Tuesday, February 28, 2012

True Grit (1969)

Release Date:
11 June 1969 (USA)
(viewed SA 25 Feb 2012)
Henry Hathaway
Marguerite Roberts based on a novel by Charles Portis
John Wayne
Kim Darby
Glen Campbell
IMDb link and rating:

Plot Synopsis:
A young woman, determined to see her father’s killer brought to justice, enlists the aid of an unlikely hero.

As strange as it may seem, I have not seen any John Wayne movies--or if I have, I have no memory of it--so my expectations of the legend were just a bit higher than what Mr. Wayne actually achieved in this film. I don’t mean he performed poorly. On the contrary, I liked his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, the rough-around-the-edges lawman who “loved to pull a cork” as often, or at least as freely, as he pulled a trigger. He exhibited just the right combination of humor and justice; his was a wisdom evidently accumulated over a lifetime of hardtack and long, lonely trails, punctuated by encounters with the bad guys. Rooster was a man of moral clarity (“You can’t serve papers on a rat; you gotta’ kill ‘im or let ‘im be”), tainted only mildly by one instance of a . . . shall we say nuanced view of stealing. My problem--and I fully admit it may be my problem--is that I expected John Wayne to have a somewhat larger presence on the screen, an intensity of a Humphrey Bogart, Orson Wells, or Joseph Cotton. In this film, at least, Wayne was overshadowed by a teenage girl.
Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby, was resourceful, courageous, and delightful, almost masculine in her single-minded pursuit of justice, but feminine enough to stoke the concerns due damsels in distress. She was bright and bold--a Hermione Granger of the American west--savvy in financial negotiations, intrepid even when caught in the grips of overpowering scoundrels. (Not to mention the grips of a good guy: the Texas Ranger La Boeuf. This character, played by Glen Campbell, in one scene issued a sustained parental spanking upon the bottom of the writhing Mattie, an action that prompts puzzling and somewhat uncomfortable questions about the motives and possible fetishes of this La Boeuf, considering that he had previously flirted with her and, somewhat darkly, threatened both to kiss and spank her. To this threat, Mattie responded with her typical dignified courage: “One would be as unwelcome as the other.”)
On the face of things, of course, Rooster is the character with “grit,” the single quality that Mattie seeks out in him because she is convinced it is the human trait that will deliver justice in her circumstances. She’s right, though in the end, we observe that true grit is in the greatest supply in Mattie herself.

How have I gotten this old and never seen this movie? 

Mattie Ross is a revelation!  As a clearly serious and directed young woman, she is intently focused on catching her father’s killer and bringing him to justice one way or the other.  She looks law men and outlaws in the eyes and asks her questions without apology or allowing a brush off. She is both demanding and unafraid of the actions her demands might place on herself.  We see her acting with tremendous thought and practicality, putting aside her emotions for a time when she can deal with them properly.

Specifically, when she enlists the help of the “meanest” US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, played by an older John Wayne, Mattie doggedly pursues Cogburn not only to take the job, but further to meet his end of the contract she forced him to sign for payment.  She is intolerant of his drinking, but never a scold. Deep in commerce with a killer bounty hunter, she never loses her perspective; exposed to brutality and murder, she never loses her humanity.

Perhaps due to the short haircut and the fact that I just finished “The Maid” by Kimberley Cutter, I could not help but think of Joan of Arc.  No, Mattie Ross did not lead the French to victory over the English based on voices in her head. Much more importantly, Mattie Ross’s victory over injustice was based solely on her ability to think and reason. She, like Joan, was fearless in the face of her convictions. 

Finally, regarding Mattie’s character, I was also reminder of most of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, but particularly the opening lines:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating, 
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise: 

Mattie did this in spades and was the one with True Grit.

On John Wayne and the other actors in the movie – I’ve loved John Wayne since seeing The Cowboys (1972), but I didn’t so much enjoy watching him as the drunkard Rooster Cogburn.  He seemed really, really old to me which is weird given that The Cowboys was released three years later, and the movie, Rooster Cogburn, with Katharine Hepburn,  three years after that. Also worth noting is a very young Dennis Hopper as the hapless thief, Moon, and a young – not Boo Radley young, but youthful – Robert Duvall as the unrepentant Ned Pepper.  Glen Campell  finely played a secondary character but in a ostensibly primary role.  The made-for-tv western movie music was simply a distraction.

Action Items:
Watch True Grit 2010 and compare.  Watch old John Wayne movies: Island in the Sky, The Sea Chase, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, among others.

Supplementary Details:


Chuck said...

True Grit has long been one of my favorite movies. The first thing that struck me about it was the dialog - everyone speaks in quite excellent English, with virtually no contractions to be heard the whole way through.

I seem to remember (I could be wrong) that Ayn Rand didn't care for the movie because she didn't like the drunken John Wayne character. But Wayne's character isn't the protagonist - Mattie is. and her character is superlative.

One of my favorite lines from the movie is when La Beouf (however you spell that name) said something to Mattie about his religious sect, and Mattie replied derisively:

"I took you for a kneeler."

While Wayne's character leaves much to be desired, the scene where he takes on the four outlaws in a virtual Old West jousting match is one of the all time greats. "I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," said Robert Duval's outlaw character, and Wayne took the reins of the horse in his mouth, and charged forward with a rifle in one hand, and a pistol in the other. Fearless Old West bravado at its best.

Lynne said...

Exactly! I loved that "kneeler" line and the fearless bravado. I also didn't like Wayne's character and will be happy to see him in more heroic roles, but as you say, Mattie was the protaganist - and a superlative one at that!

Thanks for the comment.