During the half-century span from 1926 to 1956 the iconic John Wayne appeared in 173 films and television series, and in 1969 he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the curmudgeonly Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.” The sad truth is that Wayne’s performance in the film is laughably bad, but despite his atrocious acting, he took home the Oscar for best actor.
The film, which was based upon Charles Portis’ novel of the same name that was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, also starred Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell, both of whom were even worse than Wayne was. Many regard the movie as a great western, but I think it’s one of the worst films ever made because of the ludicrously inferior acting.
I really can never recall seeing a remake of a movie that I thought was better than the original, but the new version of “True Grit,” starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is far superior in every aspect to the 1969 film, and it very well may be one of the 10 films nominated for best picture of the year when the Academy Award nominations are announced later this year.
“True Grit” is set in the 1870s and revolves around 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who lives with her family on an Arkansas farm near Dardanelle. One day Mattie’s father and a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) travel to Fort Smith to purchase some horses. Unfortunately the two of them become involved in a barroom brawl, and Cheney ultimately kills Mattie’s father and robs him. He then heads into Indian Territory to hide.
Mattie is a headstrong girl, and she is determined to see Cheney brought to justice for the murder of her father. To this end she travels to Fort Smith, where she learns that only a U.S. Marshal can arrest someone in the Indian Territory. After making some inquiries, she learns that a fellow named Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) is the toughest marshal around and after considerable nagging, she hires him to hunt down Cheney for her. Joining the two of them on their quest is a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who also wants to apprehend Cheney and take him back to Texas, where he is wanted for a different crime.
The majority of the film follows Mattie and her two friends as they track down Cheney, who by this time has taken up with the infamous Ned Pepper gang. Like the original, the movie is a combination western and coming-of-age story, but unlike the original it is a wonderfully acted film filled with plenty of action, adventure, and a nice touch of humor.
Academy Award winner Bridges, who has firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s finest actors, explained in the film’s production notes why he was attracted to the project.
“When the Coens first mentioned the idea of making True Grit, I said ‘Gee, didn’t they make that movie? Why do you want to do it again?’ and they said, ‘We’re not remaking the film; we’re making a version of the original book by Charles Portis’. So I read the book, and I immediately saw what they were talking about. It seemed like the perfect story for the Coens to make into a movie. And since they have never made an actual Western adventure before, it was going to be a surprise.”
It is true that the Coen version of the film is much more faithful to the book than the original film was. This is especially true of the ending, which is of typically silly and inaccurate Hollywood ilk in the John Wayne movie. I have never been able to understand why those who write movie scripts seem compelled to alter the conclusion of a perfectly good story.
The acting throughout the film is consistently excellent. Bridges absolutely nails the part of the hard-nosed, hard-drinking Cogburn. He manages to imbue his character with a gravelly voice that suits him perfectly, and his facial expressions and body language consistently convey Cogburn’s combination of arrogance and fearlessness.
Damon also turns in a nice performance as the dogged Texas Ranger, and Brolin is sufficiently dislikable in the role of Cheney.
But the star that shines the brightest in this talented cast is Steinfeld, who is absolutely irresistible as the intrepid Mattie. She brings a charm and grace to the character that was completely missing from the way Darby played the part in the original. In fact Darby’s overacting was so obnoxious that she made the character of Mattie incredibly dislikable. Steinfeld, however, captures Mattie’s combination of determination and courage without sacrificing the character’s humanity. For her first film, this youngster exhibits the polish and poise of a veteran in front of the camera, and in the production notes she explained what she liked about playing Mattie.
“Who wouldn’t be attracted to Mattie? She’s tough, she’s witty, and she’s just fourteen, which is incredible. She has one goal, to find the killer of her father, and she tells herself she will not go on with her life until it is done, and then she goes for it. That’s the main similarity between us: that we would both stop at nothing to get what we want.”
In addition to the outstanding acting, this film boasts spectacular cinematography, and a number of super action sequences. In fact, there is one scene near the end of the movie that definitely will have you squirming in your seat.
“True Grit” (It’s a solid eight.) is a highly entertaining western, and it certainly does justice to the book upon which it is based. Unlike the original movie, this version has true grit.