Thursday, September 30, 2010

Favourite movies: True Grit (1969)

I have lost track of how many times I have seen True Grit. It is one of those films that is committed to memory. Marguerite Roberts' screenplay is filled with some of moviedom's most delicious dialogue as she drew heavily on Charles Portis' remarkably fine novel. The tone is one of dramatic authenticity with a dark sense of absurdity at situation and character, particularly Mattie's intractable worldview. It is the adventure of a lifetime.

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby as Mattie Ross

Rooster Cogburn: Why, by God, girl, that's a Colt's Dragoon! You're no bigger than a corn nubbin, what're you doing with all this pistol?
Mattie Ross: It belonged to my father, he carried it bravely in the war, and I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so.
Rooster Cogburn: Well, this'll sure get the job done if you can find a fence post to rest it on while you take aim.

I was 12 years old when I saw True Grit for the first time in 1969. A 12-year-old who had grown up in an era of television westerns and Audie Murphy features at our local theatre. I loved the drama, the action and the morality, sometimes ambiguous, in those stories. True Grit was the same, yet it was different. Western fans play the game of "measuring up". We would stand up to the rancher Ryker. We would not refuse Will Kane's request for help. We would know a skunk when we saw one.

In True Grit, it wasn't the tall man in the hat to whom I had to measure myself, it was a girl. It was 14 years old Mattie Ross seeking justice, seeking vengeance for the killing of her father. It was Mattie Ross standing up to a world of adults who wanted to brush her aside. It was Mattie dealing with her sorrow and pain, yet determined to have her voice heard. It was the world around her that would have to measure up to Mattie.

John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell (La Boeuf)

The viewers go on a journey with the spunky girl as she deals with the frustrations of bureaucracy and the societal expectations of children. Mattie knows she is capable and she knows what she must do. Her journey leads her to Rooster Cogburn, a marshal of skill and dubious reputation. A Texas Ranger played by Glen Campbell becomes part of the team which is an uneasy alliance. Musician Campbell does well enough considering it is a tyro acting effort, but how I wish an experienced actor had been cast in the role. I always pictured Doug McClure.

True Grit is filled with interesting characters and interesting character actors which gives the film its depth. Jeff Corey (Little Big Man) is the murderer Tom Chaney. Hank Worden (The Searchers) is a sympathetic undertaker. Edith Atwater (The Body Snatcher) is a pretentious boarding house landlady. Alfred Ryder (T-Men) a bombastic defense attorney. Donald Woods (A Tale of Two Cities) is cast as the district attorney, but sadly only has one line in the film, and doesn't appear on screen.

Strother Martin, Kim Darby

Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke) is Colonel Stonehill, a horse trader whose scenes with Kim Darby are one of the highlights of the movie.

Mattie Ross: Do you know a Marshal Rooster Cogburn?
Col. G. Stonehill: Most people around here have heard of Rooster Cogburn and some people live to regret it. I would not be surprised to learn that he's a relative of yours.

Jeremy Slate (The Sons of Katie Elder) and Dennis Hopper (Hoosiers) are two unfortunate criminals who cross paths with Rooster. Robert Duvall (The Godfather) is 'Lucky' Ned Pepper, as determined an outlaw as Rooster is a lawman. 
John Wayne, John Fiedler, H.W. Gim

John Fiedler (The Odd Couple) is Mattie's lawyer, J. Nobel Daggett.

Mattie Ross: They're in this story together. Now, I've got business across the river and if you interfere with me you may land up in court which you don't want to be. I've got a good lawyer in J. Noble Daggett.
Rooster Cogburn: [to LaBoeuf] Lawyer Daggett again.
LaBoeuf: She draws him like a gun.

John Doucette as the Sheriff

Mattie Ross: Who's the best marshal they have?
Sheriff: Bill Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn, a pitiless man, double tough, fear don't enter into his thinking. I'd have to say L.T. Quinn is the straightest, he brings his prisoners in alive.
Mattie Ross: Where would I find this Rooster?

Kim Darby as Mattie Ross

Rooster Cogburn is who Mattie feels will get the job done for her, but is she ready for the realities in store? How will the violence and hardships to come shape her character? Is it Mattie's determination and her vulnerabilities that will shape her destiny and her relationships? The novel presents the events as a memory, the story of an adventure. The movie's viewpoint is from the young girl that is Mattie Ross. We are swept up in her journey of discovery and her adventure with the force of nature that is Rooster Cogburn.

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn

Rooster Cogburn: Baby sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way.

John Wayne won an Oscar for True Grit. He had been nominated once before for Sands of Iwo Jima. Personally, if I were the Academy I would have given Duke nods for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and Island in the Sky, but I'm not the Academy.

It is impossible to say how many John Wayne movies I had seen to that point in my life. He was, to me, a true movie star and he epitomized the West, with a capital W, as it had grown in my imagination. Since that time, my main movie cowboys have become Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford, and John Wayne has become more and more, an actor who gives me great joy.

John Wayne carried a legacy of classic western portrayals of close to 40 years when he played the character of Rooster. The marshal was a man who hadn't just seen much, he had done much. However, his world was turning fast. His previous autonomous ways were becoming accountable to courts and now to a youngster, and not just any youngster, a young lady. A young lady with as keen a sense of self as his own. Their clash of wills would lead to understanding, respect, and affection that neither would experience again.

Henry Hathaway directed True Grit on location in Colorado instead of the novel's actual setting of Arkansas. Although that decision may annoy purists, it mattered little to a Nova Scotian girl who marveled only at the vast and magnificent scenery against which the tale was told. Award-winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard breathtakingly captured the magnificent scenery, making it another character in the story. Elmer Bernstein's score is one of his "rousing" variety and pushes all the right buttons.

When I think of great female performances of the 1960s it is not the Academy Award winners or the glamour queens of the era that come to mind. It is Kim Darby's valiant, heartbreaking and inspiring Mattie Ross.


  1. I love it when you say what I'm thinking, and you say it so well.
    True Grit is a western full of action and adventure, but it's such an emotional journey, I get choked up at the thought of watching it again.

  2. Thank you, novabreeze.

    It's a funny thing about the movies that you never know which stories or characters will live with you. It's an exciting thing about the movies as well.

  3. I've not seen this movie in years, but I don't think I've ever seen a review of it that focused more on Mattie than on Rooster. This post is great, so illuminating, and makes me want to see it again.

  4. Hi, Jacqueline.

    Most of the publicity surrounding the upcoming release of the Coen Bros. "True Grit" focused on their idea that this time they would tell the story from Mattie's point of view. They had me briefly wondering just what it was I have enjoyed all these years if it wasn't Mattie's story. The trailer seems to indicate that they will retain the memory aspect of the novel with a narration or the inclusion of the older Mattie.

    It's going to be interesting comparing the two versions. I hope you do take the opportunity to watch the 1969 movie again. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  5. I agree with your review 100%. Doug McClure would have been perfect as LaBoeuf. I saw the movie when I was 8 and admired Kim Darby/Mattie Ross immensely. I'm rereading the novel now and having a wonderful time!

  6. Hi, Bybee. Thanks a lot for your comment.

    Reading the novel affirms the wonderful job Marguerite Roberts did in her adapted screenplay.

  7. Nice review. I'm hoping to re watch the original before the remake opens. Can't really remember the last time I've seen it.

    To me, Coens are acknowledging the weak original casting choice of Campbell by going with a major star like Damon.

    I try to avoid reviews before I watch movies I'm planning to see, but there seems to be disappointment that Coen's haven't made it bizarre and gory. Will be a plus for me.

  8. Doug, pleased to see you here.

    It is amusing to read the disappointment of fans expecting something "different" from the Coens who said they respected the source material. The modern movie fan can be perplexing.

  9. Great review MissPaddyLee. We just saw the Coen's version over the weekend and enjoyed it - but its not as rousing or comical as the '69 version. And Stother Martin is sorely missed.

    Hailee Steinfeld is very good though.

  10. Thanks for stopping by, rcocean. While I'm curious about the new version I can't say I'm in any great hurry to catch it. I've been burned by recent remakes (The Women, 3:10 to Yuma, The Ladykillers).



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