Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TRUE GRIT 1969


I have to make two things clear from the start: I am not a fan of westerns and I’m REALLY not a fan of John Wayne. Having firmly established that fact, I’m afraid I must also lay simultaneous claim to the patently contradictory declaration that “True Grit”— incontestably both a western and a John Wayne film — is one of my all-time favorite movies.

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
The by-now familiar story concerns the efforts of a headstrong girl (the appealingly androgynous Kim Darby, whose haircut here makes her look like a somewhat more masculine Justin Bieber) to bring to justice the murderer of her father. To assist her in her quest she enlists the aid of a boozy, trigger-happy U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) and a chubby-cheeked Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (the genial singing star Glen Campbell, whose acting style consists of scrunching up his face a lot).

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.
The first time I saw "True Grit" it played out for me like a thrill-a-minute tall-tale told around a campfire at night. It engaged me from its first frames to its last, doling out equal parts thrills, laughs, and heart. To this day I can watch the film, aware of its artificiality and inauthenticity, yet powerless and unwilling to allow that to mar the enjoyment I find in the likable characters, ofttimes hilarious dialog, and terrific performances. Much like 1965s "Cat Ballou," "True Grit" is the perfect western for people who don't like westerns.
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 and off-screen pro-war politics 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
 In "True Grit" John Wayne gives a bravely self-deprecating performance, allowing himself to be called a fat, slovenly, kill-happy, sexist drunk by most of the cast for a good deal of the picture. His machismo is met and bested in nearly every scene by the resourceful Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell, while not really anybody's idea of a western hero, cuts a more dashing figure of youth and vitality. This subtle peeling away of the anachronistic myth of the Great White Frontiersman has the not-undesired effect of making Wayne into a more sympathetic character.
Rooster meets his match.
Indeed, Wayne has so much abuse heaped on his head in the film that by the time of the climactic gun battle where he single-handedly takes on 4 desperadoes while wielding a pistol, a rifle, and holding his horse's reins in his teeth, the audience is practically on its feet cheering, happy to see a moment of old-school Wayne in this sea of western revisionism.
No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much! 

PERFORMANCES:
I've never held with the accepted belief that John Wayne so overpowers the film that the story shifts focus from Darby's Mattie Ross to Wayne's Rooster Cogburn the moment he appears. I'm sure that's what Wayne fans experience, but as good as Wayne is (and he's VERY good. I can't imagine how he made that one eye so expressive!) the under-appreciated and very talented Kim Darby is the main reason I like the film so much.
Her performance is surprisingly strong and she holds the narrative thread together by investing her character's single-minded indomitability with a deep sense of loss and pugnacious vulnerability. Just watch how she matches the energy and skill of veterans like Wayne and Strother Martin in their scenes together. Much like Mattie Ross, Darby refuses to be shunted off to the sidelines by the seasoned, all-male cast, and brilliantly holds her own. Her gutsy yet gentle portrayal also serves to smooth over and humanize all the macho gunplay and violence that tends to get so tiresome in westerns.
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 that all seemed to use the same fake-looking, studio backlot town, "True Grit" has eye-poppingly spectacular locations that are lush and majestic in their 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 authenticity in a movie where we're asked to believe 4 hardened gunmen can miss a big target like Rooster Cogburn in a faceoff?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Movies are a visual medium to be sure, but there is nothing like a well written story. The source novel by Charles Portis is a great bit of storytelling brought to vivid life on the screen  by Marguerite Roberts. The dialog, the characters, and the simple structure of the plot is perfection itself. So many films today suffer from over-plotting; afraid of losing an audience's attention, they trip themselves up with A, B & even C storylines, subplots piled upon subplots, and 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 ever. Great storytelling, great moviemaking.
Consummate character actor Strother Martin is memorable in his scenes as the exasperated autioneer 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 that claims to hew closely to it is on a winning track from the getgo. I am not usually fond of remakes, but in this case I am eager to see these great characters interpreted by a new generation of actors and a new sensibility. Though it will always be special to me and irreplaceable for the film that it is, the original "True Grit" came with a lot of baggage (not only the John Wayne issue, but the casting of the then-immensely popular Glen Campbell was a blatant box-office gesture). 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!"

4 comments:

  1. Old fat men everywhere pretend that there is some John Wayne in us.

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  2. @Anonymous
    There is something a little poetic in what you wrote. Poetic in that you nailed, very succinctly, a truth that probably lies at the core of the lasting appeal of a film like this.
    This not-so-fat old man found himself identifying with aged Sir Michael Caine in 2009's vigilante drama, "Harry Brown."
    Thanks for the comment!

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  3. I dare say this version of the classic book by Charles Portis is BETTER then the original movie starring John Wayne. Hailee Steinfield was awesome as Mattie Ross. In my opinion, she stole the show. Definitely a must have for the movie collection!

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  4. Hi Espana, Thanks for visiting the blog. Since writing this, I finally did get to see the remake, and I enjoyed it very much. And I agree, Hailee Steinfeld was a terrific Mattie Ross.

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