Tuesday, April 5, 2011


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!"

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 also 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 who 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 even 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 (very unpopular with the young anti-war, but ticket-buying crowd) 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 four 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!"

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 often becomes so repetitious and 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.

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?

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!"
Copyright © Ken Anderson


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

  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!

  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!

  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.

  5. Hi Ken,

    It's funny when a film in a genre you're usually adverse to catches your fancy and you'll watch it many times. I'm not much of a sci-fi fan but I could and have watched Aliens many times over the years. It a combination of a good suspenseful script and being a big fan of the cast, in this case Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton. I have a few more I watch occasionally, the original Alien, Outland and a very few others, but there's just something about Aliens that I find compelling no matter how often I see it. It sounds like you have that sort of connection to True Grit.

    I'm a bigger fan of westerns than you although I won't watch indiscriminately as I would with film noir or what looks like a good juicy melodrama. I have to be a fan of the stars, I love Errol Flynn westerns even though the absurdity of his Australian accent in the Old West should make him wrong for the genre but his swagger makes it work, or the director, Ford, Hawks, Hathaway or Raoul Walsh, and therefore have seen more John Wayne pictures than I normally would have since on first glance he always seems to give the same performance. Part of the reason for that is that he often does give the same performance but when he connects to the character and is working with a strong director, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River or challenged by another performer, Geraldine Page in Hondo, he can deceptively good. Such is the case with True Grit. Should he have won the Oscar that year against that amazing field of performances? Probably not but considering his contribution to the screen over decades at least he won for a piece of good work.

    I've seen the remake and Jeff Bridges is excellent as usual but I'd give the advantage to the Duke because of all the years of ethos he carries with him and imbues in the role. I preferred Hailee Steinfeld to Kim Darby however. Darby's fine but I've always found her highly risible with her odd speech pattern and flat personality but her androgyny serves the part well.

    She was hardly first choice and some of the others are fascinating in their uniqueness even though when considered as a group they share more characteristics than it would seem at first glance. Sondra Locke, Mia Farrow and Olivia Hussey all were offered and refused and I can envision any one in the part. John Wayne's own choice was an odd one but considering Glen Campbell's casting maybe not so strange. He pushed for Karen Carpenter for the role and she was seriously considered. Hard to tell how she would have done since she never did any acting but I have to wonder if she had been cast if they would have figured out a way for she and Glen to duet somewhere on the prairie, probably for the best that we didn't find out!

    There was one other actress offered the role, the queen of turning down projects that went on to great success: Tuesday Weld. I don't think anyone else comes close to the number of roles she refused that were great triumphs for other actresses. Besides this she refused Bonnie & Clyde, Elaine in The Graduate, Lolita, Norma Rae, Cactus Flower, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Rosemary's Baby, the 70's version of The Great Gatsby, Polanski's MacBeth, The Stepford Wives and The Rocky Horror Picture Show! What's amazing considering the wide range of women ultimately cast in those roles I can see her in them all so universal is her appeal. Just for example could you see Dyan Cannon in True Grit or Kim Darby in B&C&T&A? No way but Tuesday would have made sense in both. I've read that she didn't like the limelight and actually had a keen script sense choosing to stay away from anything she felt would make her too famous, if true she certainly knew what she was doing.

    1. Hi Joel
      those are some amazing (amazingly weird) casting considerations for this film. Karen Carpenter especially!
      I've seen Alien many times but I've only seen Aliens once. I like that it contains something special that speaks to you, even without your being a sci-fi fan.
      And you're right about Tuesday Weld, she is really legendary for the roles she turned down. You mke a good about her being somehow able to fit so well in so many kinds of roles, and yet be such a unique kind of actress.
      Weld, like Katherine Ross, has a lot of interesting roles they've turned down and an amazing logbook of crap they've said yes to. For fans, they must be frustration personified.
      Thanks for visiting this older post!

  6. True Grit is one of my favorites too, and your review nails its unique appeal. The character actorsin this film are terrific and add so much flavor to the proceedings. My husband and I watch it at least once a year and quote lines to each other all the time. "Ned I aim to kill you or see you hang...what'll it be?"

    Funny story: my uncle was watching True Grit in the theater. At the climatic scene when Duke singlehandedly takes on Ned Pepper and his cronies, a woman wail out "Oooooooh John!"

    1. Hi Roberta
      This is indeed a very quotable movie, something I missed in that well-made, but for me, affectless remake. I love the determined, sometimes robotically precise way Mattie talks. Reminds of what happens when a child tries to sound authoritative...a kind of unintentional parody of adult-speak.

      That is a wonderfully amusing tale of the audience member overcome by Wayne's heroics! I'm not a fan of the way people seem to talk in movies now, but I've always loved if an audience member just gets so caught up in a film that they forget where they are and spontaneously let fly with a response like that.

  7. Have you ever watched Rooster Cogburn? It's really "True Grit lite" and certainly not superior to "True Grit" but I enjoyed the chemistry between Wayne and Katherine Hepburn a great deal. Frankly, the film is mediocre at best but their scenes together belong in a better film. It's my favorite Western and I have watched it a number of times and never tire of it. I'd be interested in your opinion if you ever get around to seeing it.

    1. Hi Ron
      Yes, I have seen "Rooster Cogburn" and I probably couldn't have described it better or more succinctly than you did there. My feelings about it fairly jibe with yours. I've only seen it once, but I found the story to be kind of "The African Queen on the Range," but like you, I enjoyed Hepburn & Wayne's chemistry.

      It's been decades since I last saw it. I should check it out again.
      I think it's terrific that even though you are aware of its flaws, you still regard it as your favorite western. In that way movies are like people: we don't love someone because they're perfect, we love them because of the way they make us feel. Thanks very much for commenting and expressing interest in my opinion of a film you so enjoy.