. The landscape has been adjusted, swapping scenic Colorado locations in the old for barren Texas wastelands in the new. The new one is darker, with more corpses, harsher conditions, and a greater understanding of steely Western justice. And the ending is much changed, perhaps to better elicit a meditation on the poisonous of nature of revenge, or maybe just because the Coens liked the book’s ending better. Maybe both; not sure. What I am sure of is that both pictures are very good Westerns. Sometimes a remake fails to prove its necessity, and sometimes it comes up short, and other times it succeeds so well it dismisses the original. But sometimes you have these rare occasions like True Grit, a remake like Ben-Hur or King Kong, in which both versions co-exist comfortably, and inform on each other.

One of the fundamental differences in the original True Grit is tone. It is not afraid of moments of quiet irony (an early execution scene plays on a town green full of kids at play), but most of the time it is a straight-ahead story of vengeance, with little moral ambiguity, and a different kind of weight. Jocular music frequently underscores transitions from violence. An early scene observing Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) grieving her dead father at a funeral home is well done, but feels compartmentalized – for the rest of the story, she will betray little grief, reflecting the tough world that raised her. Later sequences set in the wilderness feel lush and vibrant, as 60’s-era film stock often does, possessing none of the imposing menace that the terrain harbors with the Coens. Most of the original takes place during the day, unlike the recent film. And a sense of civility pervades the presentation of the characters: they always appear freshly scrubbed and neat, with only a throwaway line by young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) acknowledging that Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) should probably smell bad. It is simple and sometimes amusingly clean-cut. It is, stylistically, your average Western. No muss, no fuss.

But it is a good Western. As narrative hooks go, the plight of Mattie Ross, who hires a U.S. Marshall to track down the murderer of her father, is as solid as they come. Much of the film rests on the performance of Kim Darby, which is quite good, despite some reservations that are made all the clearer when comparing with the remarkable Hailee Steinfeld in the 2010 edition. Darby was 20 when she made this film, playing the 14-year-old Mattie. Steinfeld, on the other hand, is age appropriate for Mattie, and gives an electric performance in a movie full of heavy-hitters. Darby must have been an unusual choice, but she has a natural charisma that works quite well, allowing a full range of emotions that most young actors probably could not handle. Note how the remake tackles this problem, by creating a Mattie that is more withdrawn and cold. Darby, on the other hand, is intimidating and brassy as she negotiates with a horse trader and squabbles over pay with a mercenaries. Steinfeld has gotten a lot of deserved praise for her chops in the remake, but I’m not willing to tear down the Darby performance in order to do so. Within the parameters established, she’s not bad at all. In the interests of equal time, however, let us pause to consider the words of John Wayne, who bemoaned the “lack of chemistry” between him and Darby and called her “the lousiest goddamn actress I ever worked with.” So there’s that.

Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn, the ornery, drunken U.S. Marshall whom Mattie employs to track down Tom Chaney and his villain friends, with herself as a member of the search party. Wayne received an Oscar for this role, and it is a nice bit of acting from him, particularly in a moment where he lowers his defenses for Mattie and tells her about his past, as she hangs on every word of his regretful story. He is an accomplished tracker but loves the sauce, and there are delicate moments here where the inebriated Rooster becomes a source of pity. In the remake, Jeff Bridges plays many of the same notes, but they are drawn out, and the effect makes Rooster seem more buffoonish, especially coupled with Bridges’ choice to slur his words to the edge of comprehension. The comparison between them is not a complaint in either direction, simply a register of the nuances: Wayne is playing a flawed hero yearning for redemption, while Bridges is playing a pathetic wreck who stretches towards heroism. Different ideas.

The party is accompanied by the white-bread cowboy La Beouf (Glenn Campbell, who also performed the terrible terrible song that opens the film). La Beouf is a Texas Ranger, and here is where the original is marked down, because Campbell is just not very interesting in the role: he lacks personality, lacks charisma, his spurs are ridiculous, and his frequent complaints feel more like disaffected whining rather than a professional trying to make a living. In 2010, he is played by Matt Damon in a performance that gestures towards self-parody, which is amusing. In an early moment, he identifies himself as a Texas Ranger with a “no pictures, please” smirk, and his needling of Cogburn during the trek feel pointed, especially since he drifts away from the narrative at times, doing his own thing. Campbell is not bad, per se. He hits his marks, says his lines, calls it a day. He’s just average, in a screenplay that doesn’t really seem to know what exactly to do with him other than use him as an ill-defined annoyance to Mattie’s plans. Damon is better.

The middle sections of both films play pretty much the same, although in the original there are fewer moments of incident and fewer dead bodies. The deaths that do occur are given a kind of sincere sympathy that the remake delivers with an ironic subtext (Dennis Hopper has an early role and is given a send-off that is surprisingly sensitive). A sequence where the party lies in wait for the arrival of a criminal gang is an opportunity for reflection, and then there’s a nighttime shootout that truly gains little from it being set at night, since day-for-night shots from the 50s and 60s unwittingly call attention to the process. There are arguments and setbacks, and a growing bond between Cogburn and Mattie, which, given her actual age in the original, feels less parental and more romantic, but either way provides an interesting spin.

The dialogue throughout is peppered with an arch lyricism that elevates this material slightly above your standard horse opera. Much of it is lifted intact from the book, but it ain’t broke, and so neither film is in much of a hurry to fix it. Through their words, both Cogburn and Mattie show themselves as people who have grown rich personalities, no doubt cultivated from endless lonely days under the sun. Even the bit players aren’t stock, but show the care of an author who has crafted them: Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), the gang leader, is not a vile man but a pragmatist who employs a bit of strategy, even if said strategy involves threatening 20-year-old women…I’m sorry, I meant 14-year-old girls.

Pepper’s gang is where Mattie finally finds the nasty Tom Cheney (Jeff Corey), who seems alternately amused and terrified by the presence of a little girl hoping to bring him to justice. Both films take pains to show him as a pathetic figure: in the original the circumstances of Mr. Ross’ murder are stupid in a flat, realistic way. Meanwhile, the remake does not depict the murder, when Cheney finally comes on screen, he is played by Josh Brolin as a sad clown of a man, a lout who always sounds like he has a wad of beef stuck in his mouth. In 1969 their final confrontation has more catharsis, while in 2010 it is swift and anticlimactic—significantly, that is the point being made about revenge, accented by a trip inside a pit that has more consequence for Mattie in the remake than the original.

The endings here are where the two versions diverge the most. The 2010 film is more probing and intentionally cold, following the logic of its first-person narrative mode. Instead, the 1969 film whips its ending into a more palatable, heroic frenzy, closing on a note of lasting friendship that makes a welcome release to the terse, violent story that has come before. Sentimental? Perhaps, but earned. But, then, on the other hand, the new film’s ending is perhaps more affecting and human, and hews more to the logic of a girl whose life is touched by a hard lesson.

But then, I think it’s fair to submit that while the 1969 movie is about Rooster,  the 2010 film (like the book) is about Mattie through and through, never shifting away from her perspective. True, in both versions, Mattie is the one who hires Rooster in the first place. But more emphasis is placed here on Rooster’s past, and his redemption, and leaves the option definitively open for further film adventures of Rooster Cogburn (which there were). I do think it’s both telling and appropriate that the Coens, who gave cinema one of its most wonderful female protagonists with Marge Gunderson in Fargo, decided to restore the feminine perspective to one of the most enduring Western stories of all time. But no matter which way you tell it, I think it’s still a good story. Flexible.

You may have noticed that in this review I have spent almost as much time talking about the new film as I have the old, and that is partially because the new one is currently in theaters, and will contend for many Oscars, but also because it is to celebrate something that many might not take on the surface as a blessing: the simple fact that the original True Grit can no longer stand alone. Thanks to the presence of big name actors and a talented writer/director team, the original True Grit is now committed forever to being considered and discussed alongside the new one, like a cover of the same song that some prefer over the first recording. I don’t see this as a travesty, but I see it as an opportunity for further study: to inspect the genre of the Western and see how it works, and there’s an odd symmetry at work here, as the first True Grit was made on a waning tide of western movies, just like this new one may give rise to a rebirth in the genre.

Some may bemoan the lack of originality, or take issue with the choices made , or deplore the existence of a remake to a solid film at all, but I think it’s great that we have two wonderful films made from the same story, which will come as a pair when entering discussions of great westerns, great filmmakers or the value of a good retelling (not “reimagining”—I hate that word). Having viewed both films back-to-back over the past week, I was struck by the fact that I really liked both, and I love the fact that a new version is out there to speak to a new generation, and invite them back into a tradition that is older than they think, but fresher than they might expect.

I guess I prefer the Coen Brothers’ film, but not by much. For others, the new movie might just reaffirm for them why they like the 1969 version more, and isn’t that a tremendous gift in itself?


NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1988 – Lady in White


One thought on “True Grit (1969)

  1. Jeff May 12, 2013 / 5:47 pm

    Excellent review of the two True Grits.

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