(SPOILERS) In the wake of the Coen Brothers’ version, there isn’t really much need to see this first cinematic go round of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel again. Unless you adore John Wayne. It won him his Best Actor Oscar, of course, but if you came to True Grit cold, with zero knowledge of the background to his receiving the statuette, you’d reasonably be mystified quite how that came to pass.
Rooster: I never shot nobody I didn’t have to.
It wasn’t after all, as if Wayne was popular amongst his Hollywood liberal peers. And he was outright anathema to the burgeoning New Hollywood that could be seen all over his fellow nominees that year – he couldn’t have received much more of a kick in the nuts than the top award going to a movie appropriating the iconography of his esteemed western genre and riddling it with rape, male prostitution and homosexuality! But as Anthony Holden tells it in The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, the town’s “sentiment will always favour a local man who has made a very public recovery from apparently terminal cancer”.
Boarder: Watch out for the chicken and dumplings. They’ll hurt your eyes.
LaBouef: How’s that?
Boarder: They’ll hurt your eyes lookin’ for the chicken.
And Wayne isn’t much of anything special in the movie. Sure, he can offer “bold talk for a one-eyed fat man”; there’s an abundance of choice dialogue, much straight from the novel, it seems (above); lines like “I always go backward when I’m backing away” are fodder for his easy drawl. But he vaunted this as a character part, rather than playing himself, and the parts where the character are foregrounded tend not to travel so well. His drunk acting isn’t so great (his demijohns are clearly empty, his stuntman doesn’t fall of his horse with aplomb, and he never seems remotely pished).
True Grit has all the style of a ’50s western; unsurprising, since Henry Hathaway was very much of the old-school Hollywood tradition. There’s the occasional observational colour (the old woman smiling merrily to herself at the hanging), but little has much evidence of care or rigour. I doubt very much the picture would have been significantly different had Mia Farrow played Mattie, rather than Kim Darby – Farrow was warned off Hathaway by Robert Mitchum – or had Elvis played La Boeuf instead of Glen Campbell (the King would surely have been a distraction).
There are several new-gen actors in the mix, including Dennis Hopper (who had history with Waynes, John in The Sons of Katie Elder and Patrick in The Young Land) and Robert Duvall (who butted heads with both director and star). They’re villains of course, the latter getting a death scene (“Your partner’s killed you, and I’ve done for him”) after helpfully providing Rooster with all the lowdown he needs. That sequence, had it not been filmed so sloppily by Hathaway, would be quite grisly, featuring as if does stabbing and dismemberment (Hopper’s buddy brings a blade down on his fingers).
Darby is fine, if a little on the performative side; she’s obviously intended to be stroppy, prissy, proper, stubborn and wilful, but she manages to leave out the endearing above all part (Wayne reputedly wasn’t keen on her acting, although she has nothing but nice things to say about him). Her delivery of “And I don’t like the way you’re cutting up that turkey”, aimed at Hopper and his associate, made me smile, though. Campbell wasn’t favoured by Hathaway, who considered him wooden, and it seems Campbell wouldn’t disagree (“I’d never acted in a movie before, and every time I see True Grit, I think my record’s still clean”).
Captain Finch: They’re dead?
Rooster: Well, I wouldn’t want you to bury them if they wasn’t.
I honestly can’t remember if I’d seen this previously – while I’d taken in many of Wayne’s westerns in my formative years, they tend to blur into one. Consequently, I took note of how similar both versions were, a testament to the source material, I guess, but also making Ethan Coen’s justifications for the remake seem a little less robust (the 2010 remake is superior in every respect, barring that the Coens fail to include Rooster’s cat General Sterling Price; they, of course, have experience with less-than-appealing appreciations of the feline – Inside Lewyn Davis – so perhaps it’s as well the General is absent). I was particularly surprised that the chicken man – Harold Parmalee – is a feature of both versions, as I’d have taken him to be an inimitable Coens invention, as much as the bear man.
Hopper and Wayne were both at the Oscars that year (he was nominated for the Easy Rider screenplay, a source of some contention in itself); As Peter Biskind tells it, deranged Dennis was Wayne’s “in-house communist”, whom he would rail at whenever anti-Nam protesting was occurring; Hopper went over to congratulate the screen titan, who had whispered “Beginner’s luck” to Babs Streisand on winning. Wayne also apparently accosted Richard Burton and told him “You should have won”; Burton was a man’s man of, course; I couldn’t see Wayne having suggested the same to louche lush Peter O’Toole or either of the Midnight Cowboys. Apparently, Burton and Wayne then caroused the night away.
Mattie: They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.
He’d return to Rooster Cogburn in the movie of the same name five years later. The most notable part is that there was still an appetite for such a picture(s); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may have been the hit of the year, but True Grit was also in the Top Ten, while other nu-westerns (the previous years’ Once Upon a Time in the West; The Wild Bunch was in the Top Twenty) didn’t make nearly the same waves with audiences, however justifiably legendary their status is now.