Apparently, if you need to track down a bad guy in the wild west, your absolute best shot at success is to hire a misogynistic one-eyed alcoholic. Whether you watch the old or the new True Grit, that much seems clear.
I’ll admit that something uneasy crept into my life upon learning Rooster Cogburn would live again in a remake of this 1969 crowd pleaser. Drawing from core material about murder and revenge, the film version gave us a smart, spunky girl who recruits John Wayne to the rescue. It won the Duke the Best Actor Oscar (as much for career recognition as his performance). It remains a pleasure to watch. Doesn’t need re-making, right?
Two words. Coen Brothers. Two more words. Jeff Bridges.
The vivid characters and language in the novel written by Charles Portis seem tailor-made for the Coen’s quirky sensibilities. The truth is that this film would never have been re-made except for their passion to do it. And now that they have, honestly, this one is a shoot-out for the ages.
The new Grit has a woman’s voiceover preceding 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) riding into Fort Smith, Arkansas. The girl intends to find and punish farm hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Witnesses say he murdered Mattie’s father in a drunken rage. By now, Chaney’s fled into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and beyond the reach of the local sheriff. Those two facts place Mattie in the reluctant company of Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). He’s too drunk to be very interested, but has the true grit Mattie seeks. She offers a reward and insists on calling the shots on the manhunt. Along the way they encounter a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is chasing a reward on Tom Chaney from an unrelated murder.
This won’t go down easy because any trust connecting Mattie with the lawmen is very shaky. Making matters worse, Chaney has fallen in with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang of desperados. Both sides eventually meet with lethal results. We also learn about Mattie’s life, and Rooster’s, well after the events that brought them together.
The Coens wrote a screenplay more closely following the events, colorful language and point of view in the Portis novel.
The Defending Champion
The same basic events play out in the original True Grit. Think John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, Kim Darby as Mattie, and a supporting cast that included Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Doucette, and Glen Campbell.
Marguerite Roberts wrote a screenplay with an opening scene absent in the novel, and a distinct switch in emphasis: This horse opera keys on Rooster Cogburn, not the girl who wants to hang her dad’s killer. Hollywood veterans left their imprint: Director Henry Hathaway, Producer Hal. B. Wallis.
There’s a lot to admire in both movies. Neither was shot in Arkansas or Oklahoma. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard filmed the Technicolor John Wayne movie mainly in Colorado; the Coens shot mostly in New Mexico. Both films look gorgeous, especially the earlier one.
John Wayne may remain the Rooster Cogburn more firmly rooted in the public mind; Jeff Bridges looks seedier and rustic, and acts better.
It’s hard finding strong differences between the superior supporting casts, except in one glaring case: Glen Campbell. Wooden, spotty chemistry with the ensemble, and that hair. It’s that same stiff, long-sideburn look from his TV show. Campbell compares poorly with his Coen counterpart, Matt Damon. In fact, Damon has a promising career path in Westerns if he chooses.
Here is the separating difference: Hailee Steinfeld versus Kim Darby. Both show the backbone required for Mattie Ross and they perfectly manage the rough talk and routine of the old West. It’s the age thing: Mattie Ross is a 14 year old girl, and Kim Darby was a fully grown, 21 year old woman. The bulky clothing and bob haircut couldn’t hide that. By contrast, Hailee Steinfeld won’t make anything think she looks older than 14, if that. That lends special poignancy and power to the OTHER big distinction between these films: the character focus. The main character in the John Wayne version is Rooster Cogburn. With the Coens — and the original author — it is the girl. That makes all the difference.
The right people made the better film.
The Coen brothers win on points. They had the good sense to appreciate and ramp up the elements that make True Grit such a compelling movie: The story is vivid, so are the characters and the language they speak. Their treatment improves the material by restoring the focus of this story on Mattie.
None of this dilutes my love of the earlier True Grit. It’s a dandy film: beautifully filmed, generally well-acted and the themes about revenge and honor are clearly laid out. This version is widely available on DVD.
Take a look at both; you’ll enjoy them… but you may decide the small important differences belong to our winner: True Grit by the Coen brothers.