Saturday, February 12, 2011

True Grit

In the 1930's, John Wayne created a character who would become known as the Duke, and he would play him in westerns, war movies and in public for more than forty years. In films that ranged from Stagecoach to the Shootist, John Wayne drew audiences with a gravel voice, cat-like walk and a simple philosophy of right and wrong.

In 1969, Wayne won his only Oscar, for trying to portray someone other that the Duke, and failing in the most spectacularly entertaining fashion. The character was Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, and the film, directed by Henry Hathaway, was called "True Grit".

Cogburn is a deputy federal marshal attached to the court of Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas. One of two hundred such men, charged with returning thieves, murderers and other assorted miscreants from the wild landscape known as the Indian Territory (much later Oklahoma), Cogburn has shot and killed twenty-three men in the course of his four years' employment. Once more, Wayne portrays a morally-upright curmudgeon with a hard fist and a fast gun. This time, he wears an eyepatch.

After farmer Frank Ross is murdered and robbed by his hired man while on a horse-buying trip to Fort Smith, his fourteen year-old daughter, Mattie (Kim Darby), travels to town to settle her father's affairs, and to find justice or revenge for his killing. When she finds that the killer, Tom Chaney, has fled to the Indian Territory to escape that justice, she seeks the aid of the toughest and most merciless man-hunter she can find. The mercenary Rooster Cogburn suits her needs exactly.

The thing most likely to thwart Mattie's ambitions is a lack of money, but the canny teen believes that she can solve that by selling her father's new horses back to the man from whom Frank bought them. Colonel G. Stonehill (Strother Martin) is convinced that he holds the legal and ethical highground here, and flatly refuses to consider buying the ponies back. Martin was an actor of great ability and talent, and he was a notorious scene thief. It is a pleasure to watch his eloquent and understated Stonehill's journey from petulance to amazement - to perhaps even a grudging respect - for Mattie's business acumen. She persuades him to buy Frank's ponies at a loss, to pay compensation for a Ross horse stolen from Stonehill's custody, and finally to sell one of the ponies back to her at the new (lower) market price - with horseshoes provided at his own cost.

There is a new tenant (Glen Campbell) at the Monarch Boarding House, where Mattie has been staying. He identifies himself as Sergeant LaBeouf of the Texas Rangers, and informs Mattie that, he too, is hunting Chaney, whom he knows as Theron Chelmsford, for the murder of a Texas state senator in Waco. He agrees that the killer has fled to the Territory, and has probably joined the gang of outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper.

Mattie outlines her plan for the capture of Chaney and even reveals Cogburn's role. Too late she realises that she does not hold LaBoeuf's manner or his abilities in very high esteem, and tries to veto his presence on the hunt.

Lucky Ned (Robert Duvall) and Cogburn are acquainted with each other. The outlaw carries a new scar on his lower lip, where Rooster shot him. Ned was very lucky that day, because Cogburn was trying to hit his upper lip, and his aim was off.

Lucky Ned is not as lucky in his choice of followers, who, while they are vicious and savage enough, don't seem especially bright or capable.

Jeff Corey plays the whining, complaining, self-pitying Tom Chaney, who has been grudgingly accepted into Lucky Ned's gang of second-rate badmen. It is probably a fair judgement of his character that even they don't trust him to do much more than care for the horses.

When Mattie attempts his arrest - on her own - at the point of her father's old dragoon Colt, Chaney believes that he once again has the advantage of a less able opponent. This time, he is wrong.

The scene all of us recall best is the one where Cogburn rides casually toward Pepper and his three cohorts, informing the outlaw that he means to kill him in about one minute.

"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," says Pepper.

"Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!" replies Rooster, taking his reins in his teeth, his Peacemaker in one hand and his Winchester in the other.

It would be nice if all of us had aged as well as this movie.


  1. that picture of the boy with John Wayne - the boy looks like Justin Bieber. even the hairstyle is the same. funny eh.

    i really began liking John Wayne after i watched a couple of his movies. the guy seemed to have a real integrity to his characters. i expected him to be a cold tough guy but the movies i saw him in he was far from it. haven't seen True Grit yet. i'm more interested in the John Wayne version. i'm not big on graphic violence and i know how graphic it can be with the Coen brothers. for instance, Fargo. a wonderful movie but the violence is hard to stomach. still they are damned good. maybe someday i will see their version

  2. The "boy" with John Wayne is Kim Darby, who played fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (the real hero of the movies and the book). She was twenty-one or twenty-two at the time. She has aged well, but she STILL looks like Justin Beiber!

  3. Although I'm a huge "Duke" fan, the new TG was good in it's own right. They were different in parts and in directors vision so I wasn't constantly comparing the 2 movies. Overall both are a entertaining watch.