Watching True Grit (1969)

In anticipation of the forthcoming new adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit (written and directed by the Coen Brothers), I decided to go back and look at the first True Grit adaptation, the 1969 film starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (a “man with true grit,” as Mattie calls him). As a wee lad, I saw the film in the theater when it came out, and I don’t believe I have seen it since, although it certainly made quite an impression on me at the time—as did the Mad magazine satire that followed, True Fat (and I remember much more of True Fat than I do of the actual film—that’s what happens when you read and re-read your issues of Mad until they fall apart).

I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It’s an entertaining movie, with a witty screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, who was nominated for the Writer’s Guild of America’s award for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium for the script. Despite being blacklisted for ten years after refusing to testify in 1951 before the U. S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, Roberts is credited with screenplays for over 30 films, including several westerns in the 1960s before True Grit. I suppose one might read True Grit against that backdrop, with heroine Mattie’s story allegorically representing Roberts’ own struggles against the injustice of the McCarthy era. That Marguerite’s nickname, Maggie, is so close to the name Mattie at least suggests how easy it would have been for the writer to identify with this particular heroine.

And here’s what’s been bothering me about the Coen Brothers’s version of True Grit. In the advertising thus far, Mattie has been nearly absent, with actors Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and James Brolin getting top billing, and actress Hailee Steinfield (who plays Mattie) barely mentioned (and visible only briefly in the television advertisements). What is remarkable about the 1969 True Grit (in addition to an amiable and amusing performance from John Wayne) is the centrality of Mattie (played by Kim Darby). Tom Chaney killed her father, and she is going to bring him to justice, and both the camera and the story follow her every step of the way. Is the new version of True Grit going to be a film in which Mattie is reduced to a secondary character?

Michael Cieply, writing in the New York Times (December 3, 2010), notes “feminist spunk displayed by Mattie Ross, as portrayed by the television actor Kim Darby,” as being a notable feature of the 1969 film. He also writes that  “Studio production notes, also on file at the academy library, described her as ‘perky.’ In their leaner, meaner new movie, the Coens deliver a fiercer young heroine.” At least, Mattie is being mentioned by the directors, even if she isn’t being shown much in the advertising.  And, although I haven’t seen the new movie yet, I have to say that Mattie is pretty fierce in the first film, and describing her as “perky” seems to be the studio’s way of spinning a female protagonist to make her seem less progressive and daring than she actually is–by describing her in terms of a stereotype (the “perky” heroine) that doesn’t really fit her character. “I won’t rest,” Matty asserts, until “Tom Chaney’s rotting in hell.” Perky?

Abandoned by Cogburn and La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) at a ferry crossing, Mattie escapes from the man who is supposed to escort her back to town, dashes off on her pony, and fords the stream on her own, while Cogburn and La Boeuf stay high and dry on the ferry. Perky? Cogburn comments, “By God, she reminds me of me!” And would anyone describe Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn as “perky”?

And that’s not the only place where an explicit comparison is drawn between the two.  Mattie is a delightful character, a fourteen-year-girl  confidently navigating a man’s world, armed with her father’s pistol and the full authority of her lawyer Daggett (“She draws that lawyer’s name like a gun,” Lo Boeuf comments). Chaney dismisses her as a “bookkeeper,” but she is clearly the brains of the family and of the family farm. She confronts livery owner Stonehill (Strother Martin) about four ponies that her father purchased from him before he was killed, insisting that Stonehill buy them back. As she observes (and as her father apparently hadn’t), the ponies, although purchased for breeding purposes, are in fact geldings, and thus her father’s deal (she argues) should be voided. If lawyer Daggett is one of her weapons, another is her quick wit and clever way with words. Few western heroes, who are generally known for talking little, command words (and through words, people) the way that Mattie does. She succeeds because she is smarter and stronger-willed than anybody else in the film. It doesn’t hurt that she can out-talk everybody as well, and it also doesn’t hurt that, when it comes time for shooting, she is perfectly willing to fire her oversized pistol. “I’m here to take you back to Fort Smith and hang you,” she tells Chaney. When he moves toward her, she fires the pistol and wounds the man. “I didn’t think you’d do it,” Chaney replies shocked. It’s best not to underestimate Maggie, which Chaney does, and, by the end of the film, he’ll repeat that mistake, and Maggie will shoot him again.

True Grit is about 20 minutes too long, Glenn Campbell is really not a good actor, and there are too many action sequences (including a fairly silly encounter with a rattlesnake) at the end of the movie.  Still, the film was an unexpectedly engaging experience, in large part because of Marguerite Roberts’s script, and particularly the humor of the script. Ned Pepper, an outlaw that Chaney has taken up with, is someone that Cogburn has been chasing for a while, even getting close enough to shoot him “in his lower lip.”  “How did you happen to wound his lower lip?” someone asks, “What were you aiming at?”  Cogburn replies, “His upper lip.”  In some ways, the film has a sensibility akin to the 1990s television series, The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr., although not willing to push the comic elements of the story nearly as far as Briscoe County. I’m looking forward to the Coen Brothers’ version of the novel (they have been quite explicit in noting that this is a new adaptation and not a remake of the 1969 film), but I’m now kind of wishing that someone would remake the original film—with Bruce Campbell as Rooster Cogburn.

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2 Responses to “Watching True Grit (1969)”

  1. Dave Cremean Says:

    Michael,

    Funny, I just finally rewatched _Rooster Cogburn a week or so ago. Can’t say it was anywhere near _True Grit_, though it had a few nice moments, most memorably Rooster’s drunken shooting at stuff while on his back. I’m pretty sure that Wayne, often noted for drunkenness, was actually drunk for the scene, though I have only my impressions to back that up.

    Ned Pepper is played by Robert Duvall in _TG_, as I recall. And Campbell’s poor acting is why he was a “Rhinestone[d] Cowboy.”

    As for the advertising for the Coen Bros. version, leaving the lesser known actress out is, of course, simply a commercial decision.

    I’m glad it’s not a remake.

    That post on _Man from Laramie_ is still coming, probably soon after break begins. . . .

  2. Michael K. Johnson Says:

    Whether actually drunk or not, Wayne certainly plays drunkenness like someone who’s been there. The article in the NYT about the film that I quote from was looking back at the debate over whether or not Wayne deserved as Oscar for True Grit. To me, what gets overlooked about his performance in the film is his light touch with the humorous elements.

    Yeah, I’m also glad the Coen Brothers film is going back to the book and is not a remake. However, I also wouldn’t mind seeing the film itself remade at some point.


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