Saturday, January 01, 2011

True Grit (1969) ****

Many reviewers of the new Coen brothers’ version of “True Grit” have been falling all over themselves to describe how the new movie captures more of the true spirit of Charles Portis’s book than that old 1969 version, which, they say, was overly Hollywood and lacked the true grittiness of the novel. I can only assume that those reviewers either didn’t read the novel, didn’t re-watch the 1969 film, or both. I just recently read the book, and now re-watching the movie I am amazed at how faithfully it hews to the book. Even when the film makes small changes to the story, it generally captures the spirit.

“True Grit” is the story of Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), a 14-year-old girl bent on hunting down a scoundrel named Tom Cheney, who killed her father. “Spunky” just doesn’t describe Mattie; she is a force of nature. Neither attractive nor charming, Mattie is a character study in shrewdness and force of will. In a world run by men, this teenage girl uses that indomitable will to get what she wants, and what she wants is a federal marshal who will uncompromisingly pursue her dad’s killer. She finds that lawman in the form of Deputy Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne), a pitiless, one-eyed drunkard who would just as soon bring them in dead as alive. Mattie bullies Cogburn into agreeing to go after Cheney, and remarkably gets him to agree to bring her along. A Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who is also after Cheney, complicates her plan, but ultimately the tough and resourceful Mattie bends both these men to her will, and together they track down Cheney and the outlaw gang he has joined.

John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the flawed alcoholic Rooster Cogburn. He is a fascinating character who we learn has walked on both sides of the law. Doubtless, as a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Rooster didn’t lose much sleep over stealing a little Federal gold in his younger days. Likewise, as a hunter of outlaws in the lawless Indian territory, he doesn’t feel much constrained by what were considered, even at the time, usual police procedures. This, of course, is why Mattie hires Rooster. She wants someone who will stop at nothing to catch or kill Tom Cheney, not someone who might follow the letter of the law, and let him get away.

Robert Duvall does an admirable job in the small role of Lucky Ned Pepper, leader of an outlaw gang that Tom Cheney joins. He and John Wayne have one of the great all-time movie scenes together when Rooster Cogburn faces down Pepper and three other outlaws across a clearing. What makes this scene such a great exposition of Cogburn’s character is that Mattie has already been rescued and Tom Cheney captured. Cogburn could easily follow Ned Pepper’s suggestion to back off and let the rest of the outlaws escape without further bloodshed. Instead, Rooster replies “Ned, I aim to see you dead in the next thirty seconds or else hung back in Fort Smith…Now which’ll it be?” Ned returns the famous line, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” If you don’t know what Rooster’s answer to that is, I’m not gonna tell you. You just need to watch it and see!

The real hero of the story, however, is Mattie, and I’m not quite sure what it is, but Kim Darby’s portrayal of Mattie lacks something. For one thing, she is a bit hard to look at, with her ridiculous bobbed haircut that no woman would have sported in the 1890’s. Also, her face isn’t really expressive enough, and sometimes it just feels like she is reciting her lines. That’s a shame, because Mattie has some zingers, most of them straight out of the novel. When offered some whiskey: “I would never put a thief into my mouth to steal my brains.” When Ned Pepper comments that unlike most girls, she seems to like guns, she replies, “If I did, I would have one that worked.”

Darby isn’t the only example of poor casting here. Glen Campbell is a questionable choice for La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger. I suppose he does reasonably well for a musician trying to be an actor, but there is clearly some room for improvement in this role.

I can’t wait to see if the new Coen brothers‘ “True Grit” manages to improve on these and other aspects of the original film. I hope it does. This is an excellent story that is worthy of re-telling. John Wayne and company set the bar pretty high, however. The original “True Grit” is nothing less than a classic, and it does not, as some have claimed, water down the novel it is based on. Watch the new film if you get the chance, but definitely check out the original version as well.

4 stars

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