Watching 1969’s much heralded epic True Grit, starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby, I felt the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity to create a true western masterpiece – in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and John Ford’s The Searchers.
Wayne and co. deliver the goods, sure, and for the most part much of Henry Hathaway’s film feels alive, sometimes even sensational (“Fill your hand you son of a bitch!”), but otherwise does little to differentiate itself from Wayne’s other cowboy ventures, particularly Big Jake and, to some extent, Rio Lobo. Those films also followed a man in pursuit of justice/revenge, told with an eye towards adventure; unlike, say, the darker, more stylized western tales of Sam Peckinpah. For more, hit the jump to check out my True Grit Blu-ray review.
The problem with True Grit is that it’s based off a popular, classic novel of the same name, written by Charles Portis a few years earlier. That the book was terrific further cheapens a film that is too casual for its own good. The weightier issues of the novel, namely the darker themes of revenge and life, are brushed aside in favor of demonstrating (again) the Duke’s grand demeanor – his nobility, charm and heroism.
Wayne plays Marshall Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a rough-n-tough, aging sheriff (you can tell he’s a drunk because he occasionally sings off tune) tasked by a young girl named Mattie Ross (Darby) to track down Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), or the man who killed her father. Along the way they meet a cocksure Texas Ranger (Campbell) who likewise seeks Chaney. Together, the three journey into the vast wilderness, each carrying with them diverse motivations.
For all of Grit’s western roots, it is first and foremost a road picture, with horses standing in for motorcycles and cars. A film of this nature can only work if we are fully invested in the characters. Unfortunately, no one in True Grit affords a personality worth caring for. Wayne is Wayne, of course, albeit more selfish and tipsy than customary. His Cogburn is steadfast, plucky and charismatic; a far cry from the aged, drunken deadbeat-seeking-one-last-hurrah found in Portis’ novel. The Duke – and I cannot believe I’m saying this – is actually kind of annoying here, talking endlessly despite having nothing of interest to say.
Of course it can’t help that his cohorts, namely Darby and Campbell, are benign individuals in their own right. Darby in particular plays Mattie like a whiney, stubborn, self-centered brat. At one moment she storms away in a fuss, and then returns the next morning acting as though nothing had happened. You understand why Cogburn doesn’t want her around – who would want to travel for weeks on end with an obnoxious stowaway?
Then there’s Campbell, whose performance has garnered much criticism over the years, and rightfully so. His character, LaBeouf, just isn’t likeable. He pouts more than Mattie and does little more than get in the way (and sing atrociously dated tunes). As a sheriff he’s incompetent. In a funny bit he tells an unshackled prisoner to stay put and then bolts in the opposite direction. Okay.
Still, True Grit boasts stunning cinematography (of the Rocky Mountains, no less) from Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch), who makes the most of some truly exquisite locales – which look utterly amazing on Blu-ray. The format affords Grit eye popping detail and vibrant colors. Hathaway’s film has never looked so good.
True Grit plays like a swan song for Wayne (who was 62 at the time), even though the actor went on to star in 12 more feature films (including Rooster Cogburn, a sequel, of sorts, to True Grit co-starring Katherine Hepburn). Wayne, in case you didn’t know, won an Oscar for his performance, and I suspect the Academy felt the need to recognize the man –the myth, the legend – before it was too late. In actuality, they should’ve held out until Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys – Wayne’s true swan song, featuring one of the greatest performances of his career.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Coen Bros.’ remake, which follows the book’s tone more closely. I had seen the 1969 counterpart several years ago, and then just recently on AMC, after which I went out to see the newer version. The Coen bros. made the film Hathaway should have. Theirs is a true, authentic western; one filled to the brim with award-caliber performances and packing enough punch to merit near-classic status (time will tell in that regard). And all the Coen’s had to do was stick closer to the book.
I won’t knock Wayne’s Oscar – the man certainly deserved some merit for his large body of work. Yet, True Grit offers him no favors. He even famously stated regarding his Oscar, “If I had known this, I would’ve put that patch on thirty-five years ago.” At least he was in on the joke.