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True Grit Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 11, 2011 at 6:23 PM

  • Movies review

    194

    True Grit Review

    Fill your hand, you sonofabitch!”

    We can argue all day long about whether or not John Wayne deserved an Oscar for his portrayal of the ragged, overweight, drunken, one-eyed US Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn in 1969's much loved adaptation of True Grit, the great American novel by Charles Portis. Personally speaking, he did not deserve it … and I'm a staunch fan of the Duke. There is no way that he could be hailed as a Best Actor in any year of his life. But he did deserve recognition for steering an entire genre almost single-handedly and creating so many iconic and profoundly cinematic images throughout a career that spanned decades and established him as a toweringly charismatic superstar in every sense of the term. The Academy awarded Paul Newman in much the same way for The Color Of Money – and he did virtually nothing of worth in that film. And, as a little aside that could even endorse Wayne finally winning that elusive statuette, we need to analyse something quite apparent about the character of Rooster Cogburn, as created and written by Portis.

    The book's stalwart, determined and highly unorthodox hero clearly is John Wayne to begin with. So, having made a career of playing himself in everything from a lowly cowpoke, to a sheriff, to a US Marine, to an “Oirish” pugilist, to a detective, with bizarre deviations as an oil-rig fire-fighter and even a Roman legionary at the foot of Christ on the cross, it is hardly a shock to find him essaying yet another character that is undisputedly the Duke. But the thing is that this one has been modelled upon his own screen persona and, in his capable hands, is therefore absolutely, resolutely him right down to the DNA.

    And this is the thing, the very thing perhaps, that solidifies his interpretation of Cogburn as being the definitive role of his considerable life both on and off camera. Genuinely older and sitting wide in the saddle, Wayne found his politics and his views at loggerheads with an America that was rapidly riding ahead of him. His attempt to wrestle the complexities and errors of his country's involvement in South East Asia into something gung-ho and jingoistic for the masses to get behind had failed miserably with The Green Berets only the year before, and the staunch anti-communist now needed to make amends. But, if he had to do so, then he would do so on his own terms. Thus, True Grit is not necessarily an apology. This wasn't just Wayne retreating back to something that he knew all about, unlike the Vietnam War, with his tail between his legs. Nor was his manoeuvre akin to pretending that social mores hadn't irrevocably changed behind his back, and that his homeland was a different place to the one whose ideals he once held so dear. His tactic with adopting Rooster Cogburn as the badge that would carry him into the new decade was a plaintiff “from the heart” strategy that said to his critics “I may be older. And slower. But I am what I am. And I'm set in my ways … but, given the right circumstances, and the right company … even I can change. Just a little.

    And the tactic obviously worked. He got an Oscar and a whole new lease of life.

    In fact, there is evidence that Rooster Cogburn was one of the catalysts that earmarked the Duke for the role of Dirty Harry. The San Francisco homicide detective was certainly cut from the same renegade cloth as the wily old Western lawman. An outsider. A bigot. A right-wing weapon of vengeance. Yep … Harry Callahan clearly once had worn John Wayne's grizzled chops and not Clint's younger and more chiselled visage.

    And how's this for changing? On-screen, Cogburn may have all the Duke's mannerisms – a lack of patience, a super-quick gun, nice comedic timing and a silly walk – but , off-screen, the star not only entertained the thought of a screenplay written by someone on the witch-hunted blacklist, but praised it as being the best Western he'd read in years. Marguerite Roberts, who was responsible to adapting the Portis novel, which had only been in galley-form when she took the project, showed a bit of true grit, herself, when she entered into the arena with the aggressively vocal and influential Wayne. She made only a few changes here and there, and turned in one of the most authentic Westerns that Hollywood had ever greenlit to that date. I'll discuss her version in more depth a little later on.

    “I won't rest until Tom Chaney's barking in hell!”

    With her father gunned-down in the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas, by a man he really shouldn't have trusted, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) makes the pilgrimage from Yell County to identify the body, take care of his business dealings and, most importantly, to enlist the services of a US Marshal to hunt down the killer and bring him to justice. Hoping to find a candidate with the appropriate true grit, she recruits the dangerous, volatile, one-eyed alcoholic, Rooster Cogburn (Wayne, of course), after admiring his stubborn and avenging attitude in his testimony in a courthouse hearing, and the fact that he is renowned for shooting first, and asking questions later. But not only does she get the trigger-happy maverick lawman, but she also obtains the services of a young Texas Ranger, called La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who has been tracking Chaney (Jeff Corey), also known as Chelmsford or Chambers, for the murder of a Texas senator (and his bird-dog). Together, they must overcome strong personal reservations about one-another, and push hard into Indian country on a long and dangerous trek that will bring them into contact with various ne'er-do-wells and desperate outlaws. Guns will blaze and bodies will fall but, in the end justice will be served and lives will be enriched and bettered.

    The story is deliberately uplifting, and chequered with good cheer. Bad things do happen, but the point is made that you have to carry on, regardless … and do what’s right. And a sense of humour, albeit dogged and erstwhile, is potentially the best weapon in your arsenal.

    The narrative, quite rightly, belongs to Mattie Ross, and she comes across as a suffragette Huckleberry Fin. Her adventures with the wily old Rooster are a coming-of-age saga in their own right, but the girl is a steadfast and confident individual already, without an ounce of fear in her body. Whereas it would be more typical to find the kid as a lost and uncertain urchin, who learns decency along the way, True Grit champions her as being the most shining of examples right from the start. It has always been about the begrudging acceptance of those who were less convivial, with lower standards and imbued with less decorum than an outhouse rat, and it is the girl who brings honour and even love into the Marshal’s self-absorbed life. Mattie never loses sight of her values, her faith or her un-abiding sense of justice, but she learns that trust and comradeship can come from the most unlikely of sources. And that the “true grit” she was so willing to believe in may be hard-won, but lurks in almost everyone when the time comes.

    Kim Darby does a fine enough job of playing a fourteen-year-old girl. She almost looks the part, despite being something like twenty-one at the time, already a mother, herself, and already going through a messy divorce. She brings an alarming intelligence to the role and a vocabulary that matches her shrewdness perfectly. What seems a little too contrived to us now about her book-keeping ways and impossibly mature characterisation is actually spot-on to who Portis created in his book, just stopping short of the rather sad older version that looks back upon the adventure so admiringly from a spinster's stale existence in the epilogue he wrote. It is important to note that the film does not make any romantic overtures for her – Darby's character even rebukes such a possibility of Mattie ever having a family of her own during the film’s tender climax. As a girl on the cusp of womanhood, it would have been easy and very tempting to have placed her in some form of suggestive situation. She does fall into the hands of vile outlaws and cut-throats after all, and does court the ongoing company of a drunkard. But her sexuality is never an issue. Even the remake, made during an era of enlightened understanding of the more unsavoury of implications, makes only the same fleeting reference to her femininity with La Boeuf's remark about stealing a kiss (although he finds her too young, and unattractive to pursue the deed!). I think this is perfectly wise, although probably a touch unconvincing, when we consider that the book, and Hathaway's film, have been firm family favourites since their virtually combined release. It is also worth mentioning that Darby definitely does pull the heartstrings during one early scene at the boarding-house when she cradles her father's pocket-watch to her face and breaks down in the only show of uncontrolled emotion that she permits herself. Clearly this event, and the mission she undertakes, will shape the rest of her life.

    “I don't remember any Ned Pepper.”

    “A short feisty feller. Nervous and quick. Got a messed-up lower lip.”

    “A funny lip? That don't bring anyone to mind.”

    “Wasn't always like that. I shot him in it.”

    “In the lower lip? What was you aimin' at?”

    “His upper lip.”

    It is widely known that Wayne did not get along too well with Darby, who would arrive late on-set, and had often not rehearsed her lines. Some people say they can see this tension in the performances, especially Wayne's. I don't. Even when Rooster is initially being rude and mocking and often brusquely patronising towards Mattie, I can see a real warmth there in his eyes … that is to say, his eye. And there is no indication of any alleged unprofessionalism on Darby's part, at all. There is certainly chemistry between the two, despite what Wayne said about the exact opposite being the case. It is a joy to watch the steadfast Duke being outsmarted, talked into a corner and generally put-down by this slip of girl, and it ties in to Wayne's decision to mellow-out and allow his persona to be openly lampooned, or watered-down. Drunken slapstick and tomfoolery with his home-life – slumming it in the back of a Chinaman's grocery store with his pet cat, General Price, shooting rats and playing cards – bed the character and, by association, the star in a harmless rut of appealing fallibility. We know that the brazen bravado will come. Hell, it bubbles just beneath those be-whiskered and be-whisky’d jowls all the time. But Wayne is prudent to stuff his shirt with enough nuances for us to savour before he unleashes that classic swagger and hair-trigger judgement across a screen that no longer seems as wide as it once did with his increased girth now occupying it. Those that claim that Wayne steals the show when he should be nothing more than a supporting player are missing the mark by quite some distance. We see things from Mattie’s perspective almost all the way through, and it is mainly her combination of awe, distaste and appreciation of Rooster Cogburn that allows him to take centre-stage in her, and our, eyes. He is the colourful, larger-than-life personality that drives the whole shebang. He does so in the book, and he does so here. In another medium, he would be the pantomime dame or, if you will, the Captain Jack Sparrow of an engaging ensemble-piece. He speaks louder and slower than anybody else … and that, my friends, gives him the edge. The original choice to play Mattie was Mia Farrow – Darby even has Farrow’s page-boy haircut – but I feel that this would have been a massive error. Farrow’s frail indie-angst and anxiety would have been totally at-odds with the essence of the wilful Mattie Ross, and I simply cannot imagine Wayne taking her seriously at all.

    It's become customary to denounce poor Glen Campbell's performance as the Texas Ranger, but this is also something that needs a little bit of reappraisal. The “Rhinestone Cowboy” never made any claim to being an actor – you could also say the same of Wayne, for that matter – and the studio's desire to garner a greater audience by having someone young and hip and cool is something that we still see being practiced in films today, and usually with far worse results. In Portis' novel, La Boeuf is as much a braggart as Cogburn is, but with much less to back up his claims. His love of the Rangers is unimpeachable, but Rooster knows that it is an individual's deeds that count, and not the lame fall-back on a unit's legendary prowess. Now Campbell's embodiment is a little different from that of the book and, subsequently, that seen portrayed by Matt Damon in the remake. He is not as errantly cocksure. Not as prone to grandiose statements that are met with either disinterest or outright scorn. But his La Boeuf is just as much the underdog in the proceedings as the original character. There is the same belligerent bickering between him and Rooster, the same aloof treatment of Mattie after she first catches up with them and the Ranger opts to give her a spanking, and his same eventual redemption in the eyes of both the Marshal and the girl, despite Roberts' screenplay taking a sharp and unexpectedly harsh deviation from the original source in this regard. Campbell famously sang the title song True Grit, although he had to ensure that composer Elmer Bernstein (whose iconic score I have already comprehensively covered in a separate CD review) purloined some guitars first, and fashioned a more upbeat pop tempo for his delivery of the Don Black-written lyrics. He is not the third wheel, or the deadwood, that many love to claim. Campbell’s boyish charm and sparky enthusiasm is perfectly right for the character. That said, I do love how Matt Damon handles the same character in the remake.

    “It's a rat-writ, writ fer a rat!”

    Bigger on comedy than many things he had done before, Wayne is clearly relishing his monocular iteration of who has been an ongoing, name-changing screen alter-ego since he played the Ringo Kid in John Ford's seminal Stagecoach. Whilst Rio Bravo had sought to send-up the frontier machismo and the brotherly bond of men being men, and doing what a man had to do, True Grit cut a little closer to the bone. Increasingly at odds with the world around him, Wayne nowwas something of an outsider, and a maverick. He knew this too. Which is why he is so downright convincing as a taciturn, cantankerous curmudgeon at odds with rules and regulations, religion and common decency.

    “I'm here to take you back to Fort Smith and hang you.”

    “And I think I will not go. Now how'd you like that?”

    Terrific character actors and genre stalwarts litter the story. The great Strother Martin is brilliant as the horse dealer, Colonel Stonehill, who winds-up on the wrong side of Mattie's astute negotiations over her father's ponies. His performance is leagues away from the unpleasant, body-robbing Coffer he played just prior to this in The Wild Bunch, and Percy Garris in the equally statuesque and revisionist Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid which came out the same year as True Grit. He works well with this intensely dialogue-driven sequence against Darby, the pair verbally sparring in a memorable set-piece in its own right. Robert Duvall is also marvellous as the scurrilous Ned Pepper, a no-good bandit who, as we see, isn't always all that bad either. He injects personality and depth to a role that, in any other Western before True Grit, would have been starkly one-dimensional and evil. Even Corey ensures that Tom Chaney is not as despicable in actuality as we would have liked to believe he is. “Everything happens to me,” he moans as his situation worsens. “Now I'm shot by a child!” These are unusual beats in what should have been an initially clear-cut conflict. The bad guys are portrayed as being only human … which is a real rarity in this genre. It is also terrific to see one of the Duke's more regular support cast in the lumbering form of Hank Warden (seen in The Searchers, The Alamo, McLintock, Chisum and Rio Lobo, as well as whole host of other Westerns) as the lumpen-faced undertaker conducting Mattie to her father’s coffin.

    Although not really a violent film, True Grit did still manage to shock with a couple of scenes of close-quarter mayhem. The infamous sequence in the dugout-cabin, in which the alarmingly young Dennis Hopper's injured Moon and the wrathful Quincy (Jeremy Slate) struggle under the pressure of Rooster's interrogation, is still a remarkable knee-jerker of abrupt bedlam. Incidentally, those of you who like to study the grisly bits will be pleased to note that the severed fingers that should have been on the table here in Hathaway's version, are present and correct in the Coens' remake.

    “Boots, I've got Hayes and some youngster outside with Moon and Quincy. I want you to bury 'em for me. I'm in a hurry.”

    “They're dead?”

    “Well, I wouldn't want you to bury 'em if they wasn't!”

    Much has been said about how faithful the Coen adaptation is to the source novel. Well, having read the book, seen their magnificent version of it, and obviously watched the Duke's version too many times to count, I can heartily say that they are only about as faithful as Hathaway's. There are differences – cosmetic, mainly – and one version includes things from the book that the other doesn't. I will say though, hand on heart, that I think the set-pieces in Hathaway's hands play out more in-accordance with what Portis wrote, and that the Coens do seem to have altered a couple of things merely for the sake of altering them – the whole set-up and trap at the dug-out, for example, has been unnecessarily reworked. But the characterisations, the narrative and, most pertinently, the dialogue are virtually one and the same … lifted directly from Charles Portis. Jeff Bridges, as excellent as he is in the role, is really only essaying the character in precisely the same manner as Wayne, only a little less talkatively. Bridges claims that he did not watch the Duke in the role beforehand, and we must take him at his word on that – but the fact is that his performance, despite what lots of the more obvious critics have been saying, is just like a take on Wayne's. As I have already claimed, Portis even appears to have written the character as someone he has purposely based on Wayne. Thus, if a man's gotta do it right, then a man's gotta do it as the Duke, and not as the Dude. Roberts actually adds a prologue in which we meet Mattie's father, Frank (John Pickard), and we witness the events that lead up to his murder by Chaney. This actually makes sense. Because of this, we understand the crime and there is no ambivalence about the manhunt. Plus, it enables the spectre of Tom Chaney to loom over the events that ensue, literally giving a face to “the Booger-man.”

    “I can’t help you, son. Your friend’s killed yer, and I’ve done fer him.”

    There are still a couple of rankles that this adaptation could have ironed out though. Something happens just before the final heroic act that simply doesn't make any sense. We are asked to believe that a wanted man, a fugitive on the run for murder, will just stand back and not attempt to escape once he has been caught and merely told to wait, un-cuffed or tied, behind a fence, whilst the good guys seek to capture or kill his colleagues. It doesn't make any sense at all …. and perhaps in recognition of this, the obvious thing happens and he turns the tables. But the Hathaway version does get something that is vitally important perfectly right that the Coens' remake does not. At a crucial moment, Chaney mocks Mattie when she finds herself in that seriously dangerous position down in the snake-pit. This is taken straight from the book and I am surprised that the Coens ditched it in favour of a much more obvious, though initially more dramatic turn of events. Chaney's gleeful taunting of the trapped girl actually takes the film to a darker level, and it finally paints him out as the nasty piece of work that we have told he is, all the way through.

    “And I say that’s bold talk … coming from a one-eyed fat man!”

    There is also issue of the “one that got away”. The fantastic four-against-one shoot-out that takes place on-the-hoof is a classic set-piece of all-out heroism. But, unlike so many other similar scenarios that would climax with the conventional good guy being the last one alive, Hathaway appears to allow one miscreant to escape and evade the Rooster’s justice. Let’s put it this way, we do not see one of the four baddies go down. Portis, in a throwaway line in his book, informs that one of them does, indeed, cut loose, ride wide and, thus, escape. In the confusion of this pistol-blazing joust, it is quite conceivable that Rooster, and we, too, would not see someone speeding off away from the battle … but it is still something that even just a quick shot of a fleeing rider in the distance would have confirmed for us. The Coens show us a rider ducking down against the far side of his horse, which seems to establish that he is not only no longer a target, but that he is actively seeking to remove himself from the conflict, and this man is never seen again. Although both are only following the book, this still seems like unfinished business, to me, when seen in the movie. But I am just being picky – Cogburn’s charge is surely one the great moments in the genre, and definitely the most memorable scene in the film.

    Hathaway's eye for vistas is superlative here in the ranging wilds of Colorado, his compositions old school and majestic. When we look at how Roger Deakins filmed the remake for the Coens, we see a massive difference in visual styles. The remake is cold, dour, expansive and lonely – and still achingly beautiful to look at. Lucien Ballard does the opposite for Hathaway. Here, we have those blisteringly deep shots of mountain ranges, wooded glens and sweeping high prairies that the Western is renowned for. Of course, there is no sand or yellow rock here. We are not down in Monument Valley any more and even this, alone, adds a new sort of realism and vitality to the picture. Although early moments in the courthouse and the hotel have an unfortunate TV-style blandness to them, once we hit the open range, the landscape, itself, provides all the set-dressing and art direction that you could ever wish for. No matter where the camera is pointing, there always seems to be a horizon of rugged, white-capped peaks in the distance, providing breathtaking scope and raw beauty. But the best shot that the film delivers is the grand pull-back from the Marshal, with the young and injured Mattie cradled in his arms, as he treks across miles of open country to get her to safety – the image, accompanied by Bernstein’s score, really emphasises the desolation and the hardship that they must both endure. There is even the opportunity for a couple of John Ford homages with Rooster framed in big open doorways that herald a much wider and fuller backdrop beyond, a la The Searchers. Hathaway had directed Wayne before in the awesome The Sons Of Katie Elder, and the rather unfortunate Legend Of The Lost, which pitted the Duke against the Sahara and Sophia Loren, and a change of climate in North To Alaska. He was a very solid director, who normally took no nonsense from his stars. This hard-nosed attitude actually enabled him and Duke to see eye to eye, and the two enjoyed working together.

    “Well, sister, the time has come for me to ride hard and fast.”

    Wayne would reprise the character of the Marshal in 1975, for Stuart Millar's immensely entertaining follow-on, Rooster Cogburn. Roughly speaking, it was a Western take on The African Queen, and proved to be an audience-appealing double-act between two cherished stars in the twilight of their years. The one-eyed maverick must escort the Bible-thumping Eula Goodnight (Katherine Hepburn), whose preacher father has been killed by Richard Jorden's incredibly nasty varmint, Hawk, on another mission of divine retribution, and the mismatched pair bicker and banter their way through various scrapes and confrontations before finally coming to a heart-warming and sentimental bond. Whereas the first yarn was actually quite restrained and hardly action-packed, this outing is most definitely straight out of the rip-roaring top drawer. There are numerous gunfights, explosions, back-stabbing murders, and a suspenseful raft-ride down the rapids with a consignment of nitro-glycerine. The bodycount is colossal, the violence unbelievable for a “U” certificate film, and the comedy is even broader, with Cogburn – and, you can bet, Wayne, himself – becoming more homely, tolerant and caring/sharing as a result. It is also a very decent sequel, in that it incorporates elements of the Charles Portis original novel that had been omitted from the first film. Things like the amusing lecture on the little ladies' .22 pistol, with its cute multiple barrels – rather like a hand-held Gatling Gun (the full size version plays a part in the film too) – and the hilarious drunken target practice with the Marshal's stash of corn-bread cookies. He even recites his showdown with Ned Pepper over the more dramatic occasion when he originally put the reins in his mouth and charged a greater assemblage of men coming after him … allegedly …that we hear about in the first instalment. Strother Martin would also reappear, but as a different and far less engaging hanger-on.

    The character would return yet again in the lousy TV movie spin-off in 1978, with the normally reliable Warren Oates donning the eye-patch. Although Portis probably didn’t envisage any of this, it really can’t have come as a surprise to him, either. Rooster Cogburn is such a great character that even John Carpenter paid homage to him when he blinded Snake Plissken in one eye in his future Western, Escape From New York, for no other reason than it simply looked cool and … Roosterish. And who else was Arnold Schwarzenegger mimicking when he twirled that shotgun around in Terminator 2? Wayne does it magnificently during his pivotal charge.

    As a Western picture, True Grit is a part of the transitional evolution of the genre. It may cling to a lot of the old trappings that had entertained audiences throughout the forties and fifties, but it also looked ahead to the multi-racial society that America was fitfully accepting, and the unabashed and unstoppable independence of women in amidst this upheaval. Visually, it represents a new angle in authenticity, with close attention paid to weaponry and clothing and the lifestyles of the times. We have the big old Colt Dragoon that Mattie hauls around with her, as well as the more iconic Navy Colts and Smith six-shooters. There are Henry Rifles and Winchesters, and a Sharps Rifle for the Texan. Duster-coats and thick canvas jackets take over from the once-ubiquitous shirt and waistcoat. Only the year before, the genre had been radicalised by Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch, and both Hathaway and producer Hal B. Wallis were keenly aware of this. But they knew that if a compromise could be made between realism and myth then they would have a winner on their hands. Going by the date in which the film's story takes place, we have the acknowledgement of black people holding down more responsible jobs, such as the usher at the courthouse, and the very fact that Yarnell (Ken Renard), the negro worker at the farm, is able to escort Mattie on her law-recruiting trip to Fort Smith, which certainly reveals a deeper level of trust and importance placed upon him. Now, of course, these elements were in the book, too, but you have to view their inclusion in the film – in which they could so easily have been overlooked and altered without anyone turning a hair – as being a reflection of the more open-minded times in which the film was actually made. Portis only wrote the book a year or two before, so it is also probable that he was acutely aware of such societal changes too, regardless of their accuracy to the period he was writing about.

    “So come and see a fat old man!”

    I find it fascinating how this tale was taken to peoples’ hearts – in book and film – at a time when the Western genre seemed all tired and played-out, and actually helped to give it that last vital stab in the arm that enabled Clint Eastwood, once again, to ride out and revamp it with his succession of harder, leaner, more psychological offerings like The Beguiled, The Outlaw Josie Wales and High Plains Drifter. Wayne would continue in the genre, with the aforementioned sequel and, of course, his sentimental parting shot of The Shootist, but, still smarting from missing out on Dirty Harry, he would also try to stamp his mark on cop thrillers with Brannigan and McQ, though with far less satisfying results. The horse had surely bolted long before he shut that particular stable door. Watching him here, though, is something special. An icon aware of his own mortality … but refusing to lay down and die.

    They say he can’t act … but, man, how he holds that damn screen! John Wayne can’t act far better than a great many peoplecan act, if you ask me.

    True Grit, as much as I love it, still falls short of that immediately recognisable and undeniable status as a genre masterpiece. It remains a boisterous character piece, a remarkably faithful adaptation of a novel, and an endlessly entertaining yarn. The relaxation of the Duke’s Western persona is inextricably linked to it, and, as such, it works as something of a personal, and poignant, film.

    In my eyes, it is a classic … and it comes highly recommended.