True Grit – 1969
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Kim Darby, Jeff Corey, Strother Martin, John Fielder
Written by Marguerite Roberts
True Grit – 2010
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Both films based on the novel True Grit by Charles Portis
The original True Grit was a hot commodity when the screenplay became available in the late 1960’s. John Wayne, after losing a bidding war with producer Hal Wallis, agreed to star in the role that seemed to be made to cap his incredible career. The movie that followed was good, but his performance was among the best of his lifetime. The script, written by formerly blacklisted writer Roberts, followed pretty closely the general nature of the source material. Throwing in some of the sensibilities of the time, it gave women a power until now unaccorded in Hollywood.
The fact that he won an Oscar for the film allowed for a reputation as a classic. One can agree it is a very watchable film, and not just because of Wayne. Duvall gives an early indicator of his acting prowess, giving the slimy Lucky Ned Pepper an indelible sneer. Glen Campbell is passable as La Beouf, given that he was the customary “non-actor” part in the film. Most of the films of Wayne throughout the late 50’s and the 60’s featured position parts for singers, young actors, or whomever the studio wanted to promote with the power of Wayne’s name. Also featured in an eerily prescient role was Dennis Hopper, playing the aptly named Moon, who gives up valuable information at a dear cost.
The magic of Wayne as Rooster Cogburn was the play against type as a loquacious Marshal. Normally known as the strong, silent type, Cogburn was definitely strong, while by no means silent. The words of Portis through Roberts play like pure gold for much of the movie, and only lose their effectiveness with the severe delivery of Kim Darby. Her acting is a distraction to the whole of the film. She is supposed to be an irritant. That and then some. Mia Farrow was the original choice for this role, and she bowed out after Robert Mitchum told her Hathaway could be cantankerous to work with. The film may well have been a classic, had Mitchum minded his own business.
Hathaway does a good job of keeping the spirits up, the way most films prior to Easy Rider were. This requires the ending be up, for the most part. Sure La Beouf doesn’t make it, but it doesn’t change Rooster’s general high spirits. The last gunfight is an epic that will be a standard by which all other gunfights are measured. This film, while not in the same league as indispensable classics like Red River, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers and Rio Bravo, is an excellent movie nonetheless.
Joel and Ethan Cohen were looking to make a unique version of the excellent story, and to do so, they decided to reference the original novel. The result is one of the most verbose westerns I ever did see. The principal characters in this version are all quite well presented. Hailee Steinfeld in particular has a method of delivery that is as forward as the character is intended, without making her the shrill beast that Darby created. She is at once innocent and wise.
It’s the same basic story, Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is set to avenge his murder at the hands of Tom Chaney (an appropriately dim Brolin). Instead of blind vengeance, she seeks a man who possess the grit required to dig out Chaney, who has fallen in with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper (played with gaunt effectiveness by Barry Pepper, of course, no relation). She finds Cogburn, this time played with a grimy resilience by Jeff Bridges. Accompanying them this time as La Beouf is Matt Damon. The words of Charles Portis are given the workout they deserve by the three principals, and it is the benefit of the story.
Damon pulls off some amazing work as a Texas Ranger who talks of his exploits incessantly. Even after being shot, beaten and biting his tongue in half, he talks even more. His talent at strong supporting roles is astounding, given his reputation as a leading actor. This talent will serve him well as he ages.
Bridges reaching the pinnacle of an already astonishing career, has a different type of gravitas than does his Cogburn counterpart, but it’s effectiveness is complete. He is not competing with Wayne here. Rather, he is running an entirely different game. He creates what could be considered the most annoying hero in recent memory, given his propensity for the drink and for his incessant and ignorant running commentary. Steinfeld’s Ross is unwavering in her task, though, and thanks to the great script, puts up no silly movie arguments just for false drama. Her character wants only one thing, and that is the righteous vengeance of her father’s murder.
The Cohen brothers have a remarkable clarity of purpose to their film. They understand the times of the story perfectly, and portray it in such a way as was consistent with that time. There is no revisionism here. Native Americans are portrayed with a disdain here that was taken for granted in 1880, without the political correctness that Hollywood has often deemed necessary. The Cohens are smart enough to realize that the mistreatment of these people does not make the non-Natives look any better or wiser. In fact, it does the opposite. That wisdom makes the movie a lot better.
The net result is a movie that is in most ways superior to the original. Both lead performances are classic, but only the 2010 version of the film matches the lead’s performance.
True Grit -1969 (**** out of *****)
True Grit – 2010 (***** out of ******)