Watching both versions of True Grit in one sitting is an illuminating way to compare two disparate eras of the western, in the twilight of its prime and as a shade that only intermittently returns to haunt the local cinema today.
The 1969 version did not so much adapt the original Charles Portis novel as much as it used the characters and structure as a framework for something we would all recognize as a John Wayne movie. His Rooster Cogburn doesn’t differ substantially from any number of the characters Wayne has played over his career, albeit with a bit more nuance. Make no mistake, The Duke is an actor who made a career out of basically playing himself. The reason he was a star sans pareil and remains a legend is that he was far better at playing himself than any other actor with a similar range, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Without that range to work with, Wayne managed to find enough of himself in every character he played to make the illusion work for the required 90 minutes to two hours.
There is enough similarity between the 1969 vintage Cogburn and the 2010 manifestation that it’s clear both actors were playing versions of the same character, that of a drunken braggart who’s still as tough as advertised.The man in Henry Hathaway’s earlier film, however, has been forcibly stuffed into a John Wayne-shaped box. Jeff Bridges lets the Coen Brothers’ Cogburn out of that box to find a life of his own.
Freed from John Wayne’s need to always wear the white hat, this Rooster is dirty, gruff, garrulous and not an entirely pleasant human being. It’s entirely possible that the courage for which he is known comes primarily from the whiskey bottles he likes to “confiscate” as “evidence.” At the end of the day, and the film, his basic decency carries the day.
Not only is this Rooster an entirely separate creation than the 1969 edition, but you never find yourself reminded of any other Jeff Bridges film. The actor seems to have reached into the pages of the Portis novel and pulled out a whole new, utterly unique skin to wear. The Dude and every other well-known character of Bridge’s career is unrecognizable under the eyepatch. This outsized but naturalistic performance demanded a lot of his co-stars just to keep pace.
In the original film, Kim Darby plays the young Mattie Ross as a bit of an insolent tomboy. It was as if the filmmakers couldn’t get their 1969 heads around the idea of a 14-year-old girl riding in search of revenge for her father, so they did everything they could to neuter the character, giving her a boyish haircut and a similar demeanor, doing everything except cast a boy in the role. Hemmed in by a script that wasn’t allowed to be modern enough for her character, Darby does what she can. Her terror at end in the rattlesnake pit seems real and palpable. Of course, perhaps Wayne simply dumped her in an actual snake pit and her fear is real. His animosity for the young actress was well known, but not wholly justified. I can’t comment on whether or not she was “unprofessional,” as he claimed, but Kim Darby was far from the worst actress he ever worked with, as he also claimed.
Hailee Steinfeld will receive no such contempt from her co-stars. I believe if you polled Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, they would concede that, despite their billing, this relative newcomer was the real star of the Coen Brothers movie, entirely keeping with Mattie Ross’ status as the main character of the Portis novel. While Kim Darby’s Mattie could seem petulant, insolent, out of her depth, and deserving of the spankings with which she’s threatened, Steinfeld’s Mattie is 100-percent American steel, a formidable force of nature in braids and a petticoat, armed with a unshakeable sense of justice, a stern Presbyterian upbringing, and her father’s revolver. As a huge fan of Melissa Leo, I can’t begrudge her one bit the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she took home for The Fighter, but I doubt she would have complained too vocally if Hailee had been given the award. Leo seemed genuinely surprised to win, as if she, like many, expected to hear the younger actress’ name called. Some years, it actually is a genuine shame that only one person can win.
I’m not going to waste much of your time comparing the character of LeBoeuf. While Matt Damon gave a memorably individual performance, Glen Campbell was so far out of his depth 40 years ago that it hardly seems fair to draw comparisons. The Texas Ranger was a largely superfluous annoyance as a character in 1969, and while the character is not central to the Coen Brother’s story, at least the writing/director team had the sense not to give him screen time disproportionate to what the film required of him. Damon takes what he’s given and does plenty with it.
In both films, the object of Mattie Ross’ vengeance, Tom Cheney, is a self-pitying simpleton hardly worth wasting a hangman’s rope or even bullet on. The leader of the gang he rides with, “Lucky” Ned Pepper, presents an interesting character. As written in 1969 and played by Robert Duvall, he’s just the sort of snake you expect to find at the other end of John Wayne’s six-shooter. He’s bad because the film needs a bad guy and the good guys need target practice.
In the hands of Barry Pepper (no relation, I assume), Ned is still a bad guy, but in a world where even lawmen like Rooster Cogburn have their feet on both sides of the law, he exhibits a debased sort of chivalry. Once Mattie is his hostage, and Cogburn no longer a threat, he is as courteous to the girl as he knows how to be and even protective of her, threatening to cut Cheney out of the loot if any harm comes to her.
Stylistically, the original film was anachronistic even for 1969. In many ways, The Searchers from 1956 almost feels more contemporary than this film. This was an unapologetically conventional western made when cinematic sensibilities were changing almost minute to minute. The film’s opening segment, which was covered in less than a minute of narration in 2010, plays out like it was plugged into a decades-old template for the stock opening of a western. Everything else about the Hathaway film feels equally off-the-shelf: the costumes, the sets, even the music. The 1969 score seems not only intrusive and overbearing, but sometimes ends abruptly and can be wholly inappropriate for the action onscreen, as if they were recycling existing music cues from the Paramount library.
A final and telling difference is in the identity of the character who ultimately brings down Tom Cheney. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler, since characters like Cheney exist only to die at the hands of more virtuous people. The identity of his killer tells you not only who that particular version of True Grit is really about, but also something about the sensibilities of their respective eras. Perhaps audiences in 1969 would never have accepted a fourteen-year-old girl as a revenge killer, even in the name of self-defense, but they never would accept the price she pays for that revenge in 2010. In that way, the ending of the Coen Brothers’ retelling is solemnly poetic and has a symmetry that the John Wayne version never could. Hemmed in by conventions that were already falling out of favor, the older film presents a happy ending instead of a satisfying one.