“True Grit” Ethics

I haven’t seen the remake of “True Grit,” but I know I will, and like many other fans of the original 1969 version, I’m trying to conquer my biases. The latest effort by the usually brilliant Coen brothers creates ethical conflicts for me, and I am hoping I can resolve them right now. Can I be fair to their work, while being loyal to a film that is important to me for many reasons?

The original, 1969 “True Grit” won John Wayne his only Oscar for his self-mocking portrayal of fat, seedy law man Rooster Cogburn, 

who is hired by a young girl to track down her father’s murderer. I love the film; I saw it on the big screen nine times, in fact. Remaking it with anyone else in the starring role feels like an insult, somehow, as if the Duke’s version was somehow inadequate.

Intellectually, I know that’s nonsense. Artists have a right to revisit classic stories and put their personal stamp on them, and they should be encouraged to do it. Every new version of a good story, if done well, will discover some unmined treasure in the material. Why discourage the exploration?

Yet classic performances deserve special respect. I don’t want to see Judy Garland become just one of a parade of Dorothys; or Humphrey Bogart be known as just one of many “Ricks,” instead of THE tortured hero of “Casablanca.” This is especially true because of the inevitable bias that each new generation brings to films and popular culture generally. If you are under 30, you probably think that Michael Jackson was a better dancer than Fred Astaire, and maybe even that Steve Martin was a funnier “Inspector Clousseau” than the great Peter Sellers. That rankles those of us who appreciate the older stars, but really, so what?

“Rooster Cogburn” was more than merely a role for John Wayne, just as their roles in “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz” came to be more than roles for Bogart and Judy. By 1969, Wayne’s long, long reign as a major box office star seemed to be waning. He was too old and out of shape to be a credible romantic hero, if he ever was, and his recent Westerns had been less than successful, in part because the whole genre seemed to be running out of steam. Even worse, the star who spent his career creating the iconic American hero found his creation not just out of fashion but fighting for its life: the big guy with simple virtues who fought evil by punching it in the mouth was the antithesis of the new, drug-and-peace-rally bred hero who placed daisies in rifle barrels.  For John Wayne, the role of the washed-up, besotted Cogburn, described in the novel as a dead ringer for Grover Cleveland, was a merger of fantasy and real life. Wayne, like Rooster, wasn’t just old, he was becoming irrelevant.

Critics and audiences realized this was Wayne’s last stand, just as it was the final chance at heroism for the character he was playing. Throughout the film, Rooster is all bluster and presence with nothing to show for it. He lets the girl in his custody get captured by killers, and looks thoroughly washed up, just like the Duke. When director Henry Hathaway’s long shot of Wayne—and Rooster—-slowly emerging from the grove of yellow birches into a clearing to face down, alone, Lucky Ned Pepper and his three henchmen, the audience could feel what was coming: redemption for the both of them.

And then Hathaway cut to Wayne, on his horse, holding a rifle in one hand, which he spun and cocked one-handed, exactly as he had almost thirty years earlier in “Stagecoach”, when John Ford introduced him to audiences “the Ringo Kid,” establishing Wayne’s style and stardom in one flashy gesture. It was Rooster in the clearing, but John Wayne cocking the rifle on-handed, just like the old days. The first three times I saw the movie in a theater, the audience cheered.

In 1969, John Wayne’s America was on the ropes, mired in Vietnam, awash in protests, hippies, free sex and cultural upheaval. Just as Wayne was belittled by the trendy critics, who could never separate his performances from his politics, the United States was being belittled as a toothless world power with dated ideals. As usual, I was torn. I thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, but I felt the contempt being heaped on America for opposing Communism was wrong too, and the daily insults to American history and culture by student radicals—many of whom were my friends when they weren’t taking over administration buildings—deeply offended me. Westerns, meanwhile, once the ubiquitous metaphors for American courage and exceptionalism, had turned dark, exploring a frontier of genocide and shattered illusions. “True Grit” reminded us that American ideals like courage, commitment and determination still were an important part of the national character.

The movie just plain worked, and still does; it was and is fun. It was fun seeing an old John Wayne pushed around by a girl; it was fun watching great character actors like Jeff Corey, Robert Duvall and Strother Martin do their stuff with the dime-store novel dialogue, much of it right out of Charles Portis’s wonderful novel. It was fun looking at the Colorado scenery, especially the birch trees in the autumn, even though the story was supposed to take place in Arkansas; it was fun listening to another Western score by Elmer Bernstein, in his best “Magnificent Seven” form.

And it was wonderful watching the final scene, totally re-imagined for the movie and Wayne, who just had to ride off victorious—no moody endings (like the novel) for the Duke. Months after his triumphant showdown and a wild ride to rescue young Mattie, who had been bitten by a rattlesnake, Rooster visits the girl on her family’s ranch. There is snow on the ground, and Mattie takes them to where her father—whose murder launches the tale—is buried:

Mattie: This is what I wanted you to see. Papa’s marker was not what ordered—I had to make that fool of a stoneman change it. [She walks over to empty plots next to her father’s marker, as Rooster follows.] Some day, Mama will be here. And my brother and his family over there.  And that is for my sister and her family. And I will be here, on the other side of Papa. It’s comforting to know where we’ll meet eternity.

Rooster: [grunts]

Mattie: I would like you to rest beside me, Rooster.

Rooster: Now, sis, that place should be for your family, your husband, kids…

Mattie: You have no kin. I don’t count Chen Lee and the cat. Where would you end up? A neglected patch of weeds?

Rooster: I might just take you up on that offer, sis. Excuse me if I don’t try to move in too soon…

[Mattie gives him  her father’s pistol, which plays an important part in the story. Then Rooster prepares to mount his new horse, his old one perishing in the adventure.]

Mattie: Trust you to buy another tall horse.

Rooster: Yeah…He’s not as game as Bo, but Stonehill
says he can jump a four-rail fence!

Mattie: [As Rooster mounts the horse] You’re too old and too fat to be jumping horses!

Rooster: Well…come to see a fat old man some time!

[ And he jumps the horse over the fence.]

It is emblematic of what bothers me about some of the reactions to the Coen brothers remake is that so many reviewers have praised the movie for restoring the novel’s original (and rather sad) ending. That ending would have been completely wrong for the Duke’s “True Grit,” just as the 1969 ending probably would make no sense in the 2010 version. It shouldn’t be necessary to show disrespect for the first film to give the second one its due.

The Coen brothers, despite some ill-considered quotes about how the original didn’t capture the humor of the novel (which tends to support their widely disbelieved claim that they never actually saw the 1969 version, for the film is consistently funny) seem to have chosen the story simply because it is a good one, and because it included the best elements of the classic Western, a movie genre that has been out of fashion since before John Wayne died. The know-nothing critics who can’t resist taking cheap shots at the Duke while praising the Coens shouldn’t have their attitude be held against the remake (amazingly, I have read several reviews in which it is clear that the critic never saw the 1969 “True Grit,” yet denigrates it anyway), and they can’t harm John Wayne’s reputation at this point, for he is solidly established as a cultural icon, a status that hardly relies on “True Grit.”

Ironically, if the new “True Grit” succeeds in revitalizing Westerns, as some critics believe it might, the one of the primary beneficiaries will be John Wayne, who starred in more great ones (“Stagecoach,” “Red River,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” “Rio Bravo”) than anyone else.

So there really isn’t a conflict after all. The Coens only obligation in remaking a classic was to do it well, and be respectful and fair to the genre that John Wayne spent his career burnishing. It seems as if they did that.

OK. I’m ready to see the movie now.

15 thoughts on ““True Grit” Ethics

  1. I watched it the other night and for me it doesn’t hold up as well as it did in my memory. Glenn Campbell is simply awful and Darby is the standard 1960’s child actor even though she had to be in her late teens early twenties. But what does stand out for me is Waynes performance. I dot think I can count on one hand the number of movie stars that would have taken on a role like that , that would show them in all their flaws. People who see Wayne only through the lens of his politics are idiots and loosing out on appreciating a very very fine film actor. He was a modern film actor of the naturalistic vein long before anyone else. Just watch him in the Big Trail where everyone else is overacting in the style of silent film, just watch Tyrone Power Srs performance, while Wayne is real and focused. The one thing that makes me feel ok about the remake is that Bridges is playing the role. He too allows himself to be seen on screen with all his flaws and I’m sure he knows how hard that would be for actors of Waynes stature and tile period to do.

    • Campbell arguably takes the film out of classic territory all by himself..he was awful. I like Kim Darby, though, and the rest of the cast is excellent. It’s a great performance by the Duke—I don’t see how anyone can deny it.

    • Dear Bill:

      I agree wholeheartedly. I recall how Wayne, in an interview, recalled how his acting coach for “The Big Trail” tried to get him to express his final line “… and tell the great White Mountain hello for me” in stage-play hyperbole and with silent era gesturing. Young as he was, Wayne thought it was dumb, having a young man’s greater appreciation of how sound had changed the very concept of motion pictures. Instead, he delivered it quietly and modestly; thus contributing to his being the outstanding character of this early talking film. He exhibited it again as the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach”.

      And that self-depreciating humor Jack spoke of was always there. It was part of his appeal that he could always poke fun at himself on screen or off. His famous visit to Harvard to speak with anti-war activists (riding onto campus on a M-113 APC!) won him their respect and honest applause.

      I’ve always thought, though, that Wayne’s best films were when he acted out of character. I’d point out “Wake of the Red Witch” and, particularly, “The Quiet Man” as examples. However (and again as Jack points out) nothing could have marked his career’s twilight better then the scene in “True Grit” where he confronts Ned Pepper’s gang all alone. His line summed it all up.

      “Fill yore hand, you sonuvabitch!”

      It should be enshrined in golden letters!!

      • My favorite out of character performance is definitely “Red River,” in which the Duke is really Captain Bligh, and the villain of the movie, like Bligh, for being uncompromising and holding others to his own unattainable standards. The film softens the character at the end, which was too bad, and diminished the film. Matt (Montgomery Clift) should have had to kill Dunson (Wayne). But until “The Cowboys”, nobody with a name ever killed the Duke.

        • You’re just too “gritty”, Jack. I liked the ending of “Red River”. Wayne and Clift have just battered and shot their way through town… only to have a girl nag them into their senses while they look at her in exhausted dumbfoundment. “You’d better marry that girl,” mutters a stunned Wayne. I guess I just like happy endings!

  2. I think Mr. Cranky pointed out, in his review of the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, that they should remake BAD movies instead of good. I can’t wait for remakes of “Pootie Tang.”

    Your set of rules would place the remake of the Clash of the Titans squarely in the wrong, correct?

  3. I teach studio art, and one thing that I warn my students about is using weighty source material in careless or flippant ways. Some subjects come with more cultural weight and baggage than others — sacred imagery and the female nude are my typical examples, but classic films fall into that category as well. If your audience cannot help but compare your work to earlier versions, you better make sure those comparisons will be favorable — and that’s tough for even the best artists to do.

    • Terrific point. One way to do that is to take a radically different interpretation, though a respectful one. I encounter this frequently in my theater company, which does only older, seldom seen plays, may of which are associated more with classic films than the stage version. One of our surprise hits was “The Seven Year Itch,” in which the Marilyn Monroe part was played by a pert, elfin, brunette. Nobody was tempted to compare the play to the Billy Wilder movie.

      With “True Grit,” it is harder, because the characters just aren’t going to be that different if they are at all true to the book. This is why I think both the Coens and their fan club among critics are trying to claim differences in the versions that really are not that significant. Both movies are humorous; both use a lot of the novel’s dialogue; both include most of the same scenes. The big difference is that the first was a John Wayne movie, and the new “True Grit” isn’t.

  4. I agree that it can help to drastically alter or abstract from the original, both discouraging comparisons and allowing the new version to highlight elements that were not fully explored in the original.

    It’s possible to make the audience’s expectations and comparisons work in your favor, too. One of my students this past summer created a fairly recognizable sculpture of an empty tomb, complete with the stone rolled aside and a couple of female disciples. She really wanted the focal point to be the tomb itself, and she agonized over how to draw attention to what is, inherently, an empty space. One thing I pointed out to her was that the rest of her sculpture already created a certain expectation in her viewers — anything she placed in the tomb would immediately be connected to the Resurrection.

    In the end, she chose to place a tiny white feather on the floor of the tomb, with no other ornament or decoration. It was really evocative and poignant, and the fact that it was unexpected made it all the more powerful.

    I’m not sure exactly how to apply that idea to remaking successful films. If the story was well-told in the original, what does the remake add in terms of cultural value. From that perspective, it makes a LOT of sense to remake bad films, in which case a well-executed remake can add a lot of cultural value.

  5. If someone wants to remake a movie, that’s fine – that’s their right, like you say. However, I have no desire to go out and see this new version. I’ll just pop my Duke version in the DVD player when I want to. Two of my other favorites of his are Rio Bravo and McLintock.

  6. I’d love to see an ethical evaluation of the movie (both) itself. Especially given that the movie isn’t meant to portray sterling ethics.

    It’s one type of evaluation to tear apart It’s a Wonderful Life, when the movie is attempting to push certain things as “exemplary conduct”. Whereas a whole separate line of evaluation when the movie, such as True Grit, isn’t trying to say “this is exemplary conduct”.

    • Seemingly out of place, I rewatched the Coen’s True Grit the other night and saw the Wonderful Life post and was tempted to mention this…

      As for dialogue, both movies are absolutely great.

      Among my favorite lines:

      “Captain?? Captain Quantrill?! Captain of what?” – (an odd favorite line I know, but has considerable history and meaning to it)

      “I call that bold talk for a one eyed fat man!”
      Preceding one of the greatest scenes ever filmed.

      The scene between Mattie and the local merchant. Hilarious.
      “Are we negotiating again?!”

      “Lawyer Daggett again…”
      “She draws him like a gun.”

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