Archive for January 1, 2011


commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. **** Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Other Known Versions Not Covered Here: True Grit (TV-movie, possibly a series pilot, 1978; starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn; more a sequel than an actual remake); also Rooster Cogburn (1975), theatrical sequel starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn.

*

It all comes down to dirt and lighting.

There are any number of great movie westerns prior to 1969, when True Grit was made, but to modern eyes, even many of the best of them look awfully antiseptic, more like the theme-park frontier town of Westworld (1973) than the actual dusty, unwashed, primitive, blood-soaked actual American west. The cowboys and gunfighters riding for days on end to get from one clapboard outpost of civilization to another may never change their clothes once between Desolation and Despair, but somehow they almost look minutes from their last hot shower, a short drive from a clothing change, one phone call away from a proper dentist. There are exceptions, of course; you need look no further than The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) to find a town where the saloon is clearly a dusty refuge for dusty men, and people organize lynching parties because that may be the only entertainment option that beats another long night spent listening to their grizzled neighbors suck food particles from between their few remaining teeth. But that movie was in black and white, which among other virtues can cut to the heart of the matter by eliminating the often false gloss bestowed by color. In all too many others, even those that work on other levels, the saloons, the hotels, the general stores, and the sheriff’s offices are all awash with steady light even at midnight, the illumination suggesting vast track lighting just above the frame; and the costumes suggesting that nobody in the old west was ever dirty, unless they were drunks who could be reformed and bad guys too mean by their very natures to rush down to Pop’s General Store for a six-pack of Irish Spring.

In 1969, this was just starting to change for the dying cinematic genre known as the western, in part because of the influence of foreign filmmakers like Sergio Leone and domestic ones like Sam Peckinpah, not too mention the technical advances that permitted scenes to be filmed in natural or dim light. The Wild Bunch (1969), released at almost the same time as the original True Grit, was then revolutionary in its presentation of a world where life was cheap, gunfights were not just deadly but ugly and brutal, and the right people didn’t always survive. But we were still years off off from the saloons of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Unforgiven (1992), bars where it really didn’t matter whether anybody had bothered to clean your glass or sweep the floor – let alone mop up the bloodstains – because it was just too dang-blasted dark in there to tell the difference anyway. The brightly-lit, well-scrubbed westerns sometimes give the impression that there wouldn’t be all those gunfights in the street if there weren’t some people created, perhaps off the assembly line, just plain bad; the newer ones that did a better job at capturing the ambience establish at a glance that life in this place and time is brutal and short and that regular showdowns between killers shooting at one another at close range might be the only natural reaction.

There are hints of this in the Hathaway version of True Grit, which movie icon John Wayne called the first real role anybody had given him in twenty years. You couldn’t not provide those hints and still provide a recognizable version of the hard-drinking, one-eyed, fat old Marshal Reuben Cogburn. His living conditions are exactly the same as those described in the Charles Portis novel, and later portrayed in the Coen Brothers remake. He lives in the back room of a dry-goods store, on what looks like a hideously uncomfortable rope bed, with missing cords that ensure he sinks halfway to the floor throughout the night. He shares his space with sacks of grain and a well-fed population of rats who feed with relative impunity thanks to a cat named General who can’t be bothered to kill them. At night, he drinks himself to oblivion with whiskey he has confiscated during his law-enforcement activities of the day; since he spends nothing on booze and doesn’t seem to spend much on rent or clothing, and has no dependents, it’s a relative mystery what he does with the pittance he earns for going after fugitives. (My theory is that he buys even more booze.)

Any close examination of this lifestyle, added to the subsequent revelations that he’s estranged from his family, can only establish him as a wreck of a man, living an empty and joyless existence punctuated only by the one thing he’s good at, killing.

And yet, with the evidence right there in front of our eyes, it’s not the impression we come away with watching John Wayne play the part.

In the 1969 True Grit, Reuben Cogburn is downright cuddly: a standup fella we’re downright happy to accompany for two hours.

It’s not due to any failure on his part as an actor. Though he did not possess anything close to the on-screen versatility of Jeff Bridges, John Wayne’s movie career possessed its share of nuanced roles, challenging roles, and even just-plain unlikeable roles. You only have to see his turns in Red River  (1948) or The Searchers  (1956) to know that he was capable of capturing a certain authentic human darkness.

But that human darkness seems absent from the 1969 True Grit. That movie’s Cogburn may be an alcoholic, poverty-stricken fat man who happily takes on the job of killing a malefactor in exchange for what we would now consider spare change, but the film makes him a comforting presence in a world where, thanks to him, all the correct people will soon be killed, and everything will turn out to be more or less all right. It’s a performance that pleased his fans and won him the only Academy Award of his long career. But it somehow doesn’t feel quite real. It feels more like it emanates from that theme-park west of the brightly lit saloons rather than the muddy, messy realities of the actual one.

Why?

Well, there are many reasons for that, among them Wayne’s shaky health at the time. The movie protects him very well, but he had just lost a lung from cancer, and couldn’t walk much more than ten paces without exhausting the little breath he had. On screen this is easy as attribute to the character’s fat; there is only one moment where he seems to lose his wind in the middle of a long speech and has to take a fresh breath in order to continue. He’s also acting alongside Kim Darby, who was stiff and wooden and eight years too old for her part; and the even more wooden and charisma-free Glen Campbell, latest in a series of pop singers considered square even at the time who got shoehorned into a number of Wayne’s movies in what amounted to a transparent and spectacularly tin-eared attempt to court the youth audience. (Others had been Frankie Avalon and Rick Nelson.) Actors blossom opposite good actors and look worse opposite bad ones, and the only great actors in the 1969 True Grit are Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, neither of whom is on screen much.

But the real problem is that John Wayne is not playing Reuben Cogburn, but John Wayne: and not the John Wayne he actually was, a guy who loved Gilbert and Sullivan and harbored doubts about his acting abilities, but “John Wayne,” the character played by John Wayne who may have had different names and job titles over the years but who was always recognizably “John Wayne,” an iconic figure who rarely altered from one movie to the next.

This can be defined as a movie star’s job, even when that movie star frequently plays other people; Bruce Willis is not always “Bruce Willis” and Clint Eastwood is not always “Clint Eastwood” and Jack Nicholson is not always “Jack Nicholson,” but you know exactly what I mean when I put those names in quotes and you know exactly what I mean when I put “John Wayne” in quotes.  By 1969 it referred to a rough-edged, tough-talking frontier man with a lifetime of standing up for the right thing, who will not bullshit and not waver in his duty, and who will at one point prove that he has a heart even if he plays all his emotional cards close to the vest.

The second you see John Wayne playing “John Wayne” in the rancid little bed where Reuben Cogburn lays his drunken carcass to sleep, you know that it’s really “John Wayne” and that you should trust him implicitly.

By contrast, the 2010 Coen Brothers film has as its center a lead, Jeff Bridges, who might have a gallery of great performances behind him, but who has never developed a persona that amounts to his name in quotes. He doesn’t bring Reuben Cogburn to him, as John Wayne did in 1969, but instead goes to Reuben Cogburn. And so you begin with an advantage that services the story of the Charles Portis novel: namely, that you don’t walk in already knowing who this guy is. You can see how debased he is, and this time it isn’t a beloved actor performing a bit, but a character whose circumstances can be felt. You don’t know what he’s going to do. You certainly don’t know whether he’s going to rise to the occasion, and how. You may really know, especially if you’ve seen the prior movie or read the novel, but you can be a little less confident, a little less certain that this Reuben Cogburn won’t let you down.

This permits a scene that never would have appeared in any John Wayne movie, the one in the 2010 film where Cogburn gets drunk and discouraged on the trail and declares that he’s tired of hunting a bunch of bad guys he ain’t gonna find anyway, and that he’s giving up. John Wayne’s Cogburn never wavered. He was gonna find his man no matter what. This Reuben is, at heart, a mean old failure who gave up on his family and took to the bottle and pretty much ended up a nothing; giving up is after all what he does, and it makes everything that follows play at a much higher level.

There are many other things the Coen Brothers did much better, in 2010, than Henry Hathaway and company did in 1969. They used a grungier, and more authentic sense of time and place. They cast a better, age-appropriate actress as Mattie and made damn sure that the movie was about her, not about the hero she enlisted. For the most part, they cast better actors in the supporting roles (or at least using some who performed at the same level that Hopper and Duvall did in 1969).  They honored the dialogue and distinctive voice of the Portis novel. They preserved the downbeat ending. They staged just about every dramatic high point (and I include the famous action climax, with the line “Fill your hands,  you son of a bitch!”), better than Hathaway did, among other things making sure we remember that the heroine is a 14-year-old girl who, formidable as she might be, is still a child who knows that she initiated this trail of vengeance and must now react to the sight of bad men reduced to cooling meat before her eyes.

This is crucial to capturing the depths of the story. In the 1969 film, when Mattie falls in the snake pit at the moment her violent quest reaches its conclusion, it is just another thing that happens. In the 2010 film, we are reminded (consciously or not) that she has compromised her innocence, and perhaps damned herself.

The Coens also trusted the audience in a manner that the makers of the 1969 film did not, by sometimes trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. In 1969, John Wayne’s Cogburn saw Mattie crossing the river on horseback after being left behind, and beamed, “She reminds me of me.” (There was, in 1969 movieland, no higher praise.) In 2010, Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn just watches her, his eyes stony. His thoughts, his emotions, are his own. When he subsequently stops La Boeuf from beating her with a switch, it’s possible to debate whether that’s because he thinks her chastisement has gone far enough…or despises La Boeuf… or has just been taken by surprise by an actual feeling for the girl. In 2010, we can’t know. In 1969, John Wayne told us.

It’s no contest, artistically, which is more satisfying.

*

{Response by Judi Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. ***1/2 Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Let me get this out of the way first off…  I am NOT a fan of westerns.  I had my fill of cowboy films every Saturday afternoon of my early years.  They were as inescapable to me as the war films on veteran’s day weekends.  Every saturday I was thrown into some gunfight or Indian attack on the fort or whatever.  Just the perfect fare for a young reader in love with fantasy/science fiction/horror and historical biography. Right!   But, a few so called westerns stood apart from this pack of blood.   True Grit was one of the noble breed that fell into my “not really a western” group of acceptable films. 

The story I remembered from my childhood told of vengeance by a person I could relate to.   Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, was in her later teens, but still seeking the man who killed her Pa.  I could go with that, I have a Pa, I would kill anyone who shot him, so that worked for me.  Hiring John Wayne,(bigger than life in every film I remembered), smart move on her part, even if he was playing at being drunk (an unconvincing act by him for the most part).   So far, no problem.  Then along comes  Glen Campbell and blows every line he can get his mouth around.  The man couldn’t even die well.  I mean geesh!  But at least his part was small and I could forget it between viewings.  Because, alas, yes, there were many, MANY, viewings of this film.  It starred on of my Pa’s film icons and in one of his most famous roles, and therefore became required watching.

Now, jump ahead 40 or so years, and the Coen brothers, who I consider to be a good film team despite the tendency to allow the fool to overcome,  saunter in and show us that the movie I have a vague fondness for from my childhood has nothing whatsoever to do with the original material, and they are going to show us all how it should have been put together.  Quite the act of chutzpah on their part, wouldn’t you say?   I mean my Pa couldn’t have been the only one to enforce the love of this classic onto his impressionable children, so the outrage heard around the net(world)  was understandable.

But, they did  what they set out to do.  They brought True Grit back to its source material and hired great actors to play the iconic roles.  Joel and Ethan Coen gained a new notch on my respectability meter with their production. 

I won’t compare the actors in the roles, it would be unfair to the original.  This True Grit is a capital W western, a film (not a movie) to be watched over and over.  The scenes and lines to be savored like a great meal.  So fully satisfying that even I, the hater of westerns, fell in love with this production. 

In writing this, I have not read Adam’s portion, and I will continue to give my opinions in this manner.  I hope that this format will be able to give our readers a glimpse into our discussions in the car and our living room, after we have watched these films and the remakes.