Written by Marguerite Roberts
Based on a novel by Charles Portis
Original Music by Elmer Bernstien
Cinematography by Lucien Ballard
Directed by Henry Hathaway
John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn
Kim Darby as Mattie Ross
Glen Campbell as La Boeuf
Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper
Dennis Hopper as Moon
Jeremy Slate as Emmett Quincy
Strother Martin as Colonel G. Stonehill
Jeff Corey as Tom Chaney
Imagine you’re a fourteen year old girl living in the old west. Imagine that you’ve just fallen down a cavernous pit, and the only thing keeping you from descending into what seems to be an endless abyss is that you have temporarily lodged into a smaller opening that may give way at any moment. Imagine that in the darkened cave beneath you there are bats flying around your legs and feet. Imagine there’s a skeleton lying nearby which doesn’t exactly do wonders for your chances of having an extended life. Imagine that the fall has broken one of your arms, leaving you only one arm to work with. Imagine that you grab a branch to try to pull yourself upward, the branch breaks, and there is one pissed off rattlesnake lurking underneath it. Imagine at the top of the pit looking downward and pointing a gun at you is the man who had just recently murdered your father in cold blood. It is also the very same man you yourself had managed to put a slug into seriously wounding him. There is no doubt that he’s not going to hesitate one second to return that particular favor.
And that was my introduction to True Grit. No, I’m not talking about the movie, but the novel by Charles Portis that would be the basis for this film. The blurb I had read on the back of the book was somewhat similar to my opening paragraph. Of course, so many years later I don’t exactly remember the exact text and not having a copy of the book handy nor a Kindle, although you can buy me one if you choose to do so, I have to do the best that I can from memory. But in things pertaining to True Grit, my memory usually serves me pretty well and you can certainly see where reading about such goings on might just grab your attention.
In the novel, the story is narrated by the elderly Mattie Ross, and tells the story of how at the age of 14, she set out to avenge her father’s death after he had been murdered by a ranch hand named Tom Chaney. Unable to get the law to track down Chaney, Mattie takes it upon herself to find a man with “True Grit” to escort her on a manhunt to find Chaney and bring him to justice. That man turns out to be Rooster Cogburn described by one Marshall as a “pitiless man, double tough and fear don't enter into his thinking”. Mrs. Floyd (Edith Atwater) described him as a “greasy vagabond” and a man who “likes to pull a cork.” Later, he is described by Colonel Stonehill (Strother Martin) as “a greasy vagabond, a notorious thumper, and not a man he would care to share a bed with.”But instead of seeing Cogburn’s love affair with a whiskey bottle as a vice, Mattie uses that to her advantage to get him to let her tag along.
Before Rooster and Mattie can get under way, a Texas Ranger that goes by the name of La Boeuf rides into town looking for her. He has been tracking Chaney for some time because “there’s a woman in Texas who would look favorably on him if he managed to capture or kill Chaney” not to mention the hefty financial rewards. The things you had to do to please a woman in the old west. Nowadays you just have to give them a ride in your pickup truck and buy them a six pack of beer. Oh never mind.
For Mattie though, two’s company and three’s a crowd, especially when it’s an inept Texas Ranger who wants to join the posse.
“If in four months I could not find Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) with a mark on his face like banished Cain I would not advise others on how to do so.”
Needless to say, the three of them reluctantly end up on the trail together chasing after Chaney and the outlaw he has hooked up with, Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall).
Portis certainly knows his stuff. The novel was filled with dialogue and dialect which sounded as if it came directly from the era in which the novel took place. Since I wasn’t there at the time I can’t verify it but others have although I’m not sure they were there either.
If Mattie needed to explain her reasoning, or to explain the rationale for her actions, she simply offered up a quote from the bible. It in fact, becomes a bit funny after a while as Mattie struggles to defend and explain certain events by using biblical passages. Still it was the witty, sharp, biting, and often extremely funny dialogue that helped make the book what it was. The question still remained as to whether or not all of this could be transferred to the big screen in a way that would capture the essence and flavor of Portis’s novel, and still remain exciting, suspenseful, and funny as well
When Portis wrote the novel, he had supposedly pictured John Wayne in the role of Rooster Cogburn. Wayne very much wanted the role but Cogburn was unlike any character Wayne had played before. He was the antithesis to the heroic leaders Wayne had played time after time to such great effect. Beyond that, Cogburn was an alcoholic, at times incompetent, and didn’t always play by the rules such as when he talks about “shooting a man without a call to let them know our intentions is serious.”
Then there were the roles of Mattie and La Boeuf. Having met singer Karen Carpenter at a college concert, Wayne wanted her for the role of Mattie. Others such as Tuesday Weld and Mia Farrow were approached to play the role but Farrow would turn it down, later calling it the biggest mistake of her life. But Producer Hal Wallace wanted Kim Darby whom he had seen in an episode of the TV series Run for Your Life with Ben Gazzara. Having just given birth, and going through a divorce from actor James Stacy at the time, Darby turned Wallace down:
"I turned the part down about 10 times, but he wouldn't stop asking,” Darby said. "I had just had my baby, and I didn't think I was ready, so I just kept turning it down. Hal Wallis finally came out to my home to convince me. He said the only time he had ever gone to an actor's home like that was for Richard Burton."
So Darby accepted the role. The biggest drawback some may have had with her participation was the fact that Mattie Ross was supposed to be a girl of fourteen. Darby was already 21 years of age. But that is not an insurmountable obstacle because such things have been done in Hollywood before and since and done quite well.
For La Boeuf, the producers chose country singer/songwriter/TV star Glen Campbell; perhaps hoping he would attract a younger audience into the theaters since he was such a popular performer at the time. Still, he had never acted in a film before, so only the final product would tell us if he could do as others have done and overcome inexperience with natural ability.
To direct the film, Wallis and Wayne chose Henry Hathaway who had worked with Wayne in other westerns such as The Sons of Katie Elder, North to Alaska, and the Western/Circus combo film of Circus World.
Although the novel takes place in the area of Arkansas and Oklahoma, True Grit was filmed in Colorado at locations such as Gunnison, Hot Creek, Montrose and Ouray. Again, it was taking liberties because there are more than obvious differences in the topography of Colorado and Arkansas. The question remained if this goulash of acting talent and other ingredients could blend itself into a cohesive and entertaining film experience. The answer is: Yes, it does. It not only meets every expectation that one might have had, it even surpasses it.
John Wayne was born to play Rooster Cogburn. In many films which Wayne headlined, his overpowering presence and star power would sometimes carry a film out of mediocrity. It was often said by some that for the most part, Wayne was always playing himself. But that’s a copout, and a line often used to explain stars whose screen presence comes naturally and look almost as if they are portraying their screen characters effortlessly.
Because Wayne, with some notable exceptions, often locked himself into the same type of role in so many films, his achievements are often overlooked or derided just because he chose the types of characters he is most comfortable with. All of this is so much b.s. because if Wayne had not become such an accomplished actor, there is no way he could have pulled off what he does in True Grit. In fact, he does it so well that when he makes his first appearance on the screen herding a load of prisoners from the Indian Territory into the jail; it is completely unnerving if you’ve seen many Wayne films at all. And I had.
This was obviously not what one expected a John Wayne character to look like or act like. One eyed U.S. Marshall Reuben J. Cogburn was a mean, cantankerous, grizzled, ornery, stubborn, overweight alcoholic. But he was exactly what the doctor ordered for Mattie’s quest: he was just as fearless as the man said. Yes he had moments of alcoholic incompetence, but pulling a cork tends to have that effect. There was no man who could stand toe to toe with this guy and come out the better for it. However, there was a fourteen year old girl that he couldn’t faze on his best day or worst day if you want to put it that way.
And if anybody was worried about the 21 year old Darby portraying the fourteen year old Mattie they shouldn’t have. I was certainly convinced at the time that she was in her mid teens, perhaps even younger. I actually didn’t find out until much later how old she had actually been.
And just as Wayne IS Rooster, Kim Darby lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, walks, talks and probably farts like Mattie Ross as far as I’m concerned. She was exactly as I had pictured her in the Portis novel although there were two big changes.
Marguerite Robert’s screenplay drops nearly all of the biblical references except for a few scenes where they are slid smoothly into the screenplay, more for comedic effect than anything else. And second, the film is told in real time whereas in the book it is told as events that occurred once in an old woman’s life, an old woman who is reminiscing and waxing poetic.
Obviously, while having the elderly Mattie narrate the story in the novel worked, it is easy to see where it may have had its shortcomings on film, as it would have been necessary to take us out of the action to constantly return to Mattie’s narration. For film, the device was unnecessary. One reviewer said that this was in order to make sure that Wayne remained the star of the film. That's pretty much bologna.
Wayne doesn't even make his first appearance until about twenty minutes in and it’s a brief one at that. Certainly in many scenes the Cogburn character dominates, but there are equally as many where Darby's Mattie manages to go toe to toe and have the last word. And while Mattie's character is in practically every scene once she arrives in Fort Smith, Wayne's character is not.
When Mattie is separated from Rooster and La Boeuf, it is her character that the film stays with. The film doesn't leave Mattie's viewpoint at all until near the very end when Lawyer Daggett finally puts in an appearance-representing Mattie of course.
Much of the same can be said of the biblical quotes which Ross often used to emphasize certain events that were occurring at the time. On film, this would have quickly become redundant, and possibly have made Mattie quite more annoying than she was supposed to be. And while we are supposed to be irritated at Mattie’s ways on occasion, that irritation is brought on more by her naiveté and her childishness. We sometimes overlook the fact that she is still just a kid. I mean who doesn’t cringe when she tries to get Rooster and La Beouf to let her tell the story of the Midnight Caller in exchange for them to quit their drinking. “Let it go. That baby sister, is no trade,” Rooster tells her.
At which point Mattie stomps off into the shadows to sulk. And when she comes up with a silly plan to capture Chaney, we can’t help but laugh as La Boeuf tells her she doesn’t want to know what he thinks about her plan and Cogburn tells her just to get on her horse. It’s not often that Rooster comes out ahead in these little showdowns with Mattie. But he does have his moments.
Another reason why both the novel and film work so well is because Rooster and Mattie are as different as two people can be in just about every way possible. Yet, they are the same in one very important aspect. When it comes to avenging her father’s death and how to go about it, Mattie can be just as tough, just as stubborn, and just as willful as Rooster Cogburn ever thought of being. She will have her way even if she has to get Lawyer Daggett (John Fiedler) in on the act to do so.
“If you think you can cheat me, you're mistaken. You've not heard the last of Mattie Ross. You may well hear from my lawyer, Daggett,” she tells Rooster when it becomes apparent that he is going to throw in with La Boeuf.
So when Cogburn tells us that “she reminds me of me” when Mattie chases him and La Boeuf across a river, it isn’t just another line in a movie. We know exactly where he is coming from because we see it too. “Then we may not get along,” La Boeuf tells him.
And there are the little subtle things Kim Darby does which once again are the small things often overlooked. During the shootout at the dugout, watch her body language and expression as each shot is fired from Rooster's gun. Later, when she confronts Tom Chaney at the stream, her body is literally shaking with both fear and anger.
This of course brings us to Glen Campbell’s big screen debut as La Boeuf. Over the years there have been many who have derided Campbell’s portrayal of La Boeuf, often describing it as awful and mediocre. In the process, they seem to forget that acting was something completely new to him at the time. And frankly, I think much of their derision of Campbell has more to do with the fact that people need some kind of whipping boy no matter what the circumstances may be as much as what is really on the screen.
While it certainly will never be mistaken for any kind of a legendary performance or even a particularly good one, it is not nearly as bad as one would suspect if you believed everything you read on message boards. Some things get passed down and repeated so often that it eventually is ingrained in viewers minds as fact, and even if they are watching the film for the first time you may be judging as much on what you have heard as to what is actually on the screen.
Yes, the awkwardness of a novice actor does stand out in his confrontation with Mattie at the Mornock Boarding House and it is painful to watch. “You’ll push that saucy line, toooooooo fAAr!”
But other than that he acquits himself adequately the rest of the way. For a more honest comparison, watch him in the Monarch scene and then watch the scene in which Mattie comes upon La Boeuf and Rooster sitting at Chin Lee’s making plans and they have a much similar confrontation. There’s quite a bit of improvement. Granted, there was a lot of room to do so but that’s beside the point. Okay, so maybe I’m grabbing at straws here.
Appearance wise, he is just as someone with a name like La Boeuf who hails from Texas would look like. He is supposed to be nothing more than the pretty boy on the block. When Campbell tells Mattie of his lady in waiting in Texas, Mattie replies, “Well you certainly have the hair combed for it.”
As for Henry Hathaway’s direction, when we finally get our “strangest trio ever to track a killer” underway, the result is breathtaking. Hathaway’s use of Colorado backgrounds in this film is an often overlooked and stunning achievement. With Lucien Ballard’s cinematography bringing the landscape to life, and the scenes blocked and framed in such a way that it makes you want to become a part of the film. Stir in Elmer Bernstein’s sometimes melodic and even more often rousing score as Mattie, Rooster, and La Boeuf cross the Colorado landscape having one confrontation after another, and you may wish for a couple of days in the old west yourself.
But even after all of that, there is so much more to love about this film. There are some moments that I had never seen in a western yet seem incredibly real.
When Mattie comes into Fort Smith with a black man she calls “a worker on our place, Yarnell Poindexter,” they find that the town is full of people and that the shops are closed as everybody has headed down to the park to watch a triple hanging. Even the funeral parlor is closed.
“Man out rustling up some business for himself, looks like” Yarnell (Ken Renard) says after seeing the closed sign on the door. “Seems like we have a lot of time to waste before we see anybody much”
Mattie can tell right away that he is almost salivating at the thought of being able to go to the hanging. In the park we watch as the gallows are prepared. Kids swing nonchalantly on the swing sets facing the gallows. People unfold table cloths and open picnic baskets for lunch. A boy walks through the crowd selling tamales and peanuts just as if it were one of today's modern sporting events. From across the way, Judge Parker watches from the court balcony while an unidentified woman (Connie Sawyer) gives Mattie, Yarnell, and the rest of us all the details on who’s who, what’s what, and what to expect as if she’s the nineteenth century version of Vin Scully.
“They say the hangman is a Yankee. They say he won’t spring the trap on a boy that wore the blue.”
The only thing missing is the super slo-mo instant replay. And when the hanging is over, watch the woman's reaction. She seems quite pleased with it all.
After having watched the men hang, we know positively that Mattie’s mind is made up as far as Chaney is concerned.
“That’s not a fainthearted judge. Tom Chaney would get his due before such a judge,” she tells Yarnell.
And there are many other scenes just like this. One suspects that the boarding houses were pretty much like the Mornock Boarding house where you check in for a couple of quick meals, a warm bed, and the latest gossip going around while the owner might just skimp a bit on the chicken in her chicken and dumplings.
Mrs. Floyd: I was hoping you’d like my chicken and dumplings.
Mattie: They’re alright. I can’t see twenty five cents in nothing more than a little flour and some grease.
And no matter where this film takes us, it not only looks, feels, and sounds real; it seems as fresh as if it could have just taken place yesterday or the day before yesterday. And most importantly, even most of the dialogue from Portis’s book was left intact by Robert’s screenplay enabling us to hear phrases and words that we may be unfamiliar with, but we quickly become acquainted with their meaning. When a film can draw you out of your world and into its own sense of time and place, then it has succeeded on every level.
True Grit is remembered by some as simply being the film for which Wayne had won his Oscar. It has been derided as that; even to the point of saying that the acting award was as much for Wayne’s entire career as it was for his portrayal of Cogburn. I have no way of knowing why people voted for Wayne in 1969 and frankly, I don’t care. There is no doubt in my mind that his performance as Rooster Cogburn stands alone as a stunning achievement, and to say it in of itself was not worthy is pure hogwash.
I find it quite irritating that the great many things that both the novel and the film offers are often derided and overlooked or considered average simply because people want to remember the film for one thing and one thing only, thus trying to relegate it to some undeserving second class citizenship in the annals of Western films. Portis’s novel, Hathaway’s film, and Wayne himself deserve better than that. Portis’s novel is seldom mentioned these days, which may be even a bigger crime since it too is a true Western Classic. (Clyde note: With the release of the Coen Brothers remake, I’m sure the book has had a revival as well. When I wrote this review, the newest version wasn’t even in the planning stages.) Both are achievements that deserve an A in my opinion. There are no substitutes.
Sometimes when reviewing a film, I’ll often go back and read up on it looking for little tidbits of trivia to throw in. I ran across a four star review that Roger Ebert gave True Grit back during its original release. He ended his review with what pretty much sums up John Wayne, True Grit and my own opinion:
Wayne, in fact, towers over this special movie. He is not playing the same Western role he always plays. Instead, he can play Rooster because of all the Western roles he has played. He brings an ease and authority to the character. He never reaches. He never falters. It's all there, a quiet confidence that grows out of 40 years of acting. God loves the old pros.