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“True Grit” – two movies; a generation apart

“True Grit” – two movies; a generation apart

‘True Grit’
1969, written by Marguerite Roberts and directed by Henry Hathaway.
Starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Jeff Corey and Kim Darcy.

‘True Grit’
2010, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on True Grit by Charles Portis.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and introducing Hailee Steinfeld.


It is strange to think that one genre can be closely connected to just one actor.  When someone mentions silent cinema, people think Charlie Chaplin; martial arts, Bruce Lee and Westerns?  It seems that the poster boy for many Western films is John Wayne.  Even though his career included over 140 films, he received his only Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal as US Marshal ‘Rooster’ Cogburn in True Grit, the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, directed by Henry Hathaway.  The film follows young Mattie Ross (played by Kim Darcy), as she recruits Cogburn to avenge her father’s killer Tom Cheney (Jeff Corey) and accompanies him and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Glen Campbell) into Indian Territory to track Cheney, in order to bring him to justice.

In modern terms, True Grit could almost be called a glamorous Western – with its rich Technicolor, the landscapes are extremely picturesque.  Compared to the Sergio Leone-style Westerns, it is like the rough edges of what is a gritty genre have been polished off to contend with the lavish expensive films released in the same era, such as Cleopatra (1963) starring the late Elizabeth Taylor.  Hathaway’s decision to stray the story away from Portis’ text, by using an original script by Marguerite Roberts and sticking with a happy ending, lessens the drama of a Western rather than reaffirm the sense of duty and justice shared by the protagonists.

Young Mattie, played by Darcy who was 21 years old at the time of filming, is outwardly determined, if not (unfortunately) slightly grating – it is like the sudden death of her father gives her an immediate, though unfamiliar, sense of duty.  Following on from his iconic performance in The Searchers (1956), Wayne plays a likeable (not loveable) rogue; the good cop to LeBoeuf’s bad cop, who doesn’t think twice about birching Ms Ross with some branches.  Cogburn’s humorous tone throughout most of the film lightens the mood and softens the dramatic elements of the story, justifying the film’s PG rating in the UK.

In comparison to this, the 2010 adaptation of True Grit, directed by the Coen Brothers, follows a similar vein to the novel by concentrating on Mattie Ross’ POV; rather than divert the viewer’s attention to the A-list cast members of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, who play Cogburn, LeBoeuf and Cheney respectively, the film focuses on the startling performance of newcomer Hailee Steinfield.  She puts in a mature, quiet and focussed performance to young Mattie, who wears her father’s clothing as a symbol of her love, effectively allowing her character to turn the tale on its head – you can tell that from her portrayal that this is her mission, not that of Cogburn or LeBoeuf.

The truth is that True Grit v.2.0 is a lot rougher round the edges.  Kudos to the Coens (whose Westerns and thrillers outshine their comedic material…bar The Big Lebowski), they do not try and recreate the 1969 film and instead make a Western suitable for our generation.  Seeing it as an opportunity to tell this story the way it was meant to, they don’t pretty up the terrain or the characters – Bridges’ Cogburn is a more experienced character, Damon’s LeBeouf more focussed and less flamboyant, and Brolin portrays a stronger character, creating a less emphatic persona in comparison to the almost hapless Cheney in Hathaway’s feature.

From the perspective of the modern viewer, it is easy to point out the differences, as well as the plus and bad points of each film, but True Grit is one of those stories that resonates through different generations.  So, whether you wish to delve into a typical Western in a key decade in cinema, or whether you want to see a film stripped down to the bare essentials, True Grit is classic in more ways than one.

– Katie Wong