True Grit: Five Things About the John Wayne Classic

by | Dec 15th, 2010 | 10:13PM | Filed under: Behind the Scenes, DVD Reviews, Movies

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.


True Grit (1969) is available for rent from redbox.

You can also buy True Grit on DVD or Blu-ray from redbox.

And you can buy the sequel Rooster Cogburn from redbox.

17 Responses to “True Grit: Five Things About the John Wayne Classic”

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on December 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm


    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on December 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I like True Grit but my favorite John Wayne movie is McClintock!

  1. Kristin Dewey
    Posted on December 16, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    I totally agree that ANY John Wayne movie SHOULD NOT be remade!!

  2. Ray Watson
    Posted on December 17, 2010 at 7:37 am

    John Wayne is the best. I cannot imagine Jeff Bridges doing this movie justice. The Trailers looked forced. Jeff sounds like he has a mouth full of sheet. Did you notice that the trailers doe not show much of liberal boy. I wonder why.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on December 21, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    John Wayne is truly the winner! A remake does not do justice to his character which carried honor, humor, and down to earth fun! Sorry passing the new true grits movie up I will not be seeing it just a preferrence and of course only one persons opinion. But good luck to Matt Damon cause I do like him and wish him the best on this movie remake.

  3. vic miller
    Posted on December 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    In the remake of True Grit with Jeff Bridges, why does he wear the patch over his right eye since John Wayne wore it over his right? Simple oversight? Are there reasons why the Duke covered his right eye? Did Portis portray it that way in his novel?

  4. vic miller
    Posted on December 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Pardon me, I meant to ask why Bridges wears the patch over his right and John Wayne wore it over his left. Sorry.

  5. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on December 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Actually Vic, in the novel Rooster does not wear any sort of eye patch, though I can’t tell you off hand which eye is blind in the novel. I’m guessing the Coens, in their usual spirit of rebellious mischievousness, simply had Bridges wear it over his right eye as a playful nod to the fact that Bridges’ portrayal is different from Waynes’.

    Teasing about the obsession over the side switch, Bridges has joked that he wore his over his right eye because he’s a “commie” (seeing things from the left), while The Duke clearly saw things out of his “right” eye. But he also added that the patch just felt better on the right than the left.

  6. Ruth
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 7:50 am

    I just saw both versions this week and I think they were both excellent!
    Who cares if a patch was on the left or right…All three played the part very well…And as a newcomer, Haley Steinberg was a great choice. Jeff Bridges and Matt Dammom were great in their rolls too. Four and a half stars for me!

  7. Jim Manzanares
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Who on earth thought that Jeff Bridges could ever come close to portraying John Waynes’ Rooster Cogburn? Of all the many movies that John Wayne did, this was truly his icon role. Sure he was much better an actor in the Searchers, and of course my favorite, Red River, but he WAS Rooster Cogburn! Okay, I liked Jeff in Crazy Heart, but now Rooster Cogburn? Come on! Does he have bad dentures? Is that why he talks that way?

  8. John Stetson
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    I have a copy of the original and saw the remake last week. All of the principal acting in the Coen Bros. film is better the Wayne movie. And it is a good deal funnier. I haven’t read the book (plan to shortly) so I can’t speak to how well either follows the book. But a great deal of the dialog is the same between the two.

    Indeed, the academy award given John Wayne was a sentimental gift that year. He acted better in other films. But Bridges out acts him in this role by a fair margin; as do most of the others.

  9. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on December 28, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    John Stetson, I can’t recommend Portis’ book highly enough. (It’s back in print, but I had a terrible time finding a copy last week for a Christmas gift.) More than just the source for a couple great movies, it really is a literary masterwork in its own right. Written in an incredible (and laugh-out-loud hilarious) voice, it’s both excitingly entertaining and yet often sneakily poignant. And with the exception of taking LaBeouf in and out of the narrative more often than in the book, the Coens’ film version is incredibly faithful to the novel.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I still remember seeing the original True Grit at a small theater in Colorado in 1969 as a 10 year-old. To this day, this is my favorite all-time movie. I have both the VHS copy as well as the DVD. John Wayne is “America’s Hero” and in my own personal opinion, always will be. Will I see the new version? Sure, but I must agree with some of the other blogs, the one-eyed, crusty Rooster Cogburn belongs to The Duke.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Suki Robbins
    Posted on December 29, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    Okay, When I see a “remake” I try to be fair to the director and actors. I view the film as if I don’t already know the story. If you have pre-conceived ideas of what the movie “should be” I don’t think many could live up to those standards.
    In my opinion, this was well worth seeing. Plenty of action and suspense. Sure The Duke will always own the Rooster character, but this was a great movie on its own!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Jack Schlatter
    Posted on December 30, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Like just about everyone else I loved the Duke in True Grit but it was far from his best performance…The Searchers (the greatest western ever made in my opinion), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (while only being 42 he played an officer in his 60′s to perfection), Red River..(the film that caused John Ford to say, “I didn’t know the SOB could really act”)
    But to be fair, I do believe that Jeff Bridges is the only actor who could approach a ‘Duke Role’..

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