Directed by Henry Hathaway
John Wayne more or less plays John Wayne in True Grit. As Rooster Cogburn he is an old Marshall, drunk and lazy but quick with a gun and honorable to boot when the moment calls.
Cogburn is the man young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) turns to for help tracking down Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. It’s Chaney whose actions fuel the plot, but we are never very well-acquainted with Chaney, even when his reckoning comes.
Instead he is off to the side, more bumbling than intimidating when our heroes and him finally cross paths. His death is swift, and the true climax of the film concerns Cogburn’s shootout with four other men, one of which is played by a young Robert Duvall. Even in this scene the action is somewhat predictable but no less exhilarating. Wayne finally gets to flex his muscles (with the help of a stunt double), and the moment is as much a celebration of Wayne as anything else. He’s not playing Cogburn in this moment, he’s playing John Wayne.
Much of the story has to deal with the push and pull between Cogburn, Ross and a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (singer Glen Campbell in a role that nearly went to Elvis Presley, whose manager demanded top billing). Cogburn is the old guard, Ross is the new one, and La Boeuf (pronounced ‘La BEEF’) is somewhere in the middle. I was reminded of the triangle between Ed Tom Bell, Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, a modern western they directed three years before adapting this movie.
In True Grit, however, the three are on the same side. Because we spend most of our time with them, away from the villains, they must provide their own conflict, and that they do. Cognburn is initially reluctant to work with Ross, and when La Boeuf joins, he convinces Cogburn to abandon the young girl, thinking she will only hold them back.
She remains stubborn, demands Cogburn’s admiration, and eventually they’re one big happy family. Most of the movie’s runtime deals with the slow formation of this happy family, and the ultimate battle with the long-discussed movie villains is over with rather quickly.
The story will end with Cogburn saving Ross following a near fatal snake bite. He shows her a side of himself that maybe didn’t exist at the start of the film. The final scene, once she is healed, has her show him the plot of land where her father is buried. She explains that she will be buried there too, and if Cogburn is amenable, there will be a spot reserved for him as well.
The idea of family is what wraps this story up. Cogburn has none, other than a quiet companion and a cat, and maybe he doesn’t need any. He’s like the ‘man with no name,’ the gunslinger who lurks about and might jump in to save the day but then rides away when the dust has settled.
Maybe True Grit is about balancing the old guard and the new. Apart from their age differences, Cogburn and Mattie are separated by their manner of handling things. He does so by force, and she does so by threatening people with her lawyer, Daggett. His is the way of old, and hers is the future (and present).
This is the film for which John Wayne won his only Academy Award. It’s probably similar to when Scorsese won Best Director for The Departed or when Leo won for The Revenant. Their victories were more akin to lifetime achievement awards, making up for lost time and honoring the work they had been doing for decades.
Here John Wayne is recognized for being John Wayne. Maybe it’s that he stood out a little bit more, heavier set and donning an eye patch. He was no longer the lean figure of Stagecoach, and while he still plays the most intimidating character onscreen, his bumbling, drunken ways are played for a degree of comedy. Finally, the lush, forested landscape of True Grit is a bit different than Monument Valley where he had done some of his best work, including 1956’s The Searchers.
So there’s something modern about True Grit. It almost feels out of place to have characters traveling to lands as lush, green and developed as we see here, where early on a group gathers in the town square to watch a public hanging like a small Texas town shutting down to watch the local high school football game. Kids play on swing sets in the foreground as three men are hung in the background. Mattie watches but expresses clear discomfort for watching convicted men die, something which so often feels as natural in a western as Jason Bateman playing the straight man in a studio comedy.
The film simply calls attention to aspects of other westerns which are taken for granted. Men die, shot in saloons or on the street, and their bodies are dragged away, so what? Here Mattie’s perspective allows us to better understand the brutality of the old west. To her it’s sickening. Because she can’t use violence to get her way, Mattie must rely on the threat of a lawsuit. These repetitive threats are often played for humor, and when Daggett does finally show up at the end of the film, a small and feeble man in John Wayne’s large shadow, he is there to be mocked, even if he doesn’t end up antagonizing the old hero.
So there’s a dichotomy between old and new, the way things were once done and the way they soon would be conducted. In the end we see that both can exist, at least for the time being.
Up Next: Out of the Past (1947), Pavilion (2012), Medicine for Melancholy (2008)