With the Coen Brothers’ True Grit in theaters there’s a lot a chatter among film lovers about which is better: Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, the 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar, or the new version with Jeff Bridges in the iconic role of U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn.
Redbox is now carrying the ’69 Wayne version, so this seemed like a good time to look at five things about the Western classic!
1) Is Portis’ Book Worth Reading?
Darn tootin’ it is! The Arkansas-born Charles Portis was a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and his first version of True Grit was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968. Told in the first person (and in the spirit of Huck Finn) by an older Mattie Ross, the novel is full of sly down-home humor and rip-snortin’ action, as well as wry 1960s social observations on the mythology of the Old West. It’s a terrific read and honestly one of the great unsung American novels.
The ’69 movie is actually very faithful to the novel’s dialog, although a few key plot points are changed at the end. And the book’s Cogburn was about 40 years old, and did not wear an patch over his missing eye. Also, mountainous Colorado stands in for the novel’s much flatter western Arkansas and eastern Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
2) Who Was Almost in the Movie?
Wayne set out to make True Grit with producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca) and director-for-hire Henry Hathaway, who’d worked with the actor on The Sons of Katie Elder. The list of actresses considered for young Mattie included Sally Field, Sondra Locke, Tuesday Weld, Wayne’s own daughter Aissa, and even singer Karen Carpenter, who Wayne thought was wonderful.
Most intriguing was Mia Farrow, but she didn’t want to work with Hathaway–instead she wanted the film to be directed by Roman Polanski, with whom she was making Rosemary’s Baby. Stop for a moment and think about that: Roman Polanski directing a John Wayne movie.
Another interesting almost-cast member? Wallis wanted Elvis for the role of the Texas Ranger LaBeouf, but Col. Tom Parker insisted Presley get top billing–a deal breaker for Wallis.
3) Who Ended Up In the Film?
Eventually 22-year-old Kim Darby was cast as 14-year-old Mattie, much to Wayne’s chagrin. He and the young actress did not get along at all on the set, with The Duke later calling Darby “the goddamn lousiest actress I ever worked with.” Darby was hailed by critics for her breakout performance in True Grit but hardly appeared in any more major films.
Likewise, Wallis wasn’t happy with Presley’s replacement, singer Glen Campbell. Other young actors appearing in True Grit include Dennis Hopper as Moon (the younger outlaw at the dugout) and Robert Duvall as the robber Lucky Ned Pepper (who Wayne also hated for his “Method-y” ways).
4) Is True Grit Really John Wayne’s Best Role?
In some ways, yes. Certainly it’s his most iconic. His performance as Cogburn is hammy–and you could argue he’s better in The Searchers. But True Grit finds Wayne older and humbled–four years earlier the 61-year-old had an entire lung removed due to cancer, and he could barely walk 30 feet on the set. And Rooster’s talk with Mattie about his failed marriage in Illinois is one of Wayne’s finest moments.
Maybe he didn’t deserve the Best Actor Oscar that year, but many Academy members probably thought he wouldn’t be making many more pictures and this was the last chance for a career honor. Instead over the next 7 years he made 11 more, including The Cowboys, reprising his True Grit role opposite Katherine Hepburn in 1975′s Rooster Cogburn, and his final film The Shootist.
5) So Is the ’69 True Grit a Great Western?
Sure it is. No, it’s not a masterful filmmaking achievement like Wayne’s Westerns with John Ford, but thanks to Portis’ story, Darby’s spirit, and Wayne’s larger-than-life embracing–and tarnishing–of his image, True Grit is a lot of grizzled fun. And that climactic scene is still truly thrilling. “Fill your hands, you son of a…!”
True Grit also marks the end of the Classic Hollywood Western. That same year Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out, and soon the “square” idea of a “straightforward” Western was replaced by films that looked at the Old West with a more cynical eye.
So when ’69 True Grit ends with “old fat man” Cogburn triumphantly jumping his horse over the rail, it’s really the Classic Hollywood Western we’re waving good-bye to.
One last warning: True Grit is rated G, but it is not for children–by contemporary standards it’s very much a PG or PG-13 film, opening with a triple hanging, and including a graphic scene with a character getting his fingers chopped off and then stabbed to death, and plenty of salty language.