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Friday, 7 January 2011


There are many aspects of the new True Grit that are superior to the 1969 original - Matt Damon for one is far better than Glen Campbell in the Texas Ranger role, but to be fair I bet Damon would be a flop belting out Rhinestone Cowboy. I've now seen the Coen's True Grit three times and whilst I still think the John Wayne classic is the better of the two, I do think it's the best western in years. Probably since Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven.

For one thing those Coen boys are cinematic geniuses and if you don't believe me go and watch Fargo or No Country for Old Men, or Oh Brother Where art Thou or The Big Lebowski. And for another the original source novel by Charles Portis allows for not only a strong female character but a strong child character all in one package, which is something that appeals to the modern audience and gives this grim and gritty story a surreal edge that is almost fairy tale. The character of Rooster Cogburn is the quintessential western loner but for all his gruffness he has a heart and that heart is touched by the little girl who hires him to find her father's killer. And Matt Damon's turn as the Texas Ranger gives us the character we always should have had, the handsome, brave but hot headed cowboy.

For well over a year now I've been writing about this movie, trawling magazines, newspapers and the net for any news and I've, after my initial horror that they were re-making yet another classic, had a good feeling about this one. And I'm as pleased as punch that the film is taking the box office by storm. This is something I've always wanted - the western back at the top again.

It was always going to be difficult for me to accept anyone else other than John Wayne as Rooster - Wayne is a lifelong hero of mine and alongside Clint Eastwood probably my favourite western actor of all. But I do think Jeff Bridges was brilliant and his performance is spot on but for me Wayne had that edge. I also think Wayne's Rooster was a far tougher character for all the darkness of the new version. And the early court room scenes are far better in the Wayne version, as was that shoot out when Rooster gallops towards the bad guys and takes them all on.

The language used in the new True Grit is far more poetic than in the original movie and far closer to the source novel but for all that it is Wayne's version that still wins out. If the Wayne movie had never existed and this was the first version of the novel it would be hard to find fault with it. And indeed as it stands it is a fine movie and seems to be dragging western fans and more importantly general movie goers into the cinema.

But the film is not the vast improvement on the original that many people seem to claim - Barry Pepper seems to be channelling Robert Duvall in his performance as Lucky Ned Pepper, even getting the cadence in his voice in places. And the scene in the new version where Rooster tells Pepper to do what he likes with the girl doesn't really work. In the original we had already been told that Pepper doesn't kill without good reason and yet this is missing from the remake so when Rooster tries his bluff it just doesn't seem right. The horse trading scene in the remake is also not as well done as the original which was one of the better comedic scenes in the entire movie. The film has been called a retelling rather than a remake, but that's just not true. It's a remake and nothing more - there are one or two scenes that weren't in the original but these do not constitute enough new material to qualify as a retelling.

Nevertheless True Grit 2010 is an excellent western and an excellent movie, refreshing in these days of too much CGI and too little story, but the film is riding on the wave of its freshness and I doubt that those that proclaim it better than the original will have the same opinion in say a year or two.  The new version is superior in many ways but overall, as a movie, it is not quite as good. And whilst Jeff Bridges is excellent it must be remembered that no one had the gravitas of John Wayne who was actually quite ill when he made the original True Grit. It's,for some reason, become trendy to knock John Wayne, to say the actor always played himself, but that's just not true. Take The Searchers for instance which represents to me and many others the best performance by any actor in any western ever and a far darker portrayal of the anti-hero than anyone's ever managed, including Jeff Bridges' version of old Rooster.

However at the end of the day the new True Grit is an excellent movie and no one could be more pleased than me at its success. I hope it leads to other westerns but if anyone else fancies remaking a classic Wayne movie then please keep your hands off The Searchers.


John Sinclair said...

I must say I was disapointed slightly the first time I saw the new one, but like you, I've seen it a few times now and it's grown on me.
There's no denying the bad guys are defininitely underpowered; there's no feeling of menace from Peppers', erm, Lucky ned Pepper, and Josh Brolins character just comes over as pathetic rather than bad.
But I think Bridge's lonely Coburn is up on a par with the Duke's original. He filled out Coburn's coat in a different fit to Wayne's irascible and short-tempered old lawman; Bridge's Coburn was clearly missing his family, and saw aspects of them in both Mattie Ross and the insecure braggart with the heart of gold, Le Beouf.

Incidentally I thought the sharp-shooting sequence was as good as anything John Ford or John Sturges ever did.


The coda to the film made me sit up; the sour, near-harradian that Mattie turned into made me weep for the free-spirited and free-thinking woman-child from the main story, and then I realized that Mattie was a spinster through choice - she had never met anyone since to match up to the two giants she had been involved with then. Viz the way she told off Frank James at the Wild West show.
And she was still a romantic; she clearly harboured hopes of Le Boeuf appearing one day on the horizon of Yell County...

I thought that Coburn's ending up in the show was perfect; he had been looking for a family for a long time and he finally found it among those other remnants of a mythical past.

I think the new True Grit can legitimately sit up there on the shelf next to the 1969 original.
And I have a feeling that I'll refer back to it regularly too.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

John the new ending is from the book - I know the ending of the original was tacked on and not from the book but I think I enjoyed it more.

Mack said...

I agree with your assessment of New Grit Gary. Wayne's courtroom scenes and the shootout at the end are far better.

Spoilers below!

It was more faithful to the book with better cinematography but I was mightily annoyed by the extra scenes the Coens put in such as the man hanging from tree/guy in bear robe scene; I don't see where it contributed anything to the film. And why have Mattie spend the night in the undertakers?

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Mack - another thing I think the new grit missed out on - was not showing enough emotion from Mattie when she saw her dead father. And not seeing her boss her father about before his trip as in the original was also a glaring omission as it helped create their relationship for the viewer.

Chap O'Keefe said...

It might be "trendy" to say John Wayne played John Wayne with an eye-patch in True Grit and Rooster Cogburn. Not having an extensive knowledge of current trends, I wouldn't know. But it happens to be what I've always thought. That's no disrespect to Wayne. It's what the moviegoers of the time would have wanted and expected, and probably what the movie producers were paying him to give them.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Chap - that is a valid point and as you say it is often what the studio and fans wanted, but this does hide the fact that Wayne played many differing roles - Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is a masterclass in acting in my opinion, but Wayne did often play the same type of character. But then so does Clint Eastywood, Gary Cooper, James Stewart and the list is endless.

I.J. Parnham said...

The original was on TV over Xmas and amusingly they edited out the famous line 'Fill your hands you son of a bitch.'

If I remember right, the original film was a U certificate.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Ian - we're living in dangerous times. Too many arseholes sanitising everything.