True Grit Blu-ray Review
The Technicolor title credits boldly pronounce themselves with a luscious deep red on this AVC MPEG-4 encode of Paramount's True Grit. But this opening titles sequence, set against a deep shot of the Ross farmstead, also reveals such horribly blurred and smudgy, indistinct detail that you may think you could be in for a poor transfer. Actually, once we shift from the opening credits to the very first shot of Mattie's father saying his goodbyes to his family and riding off with the nefarious Tom Chaney and a date with destiny, the image becomes quite impressive. Sharp and clean, nice depth and well-saturated colours change your mind and make you believe that you're in for a great transfer.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that we've got a very good transfer, but also a bit of an inconsistent one. But, I feel that the good stuff here far outweighs the bad. Some comments around the web have been discouraging, but I think this 1.85:1 hi-def image is actually a very worthwhile and commendable effort. It probably could have been even better, but this will do just fine, Baby Sister.
Grain is intact, for the most part. Occasionally, it can resemble more overt noise fluttering about in the deeper portions of the darker scenes. And there are times when it can seem flatter and less textured than at others. I wouldn’t say that DNR poses any problems, although there may be occasions when the image can look a little softened. Damage is never an issue, and the print looks amazingly robust. Contrast is nicely judged, with a very fair appreciation of the passage from light to shade in the same shot. Shadows draped across particular locations – the grass square in front of the public hanging near the start, for example – give way smartly and accurately to the thick swathes of sunlight that shine down on the onlookers, and this is especially apparent when characters move across the setting from one extreme to the other. Flames and lamplight come across well against the thick night, and the interiors of cabins and the dug-out have that cosy warm orange glow from fires. There is some high-glitz seen with the sun’s reflection on the little river by the dug-out, but I think this is inherited from the source, and not an example of high blooming whites. Blacks are strong and boast a firm and consistent depth and stability. I was very pleased by this aspect, in the main, as the film gained a lot of integrity and atmosphere from it – elements that have appeared washed-out and diluted in some previous versions. The scene down in the snake-pit allows you to see just enough of the crumbled, skeletal remains of the body beside Mattie, and the snakes are clearly rendered against the gloom, with nicely presented scales, eyes … and fangs.
Faces have a lot more detail than you may have anticipated. Skin tones and textures look terrific, even though some have been saddled with that heavy acreage of makeup so prevalent during this time. Ruddiness, or swarthiness come over well. As do freckles, liver-spots and that blue-black power-burn that adorns Chaney’s face. It anything the faces look slightly flush, but I would say that this is faithful and accurate to the source. Colours, overall, look terrific, with lots of variation in the foliage and the changing landscape, and the clothing. There is no evidence of smearing or bleeding.
What does plague the image is that it does look sharpened, which some may not abide too favourably. There isn’t any overt haloing to speak of, but some shots do appear to have been tampered with. But, generally speaking, this is a fine hi-def image that allows for a fair degree of three-dimensionality, crisp foreground and close-up detail, and a colour fidelity that is bright and welcome.
So, fill your screen, you sonofa ....!
Hats off to Paramount for allowing us to hear the film in its restored original mono, as well as providing us with a more enjoyable lossless 5.1 experience courtesy of a DTS-HD MA track.
Both sound very good, but I have to say that the surround track, even if it doesn’t really have much in the way of wraparound activity, is the one to go for. There is more width across the front, and an allowance for spatiality around the environment that brings a more natural sound to the action in its copious wide-open spaces. Gunshots carry a little bit more weight to them. They don’t bark out with hugely dynamic bombast, although they do still sound nice and meaty at times, but what helps is that they echo across the soundfield with a touch more realism than any heard on the mono track. The galloping of horses isn’t the grandest that I’ve heard on a soundtrack, but they still sound good enough to me. The sound of La Boeuf’s spurs as he clanks them on the dinner table in the boarding house has some agreeable heft – he’s just been told to remove them by the proprietor, but he still lobs them onto the table whilst everyone else is eating. That’s uncouthly cool, isn’t it?
The dialogue is well mixed, too. The drawl of the Duke, the twang of Campbell, the yabbering eloquence of Darby … and the many varied accents from the collection of rogues, all come through with well-judged variance and balance. And, like the gunshots, there is a great new sense of echo to voices shouted out over a distance. When Rooster confronts Ned Pepper out in the meadow, listen to his voice carry out over the field. It’s a great little addition to the track, and quite authentically rendered.
A really important aspect about the film is, of course, the score from Elmer Bernstein. Let’s face it, when this composer is involved with a production, his music is one of the lead players – and it deserves the best presentation that it can get. Well, his resplendent and memorable themes are able to give a good account of themselves with this mix. Whether you opt for the mono or the surround track there is that rich and brazen quality that denotes the great outdoors and the adventure that we are undertaking. I noticed that the orchestration was mixed surprisingly well too, and that individual instruments, motifs and phrases came across with warmth and energy. It swirls around the front and is allowed to bleed through to the rears.
But surround activity beyond the score doesn’t add up to a hill of beans, I’m afraid. But this doesn’t mean that the film won’t feel opened-up. Subtle ambience is catered-for, and the reach from the front speakers is certainly broader and more detailed than you would expect. Don’t wait for the sub to join the party, though. The bass is friendly and slight and not filtered deep or low enough to spook a prairie-dog. Or any neighbours.
You can’t complain about the audio presentation, folks. Those who want the pure and original sound have got it, and nicely restored it is too. And those who want the enhanced depth and atmosphere that the surround track can deliver have got what they want, too.
This is one of those occasions when people overly savvy with the extras bundled-up with such vintage releases sort of know, just by looking at the titles of the featurettes, that there is going to be little of substance here. Yet, even though there is nothing new to this Blu-ray release that fans haven't already seen and heard, this little roster, as brief as it is, actually offers a fair amount of interesting production detail and anecdote, period trivia and opinion. Since the film is qualified, in general terms at least, as a “mock” or semi classic, I suppose that we really couldn't have expected to find anything revelatory in the bonus category.
What we do get though is a fine commentary track from film and period historians Jeb and J. Stuart Rosebrook and Bob Boze Bell, all of whom have written and spoken on the genre at length before, and now attempt to place Hathaway's and Wayne's True Grit in its correct Hollywood and Western perspectives. Now, whilst they are all entertaining and forthcoming with opinion and insight, there are still a few odd discrepancies floating about their combined chat. One or two don't quite remember the film or the book too well – which seems strange considering that they would have known well in-advance that they were being recruited to discuss them both on this commentary track – and little comments about whether or not Chaney meant to kill Mattie's father or just shot him accidentally just seem to confuse an issue that is the prime motivational aspect for the entire narrative. One of them isn’t even a fan of John Wayne, which is actually a good idea as it can lead to a more balanced and objective discussion. However, even he bows down to the indomitable might of the Duke as the film progesses. Differences between the novel and the screenplay are covered, as well as the influences and attitudes that were fostered on the set and off. A great track.
The rest of the featurettes are of the cute ‘n’ brief, but still interesting variety, and they do add some meat to the bones.
We have one that focuses on what it was like Working With The Duke, which gains something by having the likes of Kim Darby and Jeremy Slate offering up some insight. In True Writing, we hear about how Marguerite Roberts went about tackling the screenplay and how it was treated by Wayne, Wallis and Hathaway. Her adherence to the original book, and its forward-thinking philosophy is also addressed. There is a neat little look at the locations that the production used in Aspen Gold: Locations of True Grit, in which we discover how the film provided lots of work and notoriety for the sparsely populated region, and has enabled it to gain fame. And there is a light-hearted look at the Law and the Lawless, in which we are informed of the necessity of getting yourself a good nickname is you want to be a notorious outlaw. We also hear about the possible real-life characters who may have been an influence on the creation of Marshal Rooster Cogburn.
The disc is rounded-off with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Not bad, all things considered, but hardly enough to cover a longer expedition into the wilds of Indian country.
True Grit is a deserved classic of its genre. Genuinely funny, often exciting and endlessly entertaining, the Duke's original version of the critically acclaimed novel is almost like a last stand for both the actor and the trademarked and now clichéd American Western. It is surprisingly gentle for much of the time, yet it can also deliver some thunderous set-pieces that have become synonymous with the man and the myth that is John Wayne. For detractors of the superstar, this is hardly going to reveal any new depths, but the fact is that they are there. Wayne had the courage to accept his increasingly isolated position in the public eye, and to use this to inspire his characterisation of Rooster Cogburn. He is fallible, idiotic, self-centred, irascible and argumentative. But he is also loyal … and heroic … and he won’t go down without a fight.
Critics have cited the remake as besting this version in every way … but that is simply not the case. What the Coens have produced is tremendous, but it is only the same story, told the same way, but with different actors going through the motions. And Jeff Bridges, the Dude, is doing a mighty fine impersonation of John Wayne, the Duke. Here, though, is the original, genu-wine article doing what a man’s gotta do.
Paramount’s Blu-ray offers a substantial AV upgrade, although the transfer could well have been better if they hadn’t opted to rush this release out in time for the remould. But fans will certainly not be disappointed by how vibrant and detailed this image looks, and how strong and robust it sounds. We aren’t going to find a lot of extra features here, though there is nothing missing from previous versions. Personally, I would have liked the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, to have been thrown into the Blu-ray package as well. But this is not a major issue.
The original True Grit can stand very nobly beside the revised version from the Coen Brothers and, in some very important ways, even manages to better it. I heartily deputise this release, and recommend it very highly.
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