"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

True Grit (Paramount, 1969)


Rooster Cogburn, no grit? Not much!

Of course the 2010 True Grit the Coen brothers did was absolutely splendid. Full marks.

Great novel

I've also talked about the fine Charles Portis novel and you can read about that
here. There was, too, a less-than-brilliant True Grit: A Further Adventure on TV in 1978, with Warren Oates actually quite good as Rooster, and you can read about that by licking the link. And of course John Wayne himself returned as Rooster on the big screen in 1975, but Rooster Cogburn had none of the magic or spark of the 1969 movie.

Three Roosters
For yes, as far as inclusion in the list of the greatest Westerns of all time goes, it has to be the version Henry Hathaway directed for Paramount in 1969.


1) It is not always that an outstandingly good book makes an outstandingly good film but it was certainly the case with Charles Portis’s novel ‘True Grit’ and the movie True Grit. Both have marvelous dialogue with one great line succeeding another, conversation with a Mark Twain or Bret Harte twang. Both have a gripping, adventurous chase plot and memorable characters. The Marguerite Roberts screenplay for the '69 movie was stupendously good.

2) The movie was one of John Wayne’s greatest performances; only The Searchers, Red River and The Shootist can match it and it won him his only Oscar. He seemed to have made a conscious decision by the late 60s to play aging Western dinosaurs. The role suited his age and paunch. (Rooster Cogburn was only in his forties in the book so this was a conscious change). Yet underneath he was still Wayne. The movie works because in the last resort you still believe that “a one-eyed fat man” really could face down four mounted gunmen in a clearing and win out.
Fill your hand, you son of a...
Much of the Wayne theology is desecrated in the 1969 True Grit, yet it doesn’t seem to matter and he gets away with it. He is a drunkard. He is ready to shoot a man from ambush and rob the dead. He’s doing it all for the money. These are not standard Western hero traits, and certainly not Ducal ones.

Mattie is really a sort of female Jim Hawkins and there is definitely something Long John Silver-ish about the rascally Rooster. He’s just lost an eye instead of a leg. As Garry Wills points out in his biography of John Wayne, just close your eyes and listen to Wayne: it could be Wallace Beery in the 1934 Treasure Island.

3) The support acting. Wayne’s daughter Aissa, Tuesday Weld, Sondra Locke and Mia Farrow were all possibles for the role of Mattie Ross but the part went to Kim Darby and she was terrific. Although 22 and a mother, she caught the feisty young daughter of the book perfectly.

Kim Darby superb as Mattie

Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper do very good jobs as the heavies but probably the best minor part is Strother Martin, magnificent as the horse trader bested by Mattie.
Strother magnificent

HW Gim as Chen Lee and General Sterling Price as himself were also particularly memorable. Only Glen Campbell is weak. As an actor, he made a good singer.

4) Visually the film is very fine. Lucien Ballard (who did The Wild Bunch the same year) photographed it in Colorado and the Inyo National Forest in the fall and it shines.

5) The Elmer Bernstein music was also, rightly, nominated for an Oscar (pity about the cheesy title song crooned by Campbell but Westerns in those days seemed to feel themselves obliged to have a pop singer in the cast).

6) Hathaway, 71-year-old veteran of countless films, directs magisterially without a hint of sentimentalism. It’s all action and humor and straight down the line Western grit. A truly great cowboy film.

A great director of Westerns
There. that's six good reasons.

All other appearances of Rooster have something and can be enjoyed, but for sheer all-round genius, watch the 1969 movie.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article Jeff. I caught it off Katrina's Speakeasy. How about reading the article On Ward Bond's WAGONMASTER 1950 that I wrote for her. Would love a comment from a fellow blogger.
    I will mark your site. Will come back when I have more time. Thanks, Keith