No one can deny the sheer film nerd excitement and anticipation surrounding the release of the Coen brothers’ take on True Grit, which rode into Australian cinemas last week. To have Joel and Ethan at the helm of a (Western) project starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, it’s a nigh-on pants wetting excitement. Wondering what filmic magic the Coen brothers have in store for us, and for what might be in store for Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn’s story, it seemed only natural then, to revisit the 1969 release of True Grit.
For those not in the know (or those who have been hiding in a cave with limited film news capabilities), the film follows teenage Mattie Ross’ quest to avenge her father’s death. During a post-barroom argument, he drunkenly shot and killed by “the coward Tom Chaney”, and she is doggedly determined to find him and have him brought to justice. She enlists the help of grizzled and drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn – who she is convinced has “true grit” – and the younger Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. Originally published as a novel by Charles Portis, one can expect that the plots of the two subsequent film adaptations have warped somewhat from the source material. However, as I haven’t read the novel, nor have I seen the Coen brothers’ take on it, I can really only hazard an educated guess at how they differ exactly. That, and get swept up in the first filmic interpretation of the story. That’s quite easily done, I’m happy to report.
The first thing that becomes clear as True Grit winds its way through the Colorado Rockies and Mattie’s story is that the role of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn may just have been the role John Wayne was born to play. Perhaps perfect casting? Could have the filmic planets aligned just so he could have put on the eye-patch in the year of nineteen-and-sixty-nine? I don’t know, but it’s a goshdarn pleasure to watch, Pilgrim. Rooster’s closing line of “Come see a fat old man sometime!” is truly heartwarming, and smile-inducing. It’s therefore not a surprise in the slightest to read that he campaigned endlessly to have this film made, and with him in the lead. Aged 62 at the time of the film’s production, he truly epitomises the rugged masculinity of the character. Moreover, there’s a kindness and an essential goodness in his performance hidden under the tough exterior, as well as a world-weariness necessary of a character like Cogburn, something often belied by the frequent humour of the script (more about that later). The Duke’s drawl, his toughness, and his cheeky grin are all pitch-perfect for inhabiting Rooster’s jacket and eye-patch.
Of course, True Grit wouldn’t be considered a “classic Western” (I got many a disapproving look when I admitted I hadn’t seen it until just now) without a cast that shines equally as bright as the Duke’s. I was somewhat surprised to see the faces of Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall onscreen, and similarly was pleasantly surprised that Glenn Campbell proved himself to be a fine actor. However, he pales in comparison to Kim Darby, playing Mattie Ross. Defiant, headstrong, determined, she holds her own against both John Wayne and Rooster Cogburn. As her family farm’s bookkeeper, Mattie spends her time onscreen bargaining with men twice her size and age, refuses to have her view of a hanging shielded (“I’m here, I may as well see it all”, she says), refuses to be left behind by Cogburn and LeBoeuf. It would have been all to perilously easy for Mattie to have ended up as quite an annoying character (in my eyes anyway), so one really has to tip their cowboy hat to Kim Darby for injecting just the right amounts of vulnerability and feistiness to the young woman.
One of the real pleasures of True Grit is the interactions between Mattie and Rooster. After all, the film is really just as much about the relationship between the members of the mix-matched posse as it is about bringing Tom Chaney to justice. Their exchanges crackle and spark, aided to no end by a similarly cracking script by Marguerite Roberts. Not only is the dialogue mercifully written in an old-timey Western fashion (as opposed to, say, a 1960s rhythm with 1960s vocabulary), but it’s actually genuinely light and funny in parts. I suppose that was one of the genuine surprises, given how dark the trailer for the Coen version seems. There are some laugh-out-loud moments between the three leads, and also between the so-called bad guys that are being tracked. For instance, Tom Chaney tells Mattie how to make her old-fashioned gun fire before she shoots him, then complains loudly that “everything happens to me!”. One has to give credit where credit’s due, and certainly Roberts paints an intriguing picture of Tom, as well as Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), the leader of the gang he’s riding with. Pepper doesn’t seem like a bad guy, just another man riding, trying to make a living for himself. Much like Rooster, or Mattie herself. He doesn’t quite seem bad enough at times, and it seems as though this darn shoot-out he’s found himself in with old Rooster is just a matter of the wrong place at the irritatingly wrong time. Each character, regardless of the time spent on-screen, ended up being not only interesting but also (even just a little bit) slightly redeemable. That, I think, is refreshing and admirable.
If I were to name a couple things that did irritate me about the film, it’d be Elmer Bernstein’s over-the-top score (it’s pretty ham-fisted). I suppose that’s the way Westerns were back then, but this was almost to the point of distraction. Secondly, it’d be the overly bright and vibrant scenery. Again, that’s probably just a matter of preference. I like my Westerns a little grittier, but that’s me. I read recently with some interest that the Coens instructed Jeff Bridges, who plays the role of Rooster in this year’s version of the film, to disregard John Wayne’s performance. Of course, I couldn’t imagine a Wayne impersonation cutting it for the Coens, but it does intrigue me as to how Bridges has decided to approach the role. Similarly, I look forward to a grittier LeBoeuf from Matt Damon than what Glenn Campbell (solid, but outshone by his co-stars) offered. In fact, I’m expecting — hoping — for something altogether grittier. Now, that’s not to say that Henry Hathaway’s take on the story isn’t a tremendously entertaining and interesting journey; I know for a fact that watching the first interpretation of the source novel has only served to make me more excited about finally watching the Coens’ latest. Like I said, it’s a nigh-on pants wetting excitement, Pilgrim.