Posts Tagged ‘Westerns’


First Review by Adam-Troy Castro

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo; 1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, and Luciano Vincenzoni. Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; also Luigi Pistilli. 177 minutes. *** 1/2.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (original title: Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom; 2008). Directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Screenplay by Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ji-Suk. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung. 139 minutes. ***

This much needs to be said.

To cover these two films together, we stretched the definition of “Remake” almost to be the breaking point. There is no legal connection between them, no shared source material that inspired both. They have completely different stories and even completely different tones, though the Korean film borrows its title, the power dynamic between its three main characters, and even much of the staging of the final showdown from the original, and would likely not exist were it not for the creative urge to evoke the Italian-American one; it is a tribute, certainly, but is it remake?

We err on the side of yes. After all, these aren’t the first two films linked conceptually, but – at least at some point during production — not legally. Some examples: despite a changed title, changed character names, and different vampire lore, the vampire film Nosferatu was such a de facto attempt to film Dracula that Florence Stoker successfully sued the makers for plagiarism. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was such a clear remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that legal threats earned Toho studios a nice hunk of change and an official acknowledgment in the credits of the later film. We covered the many ways that the seriously-intended Zero Hour was aped for the parody film Airplane!, but the makers of the latter were new at the business and originally thought they could make their spoof without paying the owners of the Zero Hour copyright a dime – a misapprehension for which they soon learned they would have to make good. So it is for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. The connection is so clear that it’s visible to the naked eye. We will call it a Remake and sort out the bodies later.

Each film involves a trio of dangerous men, living in dangerous, war-torn times, who find themselves embroiled in a quest to track down and claim a fabulous treasure. Each trio includes as its viewpoint character (“The Ugly” or “The Weird”), an unkempt, accident-prone clown of dubious morality, who kills at the drop of a hat but is so cruelly treated by fate and the other two that the audience cannot help forgiving him his sins. Both place him in uneasy partnership with a professional bounty hunter (“The Good”), the closest thing to an actual hero either of these movies offer, who kills just as easily and is frankly not much more virtuous, but from time to time betrays enough additional humanity that his various abuses of the clown figure emerge as increasingly funny. Both place these two in contention with a professional killer (“The Ugly”), who is charming, dapper, and in some ineffable way that could only make sense in this amoral universe more hissably evil than either of the others. Both films take pains to set the treasure hunt against the fate of nations; and both end with the all three, the last left alive at the site of the booty they have killed so many others to find, each betting everything on a three-way quick-draw duel fought on a circular playing field. They’re both brutal, funny, operatic in scale, driven at times by masterful use of soundtrack music, and more fun than any ten other movies, but the stories they tell are otherwise so very different that it’s possible to watch both films for the first time, one after the other, note the resonance, and not feel either plot spoiled.

the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)

The Clint Eastwood character in this film is often referred to as “The Man With No Name,” as it’s the last and most elaborate of three films marketed in the U.S. under that blanket title. But he really isn’t. His name is Joe. He is also frequently called by the nickname Eli Wallach’s character gives him, Blondie, but his name is Joe. Moreover, internal evidence establishes that he is absolutely not the same man as Eastwood’s character in A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More; he just isn’t, even if moviegoers prefer to believe otherwise. One can only conclude that in the universe of these films, there was an entire ethnic strain of tall, blondish, squinty-eyed and cheroot-chomping men, otherwise unrelated, wandering around uttering catchphrases while shooting people; and that they were slightly more numerous than a similar strain of homicidal gunslingers who looked like the star of two films in this trilogy, Lee Van Cleef. (Eastwood, knowing a good thing when he saw it, later made a couple of subsequent westerns also featuring men with no name, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, and, again, moviegoers tend to treat these as de facto sequels, but the fact remains that internal evidence disputes this. The so-called Man With No Name is not just a different character every time he appears, but also not actually a man with no name. Sorry.

The film is set during a mysteriously far-west campaign of the Civil War, at a time when Eastwood’s bounty hunter Blondie has enlisted Wallach’s outlaw Tuco in a deadly con-game; the two travel from town to town, with Tuco as Blondie’s prisoner, so Blondie can collect the reward prior to using his marksmanship skills to scatter the townspeople and free Tuco from the noose, thus earning Tuco an even greater bounty on his head. That there about a dozen serious logical problems with this scenario, including the unlikelihood of Tuco agreeing to it in the first place (if he even knew that this was the deal he was making), or the physical reality that the era’s firearms were simply not even close to accurate enough to ensure that even a prodigy could make such shots consistently, is a small matter; the conceit establishes the film as a kind of myth, a fairy tale if you will, that is not to be taken seriously, thus preparing the audience to be slammed with more brutal realities later on. The relationship sours upon a spectacular, even murderous betrayal by Blondie (justifying a big laugh when he is immediately identified on-screen as “The Good”), making the two men bitter enemies who must subsequently team up when circumstances provide each with half the secret location to a hoard of stolen Confederate gold.

With its prequels, the film provides much of the foundation for Eastwood’s permanent state of super-stardom, but – we have to note – his performance here is little more than a brilliant, instant parody of itself. He squints and growls and projects menace and sometimes suffers and once in a great while smiles, but his character is by design an enigma, somebody whose humanity is hinted at, and revealed in small doses. We don’t have any problem understanding why it contributed to his fame, but it’s still the performance  of an star icon, and not a star actor. Even director Sergio Leone said this, in ungracious contemporary interviews, which for all we know may have contributed to the star and the director never working together again. Eastwood became much more interesting as an actor, and as a well-rounded artist, as he aged. For our money, the film’s true star performance belongs to Eli Wallach, whose Tuco is a profound comic creation: a man utterly devoid of positive qualities, who is nevertheless deeply ingratiating; a man who is not very bright, but nevertheless profoundly cunning; a man who is bullied and mistreated on a regular basis and yet as deadly as a viper; a man who shoots people dead and then compulsively crosses himself afterward, as if that makes it okay. He’s a man who from the evidence available on screen probably smells like the inside of a bowling shoe that somebody has stuffed with fish, whose greedy practicality so completely insulates him from most human concerns that  he looks downright puzzled when Blondie shows disgust at the ravages of war. It is an emotion alien to him.
  
This is not the same thing as saying that he’s not human at all, which is why it’s so great that we get an interlude at the mission run by Tuco’s estranged brother Father Pablo (Luigi Pistilli), the angel to Tuco’s fallen sinner, who has just returned from the funeral of their father and is not at all pleased to see the ne’er-do-well bandit he has not seen for ten years. The story stops completely dead to show us this confrontation, which suddenly invests the film with the first indication that it might have a soul; and it is riveting, especially given that Tuco really does seem to think that he would be greeted with loving arms, and Father Pablo really does clearly wish he’d shown his brother more than contempt, once the time for reconciliation is past. Once this scene is done we know exactly why Tuco is the way he is, and what follows is a splendid return to his version of normalcy, as he boasts that his brother loves him, and his ally-turned-enemy-turned-ally Blondie (who has witnessed the whole thing), refrains from contradicting him. The camera focuses on a tight close-up of Tuco’s face as he processes his hurt, focuses on the quest ahead, and then, improbably, smiles. He has a brother he loves, who has rejected him; and he has a man he hates, who has just shown him a moment of understanding. Here is a relationship he can comprehend. The gold is ahead. He is home.

We cannot stress this enough. The entire Father Pablo scene, and its aftermath, advances the actual narrative not at all. With the movie running as long as it does, it would be the first interlude a modern-day distributor would cut out, the first scene that would make a modern-day test audience squirm with discomfort. (And we can not stress this enough, either:  fuck test audiences.) But it serves the story. It lets us know exactly who this scuzzy little bandit is.  Eastwood’s Blondie, designed as an enigma, doesn’t get anything nearly as revelatory, unless you count the powerful moment late in the film where he makes a point of comforting a mortally-wounded Confederate (another that would not survive a modern-day cut). There are others, before and after, playing the brutal search for bounty against a sweeping backdrop of the horrors of war; a not-exactly historically-accurate backdrop, but nevertheless one that makes everything around it play on an epic level.

So the movie can be credited with having a soul, if not consistent logic. This viewer always cringes at the scene where Blondie and Tuco discuss the river up ahead, are captured by Union soldiers, and brought to a major military encampment that they somehow failed to detect even though it was literally only about five steps ahead of them. I also wonder how come Tuco’s escape from a train goes unnoticed by a flatcar covered with soldiers, in plain sight and in broad daylight; and how come, in the aftermath of a major battle, new recruits Blondie and Tuco are conveniently left behind in their sleep, when everybody else bugs out without waking them. (Gee. That was convenient.)

The logical questions are unimportant, though, next to the sheer narrative verve, Leone’s trademark huge and oddly beautiful unflattering closeups of sweaty and unshaven men, set design that accentuates the ugliness and the primitiveness of the outposts of civilization the three antagonists travel, and the series of reversals, hair’s-breadth escapes, and unlikely acts of gunplay that make this one of the best tall tales in the genre’s history. Leone was a master of the intensely slow scene that reeked of impending violence, that focused on the terrified faces of desperate men who knew that they were about to be killed; and such scenes are compelling when they arrive at the rate of one or two per film, but can sometimes run afoul of the law of diminishing returns when they come too many times per film. It is for precisely this reason that, while Leone’s followup, Once Upon A Time In The West, is likely a far better film, it still can’t match this one for sheer entertainment value.

And then there’s the music.

Oh, the music.

Ennio Morricone’s most famous movie score is a remarkably memorable and powerful series of orchestral pieces that somehow synergizes with all of the movie’s great set-pieces to create a kind of magic. I’m not even counting the main title music, which becomes Blondie’s theme and provides us with that ridiculously addictive refrain whenever Eastwood does something particularly cool: doody-oodie-ooh. Waa-waa-waa. That is admittedly great stuff, one of the best movie themes of all time, one so inherently terrific that it’s been covered in every style from heavy metal to ukelele:

No, I’m talking about such compositions as “The Ecstacy of Gold,” which here illustrates Tuco’s frantic race through a military cemetery for the one grave which contains a fortune.

It is one of the most purely movie moments the film possesses, an absolute wonderment, and the best thing I can say about it is that, as good as it is, it is followed by an interval that is even better: the three-way gun duel between the titular three.

It is hard to imagine how any remake, even an uncredited one, could possibly provide us with as compelling a mixture of music and image.

Except that 42 years later, the climax of the next film in our discussion came pretty damn close.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Kim Ji-Woon’s version of the tale is about half an hour shorter, and more dominated by action setpieces; though it retains a historical subtext, relevant to Korea, it nevertheless leaves out almost all (but not quite all) sense of historical tragedy and almost all (but not quite all) depth of character, satisfied to dazzle the eyes and set the heart to racing. It is a much shallower piece of work, as well a far more lighthearted one. It achieves what greatness it has by sheer audacity.
 
It is an “Eastern,” which is to say that it translates the western tropes of the original to an equivalent period in Korean history: here, the no-man’s-land of the Manchurian desert in the early 1930s, after Korea’s been occupied by the Japanese and the cast of desperate gunfighters has migrated to that lawless frontier, where they can live out of the outskirts of civilization. Dialogue late in the film evokes the heartbreak of having one’s country occupied, and the treasure that provides the narrative its McGuffin will turn out to be a very modern resource with important implications for the military future of the region, but these concerns are not central to the tone of the film, as they are in Ugly; they are invoked to provide context, and to provide yet another heavily-armed set of antagonists, but viewers will find little here to match Tuco’s confrontation with Father Pablo, or the heartbroken band playing ballads to cover the beating of prisoners of war. The movie simply doesn’t have much on its mind, beyond kinetic thrills.

But what thrills! Take this opening scene – the second after a brief expository scene we can safely ignore in order to make this point. I don’t know about you, but the second the hawk does what it does, I turned toward my seat companion and declared, “This movie has me at hello.” And so it did.

The three main characters are designed to provide the very same dynamic as the one established by the leads of the 1966 film. To wit: the viewpoint character is Yoon Tae-Go, an unkempt, unwashed, amiable but deadly outlaw, widely regarded an idiot but possessed of his own brand of cunning; a man who nothing ever seems to work out for (Yoon Tae-Go, “The Weird”; played by versatile actor Song Kang-Ho, who even possesses the approximate body type that Eli Wallach did in 1966).  (Kang-Ho has given terrific performances in other Korean movies worth checking out, which include the vampire movie Thirst and  the police procedural Memories of Murder;  you could honestly do worse than check out those two minor masterpieces, as well as this one, right now). To counter him, there’s  Park Do-Won (“The Good,” played by Jung Wo-Sung), an almost supernaturally gifted gunfighter and bounty hunter who for most of the film disavows all interest in the treasure; and Park Chang-Yi (“The Bad,” played by Lee Byung-Hun), a man who seems to kill for the sheer point of killing, as well as the acquisition of treasure. The chemistry between these three is very precisely modeled on the one between Wallach, Van Cleef and Eastwood, down to our affection for Tae-Go and the grim lack of concern for his well-being shown by the nominal “Good.” It is, again, not as deeply realized a relationship as that in the 1966 film, but it scarcely matters, as the movie’s true intent is providing us with one over-the-top action scene after another, and in fiendishly arranging for all the parties intent on intercepting Tae-Go on his way to the treasure, a number that encompasses among others desert tribesmen, hired killers and the freaking Japanese Army, to all converge at the same point, a raucous chase and battle across the Manchurian desert.

And here, all critical standards prove irrelevant. Never mind the fallacy of the shotgun with infinite ammunition or that of the army that cannot outshoot a lone man. This is simply one of the very coolest chase scenes in movie history. It is on a par with the climactic battle of Stagecoach, the climactic battle of The Road Warrior, and the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark; moreover, the melding of the score by Dalparan and Jang Yeong-Gyu and the highly unlikely but intensely cool sequence where Park Do-Won takes on vastly superior forces in a solo ride to the rescue, is pure action-movie orgasm. I dunno about you, but I could honestly watch this scene ten times in a row and still want to see more.

It all culminates in another three-way gunfight, which ends substantially differently, with all three leads apparently killing one another (though an unpersuasive coda insists, against all odds, that the two we want to survive not only did survive but also made it back to civilization and resumed their old habits). I don’t entirely buy it myself. But the movie has me at goodbye, as well.

 The Treasure, Found

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: a superior adventure film, filled with classic set-pieces, and passages of genuine feeling, marred by some woeful logical gaps; The Good, The Bad, The Weird: not quite the sum of its parts, let alone more than the sum of its parts, but a kinetic wonderment, the kind of movie action fans will want to see again and again.

And now, the wife narrows her flinty gaze, while a mournful chorus goes “Waa-waa” in the background….

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo; 1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, and Luciano Vincenzoni. Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; also Luigi Pistilli. 177 minutes. ***

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (original title: Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom; 2008). Directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Screenplay by Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ji-Suk. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung. 139 minutes. *1/2

As I may have said before, I’m no great fan of the western genre.  Not thrilled by cowboys and injuns, seeing horses abused and maimed doesn’t set my heart astir. Don’t care if the stagecoach got robbed.  All I want is a good story, told well.

Now, we are presented with a Western made in Italy and an Eastern made in Korea. 

Neither one is unwatchable or gives me the twitches, but neither one tells me a really good tale.

The Weird focuses on murdering thieves who happen to realize that they have a map that everyone wants. They is an intricate dance of who’s actually after who and a few good fights, but I had a tough time following the so-called plot.  If it hadn’t been for this column, I would have abandoned it way before the climactic chase.  Now is it a chase that can elevate this film into even an extra 1/2*? NO!  It was overblown and ridiculous.  One man can not do what this schmo was supposed to do.  I couldn’t suspend belief, because I had no feelings for the characters.  No suspension, no fun.

Now the “classic” Italian Western that saved a genre has a bit more going for it than the Korean remake, but not by all that much.

I could believe that the “good” is actually a vicious, money grubbing, murderous (when needed) thief.  But what makes him any better than the other two?  They are all low life scum trying to scratch out a dishonest living on the fringes of the Civil war.   And being a great shot with a rifle does not immediately translate to being an incredible pistol man too. 

In this classic film we have a few of my least favorite tropes.  If an extra is shot, he dies quickly.  If a star or plot point is shot, he not only dies slowly, but with enough clarity to pass on his secrets.  Oh and speaking of shooting…If a man on a roof or at a window takes a steady bead on our hero, he misses, but is shot  dead from a hastily drawn hip gun after a spin around and no sighting at all.  And most of all, the star must win and the evil must suffer.  So so so…..painful.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was one of those films that formed my dislike of westerns.  Not all of the films in the genre have generated my disdain. There are many fine tales and character studies set in the rugged west.  But this and its counterparts have permanently left a sour dusty film in my mouth.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro


Last night’s jaw-dropping old movie: THE RARE BREED (1966), Jimmy Stewart western also starring Maureen O’Hara, Brian Keith, Jack Elam and Juliet Mills, which is all about the deep, abiding love a whole lot of people have for a bull.

Not a herd of cattle, mind you. A bull.

I am not kidding.

It’s a Hereford O’Hara and daughter have brought over from England, which gets a lot of scorn from all the… traditional western types who are certain that the only proper cow is a Texas longhorn; they sell the bull, named Vindicator, to Keith’s mighty scotchman of a rancher, then insist on traveling along with Stewart so they can teach the new owner how to care for it.

People are willing to rob, kill, hire thugs, and ride hundreds of miles through dangerous country, to obtain this bull which has been trained to come whenever anybody whistles “God Save The Queen.”

I am still not kidding.

This makes little sense, as many of the same people ALSO go on at considerable length about how the animal cannot possibly survive harsh Texas winters.

But they are certainly willing to twist their lives out of shape to get the damn thing.

Juliet Mills, who raised the bull from a calf, actually says to it, “Vindicator, you’ve got to stand on your own four feet. I mean it! You’re a British bull with uncommon good sense and fine ancestors. We’ve had some fine times together. Now you’ve got to prove yourself and prove that Father was right. Go on.”

I am still not kidding.

In any event, the initially dubious Jimmy Stewart character comes around to the premise that this bull is really something special, not just genetically but to hear him say it morally, and nearly kills himself riding out into subzero blizzards to save it from the elements; all to naught, as it doesn’t survive the winter, but that’s okay — there are now a whole bunch of hybrid calves in rancher Brian Keith’s herd, so it looks like Vindicator got up to some fucking before the cold put him down.

At the end, Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara are about to set a date for the wedding when Stewart shows up with one of the calves, inducing her to ditch the rich guy who is clearly out of his mind with love for her, and go off instead with the penniless Stewart.

The last shot is a triumphant closeup of one of the calves, looking stupidly at the camera in a visual clearly meant to stir our hearts to bursting.

This was not, to put it mildly, one of James Stewart’s great westerns. The odd thing is that it’s pretty damn entertaining anyway. I really — sniff — worried about that cow.


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.