Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

True Grit (Paramount, 1969)

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Rooster Cogburn, no grit? Not much!
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The 1969 filming of the great Charles Portis novel True Grit was a perfectly splendid Western.

 

It is not always that an outstandingly good book makes an outstandingly good film but it was certainly the case with Portis’s book and the John Wayne/Henry Hathaway movie. Both have marvelous dialogue with one great line succeeding another, conversation with a Mark Twain or Bret Harte twang. Both have a gripping, adventurous chase plot and memorable characters. The Marguerite Roberts screenplay for the ’69 movie was stupendously good – the best thing she ever did.

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Great novel

 

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The movie was one of John Wayne’s greatest performances and it won him his only Oscar. He seemed to have made a conscious decision by the late 60s to play aging Western dinosaurs. The role suited his age and paunch. Rooster Cogburn was only in his forties in the book so this was a conscious change. Yet underneath, he was still Wayne. The movie works because in the last resort you still believe that “a one-eyed fat man” really could face down four mounted gunmen in a clearing and win out.

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Fill your hand, you son of a…
 
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Much of the Wayne theology is desecrated in the 1969 True Grit, yet it doesn’t seem to matter and he gets away with it. He is a drunkard. He is ready to shoot a man from ambush and rob the dead. He’s doing it all for the money. These are not standard Western hero traits, and certainly not Ducal ones.

 

Mattie is really a sort of female Jim Hawkins and there is definitely something Long John Silver-ish about the rascally Rooster. He’s just lost an eye instead of a leg. As Garry Wills points out in his biography of John Wayne, just close your eyes and listen to Wayne: it could be Wallace Beery in the 1934 Treasure Island.


Wayne’s daughter Aissa, Tuesday Weld, Sondra Locke and Mia Farrow were all possibles for the role of Mattie Ross but the part went to Kim Darby and she was terrific. Although 22 and a mother, she caught the feisty young daughter of the book perfectly.

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Kim Darby superb as Mattie

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Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper do very good jobs as the heavies but probably the best minor part is Strother Martin, magnificent as the crafty horse trader bested by Mattie.
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Strother magnificent

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HW Gim as Chen Lee and General Sterling Price as himself were also particularly memorable. Only Glen Campbell, though he does his best, isn’t quite up to it (unlike the character he plays; he was up to it). 60s Westerns seemed to feel obliged to have a singer (a heart-throb pop singer, usually) in the picture, maybe to entice the female teen audience in.

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Photographically the film is very fine. It was shot by Lucien Ballard, who the same year did the visually very different (actually, different in pretty well every way) The Wild Bunch. Where Peckinpah’s film was shot in Mexico in harsh, pitiless light, True Grit was pastoral, almost bucolic, in its verdant Colorado and Inyo National Forest setting.

 

The Elmer Bernstein music was also, rightly, nominated for an Oscar (pity about the cheesy title song crooned by Campbell but that was de rigueur).

 

Hathaway, 71-year-old veteran of countless films, directs magisterially without a hint of sentimentalism. It’s all action and humor and straight down the line Western grit. A truly great cowboy film.

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A great director of Westerns
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There you have some good reasons why this is such a fine film.
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As we know, there were later appearances of Rooster. Wayne himself would be back, in Rooster Cogburn. Warren Oates did a TV one. Jeff Bridges was Rooster for the Coens. They all had something.
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.But for me, the 1969 movie still towers above them all.

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One Response

  1. Nice article Jeff. I caught it off Katrina's Speakeasy. How about reading the article On Ward Bond's WAGONMASTER 1950 that I wrote for her. Would love a comment from a fellow blogger.
    I will mark your site. Will come back when I have more time. Thanks, Keith

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