Flight of The Rooster.
No one should go to the movies unless they believe in heroes.
— John Wayne.
Ironic that John Wayne should talk of heroes when his most iconic role, that of Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT, is anti-hero, taking The Duke beyond his safety zone of pure-hearted, white-hatted, virginal good guy-ism and into the dark realm of dirt-talking, whiskey-guzzling, gun-killing, badass-tastic.
And the eye-patch: priceless.
TRUE GRIT would win Wayne his first and only Academy Award (Best Actor; “If I’d known this was all it would take, I’d have put that eye-patch on 40 years ago.”), it would accrue a new generation of fans for him, and spur a rash of Hollywood westerns starring Wayne, in an attempt to hold his crown as the Great American Cowboy (which a quiet young fella named Clint Eastwood was in the process of usurping with his DOLLAR movies and two American westerns at that point).
(No matter what historians may conjecture, Wayne and Eastwood are same-yet-different, and occupy their own pedestals in American Western culture – Wayne will always be The Beatles to Eastwood’s The Rolling Stones, co-existing in uneasy alliance.)
From the novel by Charles Portis, TRUE GRIT is a revolutionary Western for many aspects, one being partnering the grizzled old one-eyed marshal Cogburn with a 14-year-old girl seeking vengeance for the murder of her father by a man named Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). (In 1976, Wayne would once again be paired with an unlikely sidekick in THE SHOOTIST – an even prettier young girl played by Ron Howard.)
The strong-willed girl is Mattie Ross (played by 21-year-old overactor Kim Darby, with a tomboy haircut that modernaires are calling The Justin Bieber, but back then was actually The Donny Osmond), her quick wit and tongue easily a match for the cantankerous Cogburn, who is more interested in his next bottle and card game than this girl’s cause.
Mattie hires Cogburn for his purported “true grit” – a viciousness and cold nerve, verified by various townsfolk – so that she would not have to put Chaney through the justice system, but enact her own vigilante justice with Cogburn’s help. Think about it: just before the spate of vigilante movies that would clog cinema in the 70’s, GRIT offers us a vigilante, not new in the Old West, but new in the form of a determined young girl, in a role usually reserved for young men with white hats. (Wayne himself acted in a template for this movie – he was a son avenging a murdered father in THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965); same director, Henry Hathaway.)
Glen Campbell – the country singer – is Texas Ranger LaBeouf, out to capture Chaney for another murder – that of a senator. He teams with Cogburn and Mattie and brings the film crashing down, delivering his lines like he learned them two minutes ago and never had the chance to figure which syllable to put the accent on. (In the DVD commentary, someone says, “Couldn’t they have gotten an actor for this role?” and laughs. The reply: “It was Hal Wallis (the producer) doing stunt casting – they had an older audience for John Wayne; they needed those who were attracted to Glen Campbell, his music, his television show, his popularity…”)
Watch for a young Dennis Hopper as a lowly henchman; in this same year director Hopper would release his own powder-keg outlaw paean, EASY RIDER. (Contrast the fruity Glen Campbell – popular enough in the mainstream music scene to shove into a movie with John Wayne – to the hip, gravel-scarred opening song of EASY RIDER, Born To Be Wild. It gives us some idea how the streetwise community were angling towards tougher fare than The Wichita Lineman could ever hope to provide.)
Cogburn discovers Chaney has thrown his lot in with a notorious bad man, Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), whose gang are all individually interesting characters, not just faceless goons like Batman henchmen. It is intimated Pepper once rode with Cogburn, so they both have a grudging respect for each other. Mattie, whom Cogburn has taken to calling “baby sister,” is kidnapped by Pepper, thus bringing down the overweight thunder on himself.
Thus do we arrive at the feature gunfight scene, where Rooster Cogburn seamlessly becomes The Duke, riding tall in a saddle he was recently drunkenly falling out of; faced down by four leering gunmen led by Pepper, he puts his reins in his teeth, draws a six-gun and a rifle (cocking it by twirling it) and rides hellfire forward, guns blazing, while all four ride firing at him. The only gunfight more famous is the OK Corral.
Amusing how this movie is rated G in 2011; I’m sure in 1969 it was regarded as yet another instance of the media Depraving Our Children, with its surfeit of drinking, smoking, a town hanging, a young girl wielding guns and clearly shooting people, mistreatment of animals, and Wayne’s challenge to Ned Pepper before he chomps down on his reins, “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!”
It takes awhile to realize just how revolutionary TRUE GRIT is with its many departures from convention. Like watching CITIZEN KANE, unless you are familiar with the time period and its social mores, you fail to appreciate how any radical movie establishes its own precedents which we take for granted as conventions in our modern age.
Though racist, silly in places, with even the stars’ acting sometimes grating on our modern sensibilities, TRUE GRIT is one such radical movie, couched within the safety of a star vehicle and a well-worn genre: the alpha male put in his place by a talky young girl; the hero being an incorrigible deadbeat; the dialogue a departure from “accepted” Western vernacular; the final ride to save Mattie’s life from a snakebite, which establishes Cogburn’s measure as a man, more so than his killing prowess; the avenger being a young girl singlemindedly trying to execute her father’s killer.
Composer Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) brings his epic SEVEN flavor to this production, which is slightly incongruous, because it is not an epic. It should have been a darker study of vengeance.
The girl-as-avenger is treated as “quirky” rather than disturbing (a sign of the sexist times; an aspect which would be rectified by the Coen Brothers’ 2010 remake). The scene where Mattie points her father’s gun at Chaney and is humorously instructed by him on how to cock it, is played so linearly with no self-reflection on the movie’s part or the character’s, that we do not realize that as calculating as Mattie has been in hunting down Chaney, she has not considered the psychological implications of pulling that hammer back and gunning him down. (Diametrically opposite to GRIT’s shallow shooting scene is Eastwood’s 1992 monument, UNFORGIVEN: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”)
As revolutionary as TRUE GRIT was and still is, it is tempered by bad staging, bad overacting, bad storytelling, and mainly just bad Glen Campbell.