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Review: True Grit (1969)

Directed by: | 128 minutes | , drama, western, adventure, crime | Actors: , , , , , Dennis Hopper, , , , , , , , ,

‘True Grit’, re-edited by the Coen brothers in 2010, was once an Oscar-winning starring the legendary John Wayne. In 1969, Henry Hathaway brought his adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel of the same name to the silver screen. It’s been a good year for Westerns – with big titles like ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ – and it’s a testament to the quality of ‘True Grit’ that the film stands up so well among all these heavyweights. This is partly due to the right combination of innovation and tradition and partly due to the impressive collection of talent in front of and behind the camera. ‘True Grit’ has the heroic, adventurous character of a “real” Western, but there is also a striking amount of attention for personal relationships, emancipation, and vulnerability. True Grit contains a near-perfect combination of action, excitement, drama and humor, and is responsible for two indelible characters: Kim Darby’s spirited Mattie Ross, and of course rough-shell Rooster Cogburn in the form of the inimitable John Wayne.

Wayne had played in many Westerns and came with his own baggage and expectations. He’s pretty much the representation of the old West, of no-nonsense morals and the patriarchal cowboy. His style is grand in a literal sense – sometimes a bit too theatrical – and usually demands all the attention. In a way, that was also a potential problem in the editing of the novel, which was described as a story about a woman. A movie with John Wayne can hardly be about anyone but the man himself. This is also largely the case here. His iron-eating reputation is communicated even before he is introduced to the public and he does not disappoint. Because of his stern look and mysterious eye patch, he has a dangerous appearance and his attitude is also all macho. Still, he gets quite a bit of opposition from unexpected quarters. The young Mattie Ross is a modern, free-spirited woman – a symbol of the new West – who will not be intimidated by any man. She’s clearly on a mission and a joy to watch, especially in her confrontations with John Wayne, who in reality (at least initially) didn’t like her wisecracking behavior either. Mattie has a strong sense of justice and will do anything to make her right and avenge her father. Kim Darby plays the part with persistence, fierceness, but also a bit of naivety, innocence and endearingness. She’s clearly on a mission and a joy to watch, especially in her confrontations with John Wayne, who in reality (at least initially) didn’t like her wisecracking behavior either. Mattie has a strong sense of justice and will do anything to prove her right and avenge her father. Kim Darby plays the role with persistence, fierceness, but also a bit of naivety, innocence and endearingness. She’s clearly on a mission and a joy to watch, especially in her confrontations with John Wayne, who in reality (at least initially) didn’t like her wisecracking behavior either. Mattie has a strong sense of justice and will do anything to prove her right and avenge her father. Kim Darby plays the role with persistence, fierceness, but also a bit of naivety, innocence and endearingness.

In the beginning ‘True Grit’ seems to be an entertaining but fairly clichéd Western without much depth, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there are villains to win, there are shooting fights, chases on horseback, seemingly archetypal characters, tough dialogues, but it all turns out to be a bit more subtle than it seems. Rooster and Mattie have an ever-changing, deepening relationship, with Rooster in particular taking on more and more layers and nuances in his personality. Especially interesting is the trinity that comes with Texas ranger La Boeuf, played by Glen Campbell. At first Campbell seems to be a bit too lightweight in the acting field, but actually his appearance fits well with the neatly trimmed, superficial La Boeuf,

True Grit (which means “real guts”) really comes to life through the interesting relationships between the characters, where different attitudes and codes constantly collide, but despite the interesting dynamics and drama, the film is anything but a heavy one, or too serious a movie. It is not a revisionist film à la ‘Unforgiven’ in which almost everything is dramatic and serious, and the characters are constantly contemplating their lives. No, ‘True Grit’ is an entertaining adventure, full of comical dialogue (with several original expressions from Wayne), beautiful photography of the picturesque surroundings, rousing music by Elmer Bernstein, a mouth-watering view of top actors (in addition to Wayne also Robert Duvall , Strother Martin, and even a small part of Dennis Hopper), and a sleek, streamlined script, in which almost no superfluous scene, unnecessary character or false note can be found. ‘True Grit’ is a Western with all this and its own modern character. No wonder that decades later the film is still delicious viewing food.

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