I've loved movies since I was kid, but even then, there were only two kinds of films I didn't like: westerns and war movies. Seeing as these genres exemplified virtually the entire John Wayne oeuvre, by the time True Grit appeared at the local movie house on a double bill with The Odd Couple back in 1969 (I was a big fan of Jack Lemmon), I was 12 years-old and had never seen a John Wayne movie. Well, as luck would have it, my first John Wayne movie was what I consider (then and to this day) his best. True Grit is an engagingly robust and entertaining western adventure that is satisfying in all the ways that a good, old-fashioned, "popcorn movie" should be.
|John Wayne as Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn|
|Kim Darby as Mattie Ross|
|Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf|
So what was it about True Grit that made it different from the rest?
For starters it has a great "quest" storyline...(something akin to a frontier The Wizard of Oz or prairie Alice in Wonderland) populated with colorful characters, crackling dialog, and centered on a young protagonist with whom a kid could both identify and root for; its cinematography is fittingly crisp and offers up a storybook vision of the old west— all breathtaking mountain vistas and majestic trees; it has a sweeping Elmer Bernstein "Aaron Copland meets the Marlboro Man" score of rousing, orchestrated music that imbues every scene with the thrust of American myth; and best of all, in its subtle integration of emancipated women, Indians, African-Americans, and Chinese into the fabric of everyday western life, it is a refreshingly modern take on a over-exhausted genre.
|Mattie Ross (toting her father's gun) tries to convince Marshal Cogburn that she means business.|
|Rooster- "By God! She reminds me of me!"|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Part of the charm of True Grit is its gentle send-up of the John Wayne myth. Outwardly the story of a young girl's pursuit of justice, running beneath the surface of True Grit is a story about a man out of step with the times. In the tamed West of True Grit - a West of lawyers, evolving women's roles, and boarding houses that eschew spurs in the dining room; Rooster Cogburn is something of a dinosaur. A symbol of a lawless time that civilized townsfolk would be happy to put behind them. In the America of 1969 John Wayne was also a bit of a dinosaur. His ultra- conservative screen image, pro-war politics, and ofttimes moronic offscreen statements on racial matters, alienated him from the very individuals that were emerging as the core movie-going audience of the New Hollywood — the young college crowd. After the gung-ho embarrassment that was The Green Berets (a 1968 film I had the misfortune to see several decades later) Wayne gets a chance at big-screen redemption in True Grit.
|John Wayne's right eye, outacting Glen Campbell|
|Rooster meets his match.|
|No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!|
|Lightening failed to strike twice for Darby and Campell who were reteamed a year later in Norwood, a forgotten film also based on a Charles Portis novel and adapted by Marguerite Roberts.|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
For a city boy like me, a western couldn't look more like a western than True Grit. A huge departure from the B&W TV westerns of the day, all of which seemed to use the same fake-looking studio backlot town, True Grit's use of spectacular, eye-popping natural locations add both a visual lushness and heroic scope.
With traditional western mythology at the core of the narrative, director Henry Hathaway treats the locations like another character in the story. Not only do the mountains and streams provide colorful backdrop, but each scene that plays out in front of one of these magnificent landscapes seems to pay homage to decades of western (movie) tradition. And for those purists who would balk at the Colorado Rockies standing in for the plains of Arkansas and Oklahoma...are we really looking for documentary authenticity in a movie where we're asked to believe four hardened gunmen all manage to miss hitting a big target like Rooster Cogburn in a four-against-one faceoff?
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Movies are a visual medium to be sure, but there's nothing like a well-written story. The source novel by Charles Portis is a great bit of folkloric storytelling brought to vivid life on the screen by Marguerite Roberts. The dialog, the characters, and even the simple structure of the plot is perfection itself. So many films today suffer from over-plotting. Ruled by audience short attention spans, they trip themselves up with A, B & even C storylines; subplots piled upon subplots; and with all this they still never make sense. Here you have a direct narrative with three acts, rising action, character arc, sentimentality, heroism, and probably one of the most satisfyingly-resolved conclusions of a western ever put to film. Great storytelling, great moviemaking.
|Consummate character actor Strother Martin is memorable in his scenes as the exasperated auctioneer who has one too many encounters with the headstrong Mattie Ross|
|You have to look far to find a more menacing western villain than Robert Duvall as "Lucky" Ned Pepper|
I have not yet seen the Coen brothers' 2010 remake, but I am very much looking forward to the DVD release. As stated, I think the source novel is foolproof, and any film which claims to hew closely to it is on a winning track from the getgo. I generally tend not be too fond of remakes, but in this case I am eager to see these great characters interpreted by a new generation of actors and interpreted perhaps with a new sensibility. The original True Grit will always be special to me and irreplaceable in my memories, but it does come with a lot of baggage (not only the John Wayne issue, but the casting of the then-immensely popular Glen Campbell was blatant stunt-casting and an obvious box-office bid). It's been a while now and I think it's high time I see another western...who cares if it's the same one?
|"Well, come see a fat old man sometime!"|