Should I Watch..? 'True Grit' (1969)
What's the big deal?
True Grit is an action western drama film released in 1969 and is based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film depicts the unlikely team of a young girl and an alcoholic lawman in their pursuit of the man who killed the girl's father and the gang of outlaws who now protect him. The film stars John Wayne, Kim Darby, country singer Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Corey. The film is probably best known for being the one where Wayne finally won Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards, the only Oscar of his long career. Released to a warm reception from critics, the film would go on to earn more than $31 million in the US. It would also be followed by a sequel in 1975 called Rooster Cogburn (the name of Wayne's character, one which he reprised for the sequel) and a remake by the Coen brothers in 2010.
What's it about?
Witnessing her father's murder at the hands of hired help Tom Chaney, 14-year old Mattie Ross journeys by herself from their farm to Fort Smith in Arkansas. She decides to hire the services of renowned lawman Rooster Cogburn but is surprised to find him washed-up, one-eyed and clearly past his best days. Nevertheless, she still manages to negotiate a fee with him for tracking down Chaney becasue she has heard that Cogburn has 'true grit'. Despite him not taking Mattie seriously, Cogburn rides out with her and tracks Chaney to Indian territory where he has taken up with fellow outlaw and gang-leader "Lucky" Ned Pepper.
Fortunately, they find an ally in Texas Ranger La Boeuf who is tracking Chaney for his own reasons and who agrees to help them bring him to justice. After several days riding through dangerous Indian territory, they track down two of Pepper's gang to a remote dug-out cabin. But it appears that Pepper and his men may have the jump on them as they are due to return that night and heavily outnumber Cogburn, La Boeuf and young Mattie...
Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn
"Lucky" Ned Pepper
Col. G. Stonehill
Release Date (UK)
26th December, 1969
PG (2010 re-rating)
Adventure, Drama, Western
Best Actor (Wayne)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song
What's to like?
At this point in time, the western was starting to lose its lustre and edgy and more contemporary films starting making the bigger bucks. But part of the reason why True Grit works as well as it does is that it understands the appeal and reputation of its iconic leading man. Wayne is every inch the perfect leading man for this role as a weathered and cynical lawman who is coasting on his strength of his reputation. Not that Wayne was but he was always associated with the genre, more than almost any other actor in history. Seeing Wayne clearly have fun in the role is not just enjoyable but it also gives the film a slightly innocuous sense of humour. Obviously the film's unusual dualling of Wayne and a fresh-faced Darby also adds to the film's intrigue.
The age of the film actually works in its favour, giving it an authenticity that you don't always see in westerns. While Darby and Campbell aren't the strongest co-stars, the likes of Duvall and Hopper provides plenty of brouhaha as the film's baddies. The story is also a winner, giving the film pace and narrative that doesn't get in the way too much. It's a story we can identify with - good vs evil in a hostile environment - and with Wayne's swagger holding the film together, it makes this film a really fun and entertaining watch in a way that a lot of westerns fail to do.
- Wayne had promised the role of Mattie to his daughter Aissa Wayne but Hathaway refused, initially casting Mia Farrow before she dropped out and was replaced by Darby. Sally Field was also considered for the role.
- Ironically, Hathaway disliked Darby in the role and the two quickly fell out. Darby stated that she would never work with Hathaway again while the director claimed that Darby wasn't attractive enough in the role. Hathaway also hated Campbell's performance, later calling him wooden and claimed he only gave the singer the role so he could have a hit with the film's title song. Hathaway and Wayne also had issues with Duvall with Wayne threatening to punch him if he argued any more with the director. Wayne also disliked Darby during filming but she was more than happy working with him, saying that "he was wonderful to work with."
- This would be the last film of Wayne's career that was a financial hit. Coincidentally, the film's US release date of June 11th 1969 was ten years to the day before Wayne died on June 11th, 1979.
What's not to like?
It could be argued that the film, itself being a product of the Hollywood machine of the time, depicts a more sanitised and glamorous vision of the Old West than more recent films like Jane Got A Gun or last year's The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. The film's colours seem a bit too bright and gun fights seem to consist of the same three or four stock sound effects. Naturally, there will be some issues with film-making technique - it is fifty years old, after all - but only a critic would pay attention to such details. You might also take exception with the film's lack of ambition or scale. It's far more simpler than some Sergio Leone epic like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly but is no less enjoyable for it.
In fact, I like the fact that this is a simple story that's well told as well as the fact that this isn't your typical western. The female lead character, the playful characterisation of Wayne's role and the unusual casting of a country singer make the movie feel different from other westerns from the time while the narrative is uncomplicated and allows the film to flow naturally. I'll give you an exceptional, albeit one from a completely different genre. Hero is a martial arts epic on a vast scale - huge cast, ambitious action sequences and a narrative told in non-chronological order. It's a truly great film but personally, I prefer the much smaller-scale House Of Flying Daggers which is another martial arts film in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style but is focused on a simple romantic triangle between two soldiers and a blind dancer. It's just as beautiful to watch as Hero but it's on a more manageable scale somehow. That's True Grit - an easily digestible slice of frontier life with a hugely enjoyable, larger-than-life character at the centre.
Should I watch it?
True Grit might lack the spectacle of some of the bigger and better known westerns out there but it's a highly enjoyable film nonetheless, giving audiences something different and a little less cliched than they might have expected. The Duke is in sublime form here, reinvigorated by a role that suits him perfectly and breathes new life into the ageing star. It is also better than the remake, which I felt was a bit confusing in places and didn't engage with me as much as this film did.
Great For: lovers of all things cowboy, John Wayne's awards cabinet, Glen Campbell fans, anyone who has read the book
Not So Great For: modern day action fans, modern westerns which tend to be a bit more serious, the Coen brothers
What else should I watch?
The Coen brothers' remake, 2010's True Grit, is still a fine example of the modern western but is much more gritty and violent than the original. It's leading lady, a then-13 year old Hailee Steinfeld, is a much better Mattie Ross than Darby who feels a little too old to be in the role and the film is more visually stunning than this original. But the Coen brothers' name carries a great deal of weight and I felt that their remake was too conventional - there was little of the magic they usually bring to their films although their True Grit is still worth a watch.
Personally, if you're looking for a western then there is only one name you need to look for - Clint Eastwood. His early films like 1964's A Fistful Of Dollars and its sequel For A Few Dollars More have achieved cult status along with the iconic The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. But even as he began turning more to directing, he still had one final film to say goodbye to the genre - Unforgiven is a melancholic drama depicting a retired gunslinger tempted into action one final time and wondering whether it was worth it after all.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox