I hesitated about putting True Grit on this list because my previous experience was with the 2010 Coen brothers remake which lifted at least 85% of this film, verbatim. True Grit also boasts a mixed history, with Wayne openly railing against the finished product, and thinking his Oscar win for the role – the only one in his career – was undeserved. That’s a tall order of dislike, and I certainly had trouble connecting to this film from a narrative perspective. And while Wayne felt the Oscar wasn’t earned – and it was to a point – his performance is the best the film has to offer. Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) is intent on killing the man who murdered her father. She enlists the help of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) to find the man and kill him.
Unfortunately, the best way for me to review this film is to compare it to the 2010 remake. Outside of an extended epilogue in the remake, these movies are practically twins. The plots are the same, and several sequences and lines of dialogue are transplanted entirely from this film to the other. With all that, there was little suspense or unpredictability; I knew everything that was going to happen. It’s not to say the story isn’t engaging. Mattie Ross’ determination to avenge her father’s death propels the movie forward, and the final gunbattle between Rooster and “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) is intense, especially as Rooster charges into the fray, reins in the teeth, guns blazing.
Wayne and several Oscar pundits at the time believed he won the Best Actor award in 1970 (trumping Richard Burton for Anne of the Thousand Days) for sentimental reasons; the award was a lifetime achievement Oscar, meted out to him before his death. It’s the “You’re going to die sooner rather than later, so here’s an Oscar.” It happens a lot, and I agree with Wayne; he should have won for The Searchers more than any other film in his filmography. Rooster Cogburn is a character, a loveable drunkard with as staunch a grip on killing as he does on drinking. Wayne’s portrayal is leaps and bound above the caricature Jeff Bridges created in the 2010 film. Where Bridges was a drunken coot with a screw loose, Wayne is firmly grounded in reality. When Rooster’s questioned as a witness for his excessive violence, Wayne, in a matter-of-fact tone, asks the lawyer if he means “shot or killed?” He’s created a bold distinction between the two, and finds it should make sense to everyone, not just him. This is Wayne’s film, and he holds up the burden left by the weaknesses of Kim Darby and Glen Campbell. Without Wayne, True Grit would lack any of the latter.
It isn’t that Darby or Campbell are terrible, just poorly unprepared for working alongside Wayne. Wayne cast a long shadow and he worked best with actors he respected, whose personas were on par with his own (Maureen O’Hara, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum). Darby’s performance is where the remake wins out. Darby was not Wayne’s first choice for the role – he wanted Karen Carpenter. He saw Darby as uppity, which could have been a little Method acting, maybe? (He also hated Duvall who studied The Method.) Unfortunately, Darby’s know-it-all attitude comes off as maladroit. A line like “I won’t rest till Tom Chaney’s barking in Hell” should conjure up all the hurt and sadness Mattie’s feeling, but hiding so as to act adult. Darby says it as if she’s picking up her laundry. Mattie Ross is a child masking her pain in adulthood, a theme lost with the 22-year-old Darby. Hailee Steinfeld in the original walks the walk of the character, letting the child in her come out in rare moments and inserting emotion into her dialogue.
The character of La Boeuf hasn’t worked in either version, whether it’s Campbell or Matt Damon. La Bouef buys into his own hype. He thinks he can sell ice to an Eskimo and hits a wall when he meets Mattie. The romance angle never goes further than casual interest, although the dialogue’s less weird between Campbell and Darby as it was between Damon and Steinfeld. Campbell’s serviceable in a shallow character that neither actor over two films has succeeded with.
The grittiness of True Grit can’t be denied. I missed an opportunity watching the remake before, but going back to the original allowed me a great understanding of what worked, and didn’t, in each incarnation. If you want a fantastic Rooster Cogburn, there’s none better than Wayne. If you’re looking for a more engaging Mattie Ross, you’re better off with the remake. Since both narratives are identical, either one works story-wise. I will say the remake yielded a better Mattie Ross costume for Halloween. Unfortunately, no one knew who I was.
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