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Who really has ‘True Grit?’ A vote for John Wayne, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall

January 11, 2011

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.

Unlike most of the miliions of people who caught True Grit over the holidays, I approached the theater with a grudge. No matter how good the Coen Bros. new adaptation might be, I was perplexed and irritated that critics, in praising the film, had almost universally stooped to slag the 1969 John Wayne original.

For one thing, I had recently watched part of the old picture on cable, a experience that confirmed my conviction, held since childhood, that it was one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

What’s more, the previews had led me to expect little. Jeff’ Bridges’ turn as Marshall Rooster Cogburn seemed, in the trailers, dim and humorless, while newcomer Hailee Steinfeld was simply too pretty for the iconic role of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl determined to avenge her father’s murder on the Arkansas frontier.

I’m delighted to report that I should never have doubted Jeff Bridges, whose interpretation of Rooster Cogburn is meaner and less blustery than the Duke’s. On the other hand, Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation, channeling the Presbyterian steel that animates Mattie’s character with righteous certainty.

Indeed, I left the theater enthralled, ready to turn around and see the movie again, right away (if only I had world enough and

The original Mattie: Kim Darby

time!). But is the Coen Bros. vision of Charles Portis’ great novel better than the 1969 version?

If you listened to most film critics, the answer is a resounding “yes!” For them it’s not enough to praise the new picture, they must gratuitously insult the old one.  Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, for example,  takes a lazy swipe at the John Wayne version on his way in: “Leave it to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, to do right smart by True Grit, the 1968 Charles Portis novel that a year later became the Western that won John Wayne his only Oscar.”

This piece from NPR’s Bob Mondello, however, epitomizes the baffling and unnecessary way critics have attacked the older film. Mondello mocks John Wayne — at length– for being too fat for his horse (it’s a horse, Bob! Those suckers are strong!), rejects Glen Campbell as a nonactor (in fact, Campbell does a creditable job as the Texas Ranger LaBoef), and generally dismisses the picture, directed by veteran Henry Hathaway as “old-fashioned.”

The Coen Bros.’s take, he concludes, is “grittier.”

Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne style.

Now I’ll admit the Hathaway version isn’t perfect. The big music is a serious distraction for me, as it is in so many old movies. And it always annoyed me that the film was made in Colorado, with the Rocky Mountains soaring in the background, while the story takes place in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Indian territory. The Coen Bros. correct this — somewhat. I’d like to know why they couldn’t have filmed in the Ozarks, but at least the New Mexican landscape they used isn’t Big Sky country.

But otherwise the old picture gives away very little to the new. Kim Darby not only portrays Mattie’s resolve and ferocious intellegence, she looks like a plain frontier girl. The earlier movie had Robert Duvall as

Jeff Bridges: A quieter, meaner Rooster.

the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and Dennis Hopper as one of his henchmen. It’s amazing that Barry Pepper, in the new film, almost matches Duvall in grimy charisma.

The Coen Bros. assert their film is not a remake but a direct adaptation from the novel, and claim they have not watched the John Wayne movie since childhood. I was deeply struck, therefore, with how similar much of the staging is, especially the important gun battle out the outlaw dugout and the climactic horseback confrontation between Ned and three of his companions on one side and Rooster on the other: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”

Such similarities should not be surprising, I suppose, since both movies draw from the Portis novel. The same is true with dialogue, which at times seems identical. And where the writing varies — the original movie was scripted by Marguerite Roberts — the older film is better.

Much less is made in the new movie of the “true grit” theme (Mattie wants a lawman with “true grit” to hunt down the man who shot her father). A key exchange between Mattie and Rooster after the dugout gunfight sharply illuminates Ned’s character.

“They don’t call him Lucky Ned Pepper for nothing,” Rooster says in disgust as the outlaw rides away unscathed. “That man gave his life for him and he didn’t even look back,” Mattie

Robert Duvall as the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper.

says. “Looking back is a bad habit,” Rooster replies. None of this is in the Coen Bros.

The Coen Bros. have been praised for greater fidelity to Portis’ novel, yet the sequence involving the man hanged high in the wilderness and the trader wearing a bearskin are new inventions. The Coens  are especially lauded for including the coda at the end, showing Mattie as a one-armed spinster approaching 40.

But here, again, the older filmmakers got things right, even if they depart from the book to do so. As a plotted story, the movie ends when Rooster gets Mattie, dying from snakebite, back to safety and medical care. The coda, which plays so well in the book, feels tacked on in the movie, greatly diffusing its dramatic impact.

Barry Pepper: Filling Duvall's boots.

Furthermore, the actress playing the older Mattie is badly miscast. She looks like a caricature of the spinster, tall, straight, prim, thin-lipped. Steinfield’s Mattie could certainly grow up to be an unmarried businesswoman, but she would look more like, say, Renee Zellweger, or even better (and more affordable) Robin Weigert, best known for Calamity Jane on HBO’s “Deadwood.”

In the end, both movies are great. The emotional impact of the John Wayne version is greater, while the Coen Bros. bring authenticity and complexity to the story. See ’em both, let me know which you prefer. And by all means, do not neglect Portis’ novel. Along with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, it’s one of my two favorite Western novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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