This last Saturday, on a mere whim (brought on by a good newspaper review) I went off to watch True Grit. The 2010 version, starring Hailee Steinfeld in an Oscar-nominated role as Mattie Ross. It was a good film, in true time-honoured Western mould, with tinges of both feminism and noir. And it spurred me on to finally watch the original True Grit, the film that won John Wayne his only Oscar.
In Yale county in 1880, Frank Ross leaves home to buy four mustang ponies for breeding. Home is where Ross stays with his wife, their fourteen year-old daughter Mattie (Kim Darby), little son Frank and baby daughter. Mattie, who handles all the accounts for the considerable property the Rosses own, hands her Papa the money he will need to take with him and advises him, once again, not to buy the ponies. But Frank Ross is adamant; he will go to Fort Smith, and he will buy those ponies.
With Frank goes one of his men, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). In Fort Smith, one evening, a drunken Chaney is gambling and hovering dangerously close to being lynched for cheating. Frank Ross physically pulls Chaney up and away from the table, and out of the saloon – and Chaney returns the favour by shooting Frank Ross. Ross falls dead and Chaney stops only long enough to pull out two gold pieces that he knows Ross carried on him.
Cut to a few days later. Mattie Ross arrives in Fort Smith (along with a grizzled black gentleman, an employee of the family’s) to collect her father’s body, and to ensure that Tom Chaney is brought to justice. Mattie goes to meet the sheriff of Fort Smith, and he is able to give her a useful piece of news: that Tom Chaney is believed to have hooked up with the Ned Pepper gang, and they have made their way across the river and into Choctaw country. The problem is that the sheriff has no jurisdiction there; it’s now a matter for federal law. It’s a matter for the marshals.
Mattie is disappointed, of course, but she rallies and asks the sheriff who are the best marshals. He names the best, and then tells her that “the meanest is Rooster Cogburn.” The sheriff also tells her that Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (John Wayne) is just bringing in a wagon load of men he’s captured, so Mattie hurries off to meet him. He gives her the slip, telling her to leave him alone, and Mattie ends up having to follow him into the courthouse, where Rooster Cogburn has to give evidence.
We get to watch Rooster Cogburn in action as he testifies (in a delightful scene with some rip-roaring dialogues). Mattie, though she manages to collar Cogburn on his way out of the courthouse and tells him of her mission while she rolls a cigarette for him, doesn’t impress Cogburn enough for him to be interested in going after Tom Chaney. He does, however, invite Mattie to come home with him for supper, and they’ll talk it over.
Cogburn lives in the back of a small Chinese shop owned by Chen Lee. Over supper and a game of cards which follows, Mattie does succeed a bit in wearing down Cogburn’s resistance, and he finally tells her his price is $100 (“and that’s the children’s rate”). Mattie says she’ll think about it, and let him know her answer the next day.
When Mattie returns to the boarding house where she’s staying, the irritating LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell, in one of his few film roles), asks for a word.
Mattie has already met LaBoeuf the previous night, and has not been impressed. He’s a sergeant with the Texas Rangers, and he’s struck her as a swaggering, cocksure man. Now he reveals that he has an interest in Tom Chaney too: he has been on Chaney’s trail for the past four months, because Chaney is wanted for having killed a Texas senator (after having first shot the senator’s dog).
Now LaBoeuf wants whatever information Mattie has so that he can arrest Tom Chaney and get his hands on the fat reward that is being offered for Chaney. Mattie is indignant: no, never. She’s made up her mind that Chaney will hang here, in Fort Smith, for having murdered her father. Not in Texas for shooting a senator’s hound.
The next morning, Mattie goes off to meet Colonel Stonehill (Strother Martin), the man from whom Frank Ross had bought four ponies. Mattie begins by telling him she wants to sell him back the ponies, and when he refuses, she points out, “My father bought those ponies for breeding. Now, I’ve had a look at them, and they’re all geldings.” (A sweet smile here). “You can’t breed geldings.”
That’s just the start of it. By the end of her conversation with Stonehill, Mattie has bamboozled, threatened and twisted him into taking back the ponies for $300. As she’s leaving, Mattie asks Stonehill if he knows Cogburn. Stonehill’s bitter response is a good reflection on both Cogburn and Mattie: “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!”
Mattie goes off to meet this possible-relative, since she now has the money to hire him. He agrees on an advance of $25. Mattie, scurrying back to Stonehill, buys a pony from him so that she can go along with Cogburn on his quest. When she returns to Chen Lee’s shop, whom does she find sitting with Rooster Cogburn?
LaBouef has discussed the matter of Tom Chaney with Rooster Cogburn, and since Mattie wouldn’t listen to him, has put forward the proposition to Cogburn: should they team up to find Chaney? LaBoeuf has also dangled a juicy carrot before Cogburn: he’ll share the bounty money with Cogburn. Mattie is furious when she realises that Cogburn is keen. Eventually, she storms out, vowing to Cogburn that he hasn’t seen the last of Mattie Ross.
So Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off in pursuit of Tom Chaney, and Mattie, on her newly-acquired pony (whom she names Little Blackie), follows them. They try to shake her off, but she’s persistent as a fly – even swimming the river with her pony when the man on the ferry refuses to take her across.
They’re an odd trio: the fat, drunken, one-eyed marshal; the cocky Ranger; and the precocious teenager who won’t stop looking for a father’s killer. But they have one thing in common, and that emerges as they move further along on Chaney’s trail. All of them, in their own way, have what it takes: true grit.
What I liked about this film:
The story and the screenplay. I love the way True Grit, while being very true to the Western genre, what with those guns and horses and Injuns and all that, also nicely blends in other elements like humour (there’s a lot of it, especially in the rapidfire repartee between the three principal characters). I like the way the characters of Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross and LaBoeuf are gradually built up, and the way these three seemingly disparate people come together in their quest. A quest that starts off as a mercenary enterprise for LaBoeuf and Cogburn, but which eventually becomes more for them than just that.
The landscapes. True Grit looks like a series of frames out of an Ansel Adams portfolio. Just look at this:
What I didn’t like:
Not much, actually. But I didn’t like one particular aspect of the end – the LaBouef angle.
When a film’s been remade, and to such acclaim too (10 Oscar nominations; no wins, but a nomination is no mean feat) – well, then it’s more or less natural to end up comparing the two versions.
I haven’t read the original novel by Charles Portis on which True Grit was based. Both the 1969 and the 2010 versions of the film, however, are very similar, with a lot of the same dialogues, and similar details.
Which is not to say that Ethan and Joel Coen’s version is a frame-by-frame copy of Henry Hathaway’s earlier film. It isn’t, not by a long shot. For one, the Coens’ film is noticeably darker. It is literally darker, since a lot of the action takes place at night or in the twilight – whereas the 1969 film has very little happening in the hours between sunset and sunrise; all is sunny mountain meadows and dappled trees. What’s more, the 1969 film is set in more temperate months: there’s grass here, leafy trees and warm sunshine. The 2010 film, besides abounding in nighttime scenes, is set in winter—with plenty of snow and leafless trees (isn’t there something rather evocative about bare branches stretching into a grey sky? Like skeletal fingers clawing… you can see why I think the later film is dark).
Even if you don’t look at the literal aspect, True Grit (2010) is darker. There are a couple of episodes here, both eerie in their own way, that the earlier film didn’t feature. For instance, in the 1969 film, Mattie and Cogburn don’t come across the corpse hanging from the high tree; they don’t meet the weird dentist-doctor who eventually ends up with the corpse (from which he extracts all the teeth). The somewhat yucky episode where LaBoeuf partly bites through his tongue and has two of his teeth get shaken up isn’t there in True Grit (1969) either. It is, on the whole, a sunnier, more pleasant film, more representative of the era in which it was made.
Part of that same old-fashioned warmth of the earlier version are the characters of Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross and LaBoeuf. LaBoeuf is very similar in both films, but Cogburn and Mattie’s characters show subtle differences.
Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie is a more unsmiling and grim girl, forced by circumstances to grow up before she should have. Kim Darby’s Mattie is, in essence, the same girl with the same challenges and the same worries; also the same determination – but you do see the occasional glimpse of the child she still is. For example, she often gets excited and thinks up mad plans about how to capture Chaney. And in a somewhat childish way, she always introduces herself by saying which county she’s from, etc, and how much land her family owns. She even does it at gunpoint. Plus, when she’s in trouble, she has no qualms about screaming for help and crying.
As if in reciprocation, Rooster Cogburn’s equation with Mattie also differs from one film to the other. Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn is a harsher, ruder man (who, in one scene missing from the 1969 film, unnecessarily kicks – repeatedly – two Choctaw children). He respects Mattie, but the affection is very latent. John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is also not a good man – he’s been a thief, he ran off with another man’s wife, and now he seems willing to do anything for money (plus he drinks like a fish), but there’s a certain avuncular jollity about him that makes him easy to like. And his affection for Mattie is definitely there: in the way he calls her “Baby sister,” in the way he pats her head and tells her to sleep while he keeps watch, and in the final scene of the film. There’s a lot of sweetness here, without being sugary.
So which is the better film? It’s hard to say; both are very good in their own way. Personally, I being the old-fashioned creature I am, prefer the more heart-warming 1969 version.