I like Joel and Ethan Coen. They’ve had their share of flops but when you walk into one of their movies you know it’s not going to be just another Hollywood dog turd. Still why remake True Grit when you could be working on something wildly original like one of my favorite movies The Big Lebowski.
It’s a Hollywood trend lately to claim you’re working from the original source, the novel, when it’s fairly obvious that what you’re remaking is the original movie. It’s Hollywood and hypocrisy is the name of the game. The Coen’s have been talking a lot about Charles Portis who originally wrote True Grit. Apparently he’s the literary predecessor to Cormac McCarthy. I don’t know because I’ve never read any of his books or met anyone who has. In fact the only thing I know about Portis is the trivia that apparently it was obligatory for Glen Campbell to be in any movie made from a Portis book.
It’s my opinion that Margeurite (Maggie) Roberts breathed life into the Portis characters In her 1969 script for director Henry Hathaway. The strange concept of cowhands talking like Oxford scholars remained but Maggie made them human. It might seem strange to a viewer today that the audience in 1969 was scandalized by Rooster Cogburn sticking up for Mattie when LaBoeuf attempts to put her in her place for being uppity. Today we cheer when Rooster draws down on the Texas Tinhorn for spanking the feisty self assured girl. It’s not just that Maggie gave Mattie some of the “Sand” that allowed her refuse to name names and get blacklisted; It’s that she loved and understood how to write tough guys too. Maggie, Mattie and Rooster are what make this movie work so well. The rest is just plain old Arkansas cornpone despite what the Coen’s have been saying.
If you’ve never seen True Grit before it’s the story of a 14 year old Arkansas girl who is bound to bring her father’s killer to justice. Because he’s fled to the Indian Territory (A large black mark on US history is the Indian Removal Act. The Trail of Tears ended in the Indian Territories now part of Oklahoma where there were already many tribes, escaped slaves and disreputable whites) she must hire a Federal Marshal who’s willing to act as a quasi legal bounty hunter. Along the way they meet a Texas Ranger who’s also after the killer for shooting a Texas senator.
The original film garnered John Wayne his only Oscar. The Academy would have been better off waiting a few years and giving it to him for The Shootist. The Duke is famous for saying that he’d have put the dam eye patch on years earlier if he’d known it would win him an Oscar. It did win him a sequel with the incomparable Katherine Hepburn but the Duke Wayne kind of cowboy movies were soon to be replaced by a different kind of western. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was released only a week after True Grit hit the theaters.
You’d think that the Coen’s with their penchant for violence would have turned True Grit into a blood soaked nightmare that would give Peckinpah nightmares. Instead they’ve given us the original True Grit with a bit more realism and more appropriate actors. I liked it. John Wayne always played The Duke when Jeff Bridges shouts the famous lines: “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” I wasn’t thinking of the Duke at all. Instead I was seeing that one eyed fat man Rooster Cogburn riding down on Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang in one last hell or glory run. I liked Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie too. She’s got exotic good looks but more appropriately she’s actually a young woman and that puts Kim Darby’s Mattie to shame.
It’s Mattie who’s the star of this version of True Grit. She’s the civilizing woman taking no nonsense from the menfolk even though she’s only 14. The horse trading scene is just as funny as it was in the original and the only person to get anything over on Mattie is another woman the keeper of the boardinghouse. In the middle of the Choctaw Nation where guns and blood are the only law Mattie resorts to J. Noble Dagget who will undoubtedly sue the bullets right out of the outlaw’s guns. It’s just a shame that the Coen’s had to give us such an unsatisfactory ending with Mattie as a rock hard old spinster. Joel, Ethan, to quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For once I’m all for the Hollwood ending and not this unlikable one armed woman of the Portis book.
True Grit, it doesn’t matter which version you see. If you like an old fashioned oater with tough guys and feisty women you’re going to like both versions. It’s a nice movie to see on a Saturday afternoon when you’re confronted with the abysmally bland Christmas crop of movies: Why do I want to see the Little Fuckers? That shtick was old in the last sequel. Tron Legacy is stuck in some computer I threw out long ago even if the special effects are great. Gulliver’s Travels is a massive pile of steaming crap and I’m ashamed of Jack Black for making it. Narnia is just more propaganda for kids and Tangled is a Disney babysitter. The only other decent movie is the Black Swan and let’s face it since it’s about Ballet it’s going to be a hard sell to the meat and potatoes crowd. Oh yeah and Yogi Bear, do kids even know who Yogi is when they’re being parked in front of the big screen with the big bear? I bet half of them only know Yogi from the kids meals toys.
I didn’t mention the somewhat controversial Indian Kicking scene in the article. PC Rangers are making it out to be a horrible scene of Indian bashing when from what I can see Rooster kicks the boys because they’re torturing a mule.
A fine review, I reckon, though I haven’t seen the film yet so can I be sure?
Enough introspection, this is the only movie I am now looking forward to seeing with great anticipation. You haven’t diluted that any, so thanks.
I dig the original and I am a big fan of John Wayne. The Cohen tribe has always been hit or miss with me. However, I am willing to give it a shot because I like westerns and I am curious. We’ll see how it plays for me, I hope it is good, I really do.