Saturday, February 7, 2015

True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

For all my love of fantasy and sci-fi, I am a lover of westerns as well. Last night I decided to watch, yet again, Tombstone, a film with a ridiculous cast of actors, most of which are better known now. I intended to watch another Kurt Russell film, The Thing, but felt I needed another western on a Friday night. Checking through Amazon and Netflix, nothing caught my eye. I was interested in Dances with Wolves or Silverado, but neither were available. Then I thought, "what about the remake of True Grit?" Sadly, it was not available, but the original version was.

True Grit was a fairly late entry in the John Wayne catalogue, though he did make eleven more films after it, including the sequel, Rooster Cogburn. The movie stars Wayne and singer/songwriter/session-player Glenn Campbell. The real star though is Kim Darby.

The story is a simple one of revenge. Mattie Ross (Darby) sees her father off on a trip to Fort Smith where he intends to buy horses. He takes a work hand with him, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), whom the family took in when he was in need. Mattie dislikes Chaney, and her suspicion proves out as once they get to Fort Smith Chaney shoots and robs Mattie's father. Mattie sets out under the auspices of returning her father's body for burial, and to collect his belongings, but her true aim is to bring Chaney to justice. Mattie meets up with US Marshall Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (Wayne), considered the toughest of US Marshalls in the vicinity, and hires him to find Chaney. She later meets up with a Texas Ranger, Le Beouf (Campbell), who is looking for Chaney for a murder in Texas. The three band together, despite Mattie's insistance thant Chaney stand trial for her father's murder and not be returned to Texas.

The movie is based on a book, and as is typically the case, there is a lot left out. Cogburn and Le Beouf (pronounced as "Le Beef" in the film) do not like each other. They appear to have been on opposite sides during the Civil War. Cogburn also has a checkered past, being a bit of an outlaw prior to his tenure as a US Marshall. Mattie doesn't really care for either. She has a dislike for Texans, considering them ill-mannered, and sees Cogburn as a drunkard. There is a lot of local pride going on, which is not very well defined. It is unclear where Fort Smith or Mattie's home is, though it borders on the First Nations' territories, which is why she needs a US Marshall.

In the end, the biggest thing left out is that Mattie is the hero. The point is made subtley, but it is hard to tell if the average audience member gets this conceit. Despite the odds being against her, not to mention most of the characters, Mattie is the ultimate victor. She is young, and not as strong as the other characters. She is not skilled with a gun either. She is, however, a strong rider and has an iron will. Part of this problem is that in the end, Cogburn gets to pull the masculine fat out of the fire, saving Mattie's life and showing a fatherly care for her which was previously undescribed. It is Cogburn who rides off into the sunset, while Mattie returns to her home to take care of the family business.

That final bit is something lacking. While Cogburn goes off to continue his life without ties, living by his wits, the strength of his arm, and the sureness of his gun, Mattie takes on the responsibility of her family. She obstensibly ran the family business to begin with. One could draw a line back to The Magnificient Seven, where the town children tell Bernardo (Charles Bronson) that their fathers are cowards. Bernardo makes an impassioned speech about how there fathers are the bravest men there. They toil and sweat to take care of their families, receiving no reward save knowing they have done what must be done, and for their family's love. This is Mattie's lot in life. She is now a bit of a veteran. She has killed a man, and nearly died in the attempt. She brought honour, as she sees it, to her family by exacting justice on her father's killer; a man they saved from the elements. Easily this life could have appealed to her, turning her into a Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley, but instead she returns to her duty as her family's provider.

In the end this is a good movie. If you already like John Wayne, then it is John Wayne at his John Wayne-iest. He and Campbell are the weakest actors, but there are several good performances, including Robert Duvall as the main bad guy (who is abetting Chaney) and Dennis Hopper as one of Duvall's men. As a story, it is easy to see why the Coen brothers would want to make a new version of it. The original is a little too jocular for the subject matter, and frankly would have done better with an older Clint Eastwood; though that would have needed to wait for the '80s.

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