Special to The History Place
When Charles Portis first serialized his novel True Grit in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968, this yarn about a 14-year-old girl in pursuit of her father’s killer caught and kept the American imagination for a solid decade. I can make that claim with considerable confidence, because the novel, subsequently published by Simon & Schuster, was adapted for the big screen in 1969, winning John Wayne his one and only best-actor Oscar. Wayne also milked a 1975 sequel out of his career-capping performance, reprising the role of a crusty (gritty?) U.S. Marshall opposite Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn.
A 1978 made-for-TV movie, True Grit: A Further Adventure, gave Warren Oates a chance to show viewers what he could do with the Cogburn role. Last (and probably least), Glen Campbell, who portrayed Texas Ranger La Boeuf (pronounced La Beef ), got a True Grit sound-track album out of the deal to boot. All in all, not a bad ten-year run for a tall tale narrated in the first person by an old spinster, looking back from 1928 to her youth in the wilds of Arkansas.
Now, more than three decades after the Oakes sequel, Cogburn, La Boeuf, and plucky young Mattie Ross are riding into Comanche Territory together once again, thanks to a Coen Brothers remake, staffed by no less than last year’s best-actor, Jeff Bridges, in the Rooster role. Matt Damon, another terrific actor, plays La Boeuf, while Hailee Steinfeld, who really is just 14 and whose biggest credit prior to this film was a K-Mart commercial, convincingly portrays Mattie. Indeed, despite youth and inexperience, Steinfeld holds her own against the film’s two super-stars. Josh Brolin, whose performance in W was previously reviewed by me in this space, rounds out the cracker-jack cast, as the killer Tom Chaney.
Beyond the obvious appeal of two big box-office names – one of whom just “Oscared” in a modern-day Western called Crazy Heart – True Grit enjoys the sure-fire appeal of a simple morality play that harks back to a more black-and-white era. Whether mythic or accurate, the film’s frontier world of lawmen and outlaws will be for many 21st century Americans a refreshing change from the ambiguities of the so-called Global War on Terror.
Actually, I make this, my second, assertion about True Grit with less confidence and some qualifications. Mattie, having arranged for her murdered father’s corpse to be embalmed and shipped home for burial, seeks a law enforcement official of, well, true grit. She is directed by the local sheriff to Rooster, whom she first encounters as he’s testifying in a murder trial. On cross-examination, he is forced to admit to killing some 23 “outlaws” in the space of a four-year law enforcement career. The circumstances under which he brought the current defendant before the federal bench, he also is compelled to concede, was less than a textbook example of respect for the rights of the accused. In fact, he comes across as a 19th century predecessor of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.
Like Dirty Harry, Rooster Cogburn precariously straddles the fence that separates the lawmen from the outlaws. in a wilderness (natural as opposed to urban) where there are few eyewitnesses to say who shot first or why. Barry Pepper, whose film credits include The Green Mile and Flags of Our Fathers, plays Lucky Ned Pepper (no relation, I presume), whose outlaw gang welcomes Tom Chaney into its ranks. This is crime enough for Marshall Cogburn to shout “Fill your hands!” and make his famous (since Wayne did it in ’69) charge, reins in his teeth, a Navy revolver in each hand, against Pepper and three of his men.
President Teddy Roosevelt once reputedly told his Secretary of State, John Hay, “Why spoil the beauty of thing with legalities?” Whether or not today’s law enforcement standards would condone Cogburn’s deadly mad dash at Pepper and his boys, the audience senses in its guts the righteousness of Rooster’s assault. Would that we felt so certain, for example, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See my reviews of The Hurt Locker, The Green Zone, and Restrepo, as cases on point.)
With its arcane formalized, even flowery, dialog – extracted directly from the pages of the ’68 novel – emphasizing the code of honor that underlies the rough exteriors of Cogburn and La Boeuf, True Grit, which opened Christmas Day, is a welcome holiday gift in these uncertain times.
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.
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Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia lawyer and freelance journalist, has published 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010).