The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

True Grit pt. 1

with one comment

I’ve been fretting over the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit for about two months now, ever since I saw the preview for it when I went to Jackass 3D.   My initial concerns were in regard to them treading on sacred ground and trying to breathe new life into an iconic Western starring the greatest movie star of all time, especially when the film itself didn’t need to be remade.  But a couple of months of research, some reading, and some contemplation on the whole notion has changed my tune.  Right now, before I’ve seen the remake, my concerns lie more with the original True Grit than with whatever the Coen’s have conjured.

True Grit (1969) was but one of five Westerns of some renown at the box office in 1969.  It competed that year with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Paint Your Wagon.  Aside from the truly lamentable last film mentioned, True Grit kept company with three other films that went on to become legendary in the Western genre (it can even be argued that the other three went on to become legends in all of film).  My problem, then, is that in the best-case scenario, True Grit was the fourth best Western that year alone.  So why all the hype?  What Kool-Aid have I been drinking that got me to rank it amongst the all-time greats?

True Grit is not a bad film, though, by any stretch.  It has an original plotline with a fourteen-year old girl as the protagonist, solid humor, visually appealing landscapes (which by then had been a long-time Western cinematographic trope), fine acting, some great gun fights, and John Wayne.  How can it go wrong?  The source material for the film was outstanding, and the screenplay adaptation is about as faithful as that of The Godfather.  Maybe in any other year in film that would be enough, but it’s not enough to sustain True Grit.  It remains a servicable film at best, albeit an enjoyable one, but it never transcends its source material.  It is the book on film with very little exception, and also with very little noticable effort on the part of the director to add flare.  In comparison to The Wild Bunch and BCATSK, it’s clean and safe.  Sanitized.  That is perhaps its biggest problem.

The Western was an expiring genre by 1969, and it’s because of films like True Grit that it was on its last legs.  Too many Westerns for too long stuck with the standard archetypes.  Staying true to what we know to be standard Western form was not going to help a Western during some of the most tumultuous social crises in American history.  The hippie counter-culture, Vietnam protests, and Woodstock, amongst other events, were drastically reshaping Americans values and social mores.  Those evolving values were more apparent in the horribly violent The Wild Bunch and the ironic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than they were in True Grit.  Even Once Upon a Time in the West has experienced a resurgence in which critics have reassessed its cultural cachet and place in the socio-political environment of the time.  Changing tastes and broadening perspectives were even apparent in the box-office draws from 1969:  True Grit earned less than 1/3 of the top-grossing film of the year, which was BCATSK.  Finally, the American Film Institute ranks The Wild Bunch at #6 and BCATSK at #7 on their all-time greatest Westerns list, whereas True Grit isn’t in the top ten.

My reconsideration of True Grit has even gone as far as to question why John Wayne won Best Actor for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn.  No doubt that he does a solid job in the role (it is perhaps a role only he could play), but it was no greater than his roles in Red River, The Searchers, or The Sands of Iwo Jima, for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.  Was he better than his main competition:  Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy?  Voight and Hoffman would have made as much if not better sense for the award given their mutually stunning performances, and that Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture and is a far greater film with a much greater cultural impact than True Grit (plus Hoffman was just beginning to show off his incredible talent and diversity–  his portrayal of Ratso Rizzo came only two years after his breakthrough as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate).  But this is where politics probably plays a part in the whole situation.  Midnight Cowboy was a breakthrough, too, bringing counter-culture to further legitimacy by recognizing it’s content and subsequent controversy as substantial and relevant to our lives and culture.  It remains the only X-rated film to win Best Picture.  My best guess is that perhaps the Hollywood conservatives weren’t willing to sign off on the whole deal and let Midnight Cowboy take so many major awards, and Wayne conveniently appearing in a substantial and popular role in the most American genre of film was enough to seal the deal for him.  Wayne was on his last legs even as True Grit was being filmed, and the Best Actor nod may have been recognition for an outstanding career and a thank-you for what he did to embody all that American is.

So I look forward to seeing the remake of True Grit, which I will in the next few days.  I don’t want to see Jeff Bridges outdo Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (I don’t want John Wayne lessened in my eyes; his iconic status and the nostalgia I associate with him play strongly in my mind).  I want to see the next iteration of the Western; something that will not only take Charles Portis’ book beyond its own pages, but will rank up there with recent gems like Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma.  I trust the Coen brothers to deliver.

Written by seeker70

December 22, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I enjoyed reading the post about this film. Some
    consideration should be given due to the fact that John Wayne,
    played the “Duke” in every movie he made, similar characters, very
    similar charateristics, somehow that stood up to be a hero. I am
    very willing to see this version, as the original did no justice to
    the actual character. There is a struggle there with right and
    wrong, the doing of a wrong to make it right, being on the fence as
    a character could go either way. The bad man becoming a hero, when
    in the scheme of things the bad man was doing this service for
    money, as any head hunter of those days did. Most were charaterized
    as being able to go either way, bad or good, doing something bad
    for the good. It did take a certain person to hunt down injustice,
    alot of times they were not heros. Even the little girl faces that
    delima as she wants blood as vengence rather than right. It will be
    interesting to see. Thanks Jeff

    Mike burd

    December 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

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