Wednesday Western: ‘True Grit’ (1969)

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Baby sister, I was born game

Some Westerns you don’t watch every day, even if they’re brilliant, sometimes especially because they’re brilliant. I can only handle “The Searchers” every few years; it’s so intense that I need time to think about it. The same goes for “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Ox-Bow Incident.”

Others, I wind up watching regularly. “Night Passage,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Shenandoah,” “Ride the High Country,” “Winchester ‘73”; anything with Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, or Barbara Stanwyck; as well as most of Anthony Mann’s and Budd Boetticher’s Westerns.

Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross is shrill, impudent, bossy, mean, rude, barky, stubborn, abrasive, and, by golly, it’s a true thrill to watch.

Others still, I practically live with, like an easygoing roommate. “El Dorado,” “Rio Bravo,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Stagecoach”; anything with Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott, the Duke, Henry Fonda, or Andy Devine, among others. Also most of John Ford’s Westerns.

For me, “True Grit” is in that last category. I know every word. I’ve fallen asleep to the many confrontations and one-liners countless times.

I usually let out a sigh of comfort when the opening notes of the theme songs start humming, and Glen Campbell sings, “One day, little girl, the sadness will leave your face, as soon as you’ve won your fight, to get justice done.”

Many people have the same connection to “True Grit,” but here’s where the devotion gets tricky: There’s disagreement in the Western movie community about which version is better, the original or the 2010 Coen Brothers reboot.

Some people like them both equally. But most people pick a side of the fence.

I’m fiercely loyal to the original.

There are many aspects of the Coen brothers rendition that I like. The way they open with a quote from the source material, Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name: “There is nothing free, except the Grace of God.” And they stay more faithful to the book.

Theirs is also a bleaker, grittier “True Grit” — one that doesn’t indulge in breathtaking scenery the way the 1969 version does. This seems to capture the spirit of the novel in a way its predecessor doesn’t.

But there are too many things that irk me.

The Coen brothers play this movie oddly straight, to the extent that they seem to miss much of the novel’s sly humor. Such as the detail of the boys selling peanuts and tamales as the crowd sings “Amazing Grace” to the men with nooses around their throats.

The Coens also overdid the undertaker — an undertaker only needs to say, while gazing at a corpse, “If you want to kiss him it would be all right,” one time for it to be hilarious.

Worse, they didn’t include Mattie’s wonderful vow to the sheriff, played in the original by the great John Doucette: “I won’t rest until Tom Cheney is barking in hell.”

As for Jeff Bridges, I love Jeff Bridges as much as I love the Coen brothers. But he’s no John Wayne. And John Wayne is the only Rooster Cogburn I’ll ever need.

I always go backward when I’m backing away

“True Grit” is bursting with humor. In fact, it is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

Even many of the darkest moments are speckled with comedy. Like the running joke that Rooster is flippant about murdering people. Literal gallows humor. Or the way they leave the bodies on horses while they have a chat.

The ceaseless conflict is also hilarious. Every single scene devolves into conflict.

Nothing really happens the way it’s supposed to.

All three characters are stubborn — obstinate — and prone to rudeness. So, even the tiniest concession to friendship makes a huge impact.

Rooster, Mattie, and La Boeuf slowly develop a bond that none of them admit to wanting. But together, they form almost a single character, with only minor variations of personality and temperament.

You can’t serve papers on a rat

The eyepatch-wearing bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn “loves to pull a cork.” He’s also a “greasy vagabond” and a “notorious thumper.” He’s foul and murderous but also lovable. It took John Wayne to pull this off.

It’s not an easy role, either.

His pitiful moments are hard to watch, falling drunk off saddles, blowing through money that isn’t fully his, heckling rats, then snapping at Mattie — who, admittedly, is herself no paragon of civility. She even scolds Rooster’s cat, General Sterling Price, for his negligence at rat-catching.

Rooster clarifies his relationship with said feline. “General Price don’t belong to me. He just rooms with me. Cats don’t belong to nobody. ‘Course, I depend on him.”

Rooster Cogburn gave Wayne his only Academy Award, after a career full of award-worthy performances.

Still, there’s nothing “honorary” about this Oscar. Wayne earns it.

Note the subtle humiliation Wayne conveys when his chopstick-wielding landlord Chin Li mocks Rooster’s abysmal table manners in front of Mattie: “Chopstick save finger ha ha ha ha!”

Or the weary authority in his threat to La Boeuf: “Young fella, if you’re looking for trouble, I’ll accommodate you. Otherwise, leave it alone.”

Rooster even delivers an early version of Don Draper’s brutal comeback, “I don’t think about you at all” line.

Damn a man who whistles

There isn’t a bad actor in either version of “True Grit.” But the 1969 cast truly excels.

Sometimes, it’s about how little they do, as in this quietly memorable scene.

The minor characters stand out as well. Hank Worden, who played the odd but lovable Mose Harper in “The Searchers,” makes a lasting impression as the creepy undertaker with bizarre etiquette.

John Donald Felder (Winnie the Pooh fans may recognize the voice of Piglet) turns Lawyer Dagget into a weirdly awkward alpha male.

In a cast full of cowboys-turned-actors with unbroken careers lasting decades, Jeff Corey stands out for his having been blacklisted in the 1950s after refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Out of a job, he became an acting coach and mentored an array of A-listers as varied as James Dean, Bruce Lee, and the Fonda kids. Corey’s appearance in “True Grit” signifies his full return to Hollywood.

Chin Li, played by H.W. Gim, appeared in several Wayne films, including “McClintock,” which we’ll cover soon (by request).

Not only did “True Grit” launch several unknowns toward eventual stardom (notably a young actor named Robert Duvall, who plays Lucky Ned Pepper), it also saved Dennis Hopper’s career. More accurately, it was John Wayne whosaved it.

I wouldn’t be scared of no booger-man

One of my rules: Anytime a Western on this list is based on a novel or short story, I have to read it. Hence, the delay in entries for masterpieces like “The Searchers,” “Cimarron,” “Shane,” and “The Ox-Bow Incident.”

Many of these stories and novels are worth the read but not essential.

Take Ernest Haycox. He wrote the short stories that became the foundation for iconic Westerns such as “Union Pacific” (1939), “Apache Trail” (1942), “Canyon Passage” (1946), “Man in the Saddle” (1951), and “The Far Country” (1954).

He’s perhaps best known for writing “The Stage to Lordsburg,” which became John Ford’s “Stagecoach” by Ernest Haycox. It’s a neat little tale, but comparing it to John Ford’s masterpiece is like comparing a desert shack to a 10,000-acre ranch.

“True Grit” by Charles Portis is one of the rare cases in the genre where the written work is equal to the film adaptation.

The novel is a gem. I highly recommend it. A nice, light read, with even more color than the film. It’s written from Mattie’s perspective, and her comically no-nonsense narration makes for one of the most memorable voices in all of American literature.

I say ‘La Beef’

Elvis was supposed to appear in “True Grit” as La Bouef. If he hadn’t pushed so hard for top billing, he might have actually won an Academy Award. Instead, he starred in “Charro!” a fantastic movie in its own right that will soon get its turn under the Wednesday Western spotlight.

With all due respect to the King, I can’t imagine him pulling off the role the way Glen Campbell does. As one of the legendary Texas Rangers, he is simultaneously cool and dejected: “The French is ‘La Bouef.’ I say ‘La Beef.’”

I figured you for some kind of kneeler

Of the three portrayals of Mattie Ross — the novel, the 1969 film, the Coen brothers rendition — my favorite is undoubtedly Kim Darby’s in the 1969 version.

Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross is shrill, impudent, bossy, mean, rude, barky, stubborn, abrasive, and, by golly, it’s a true thrill to watch. At her core, Mattie is an intelligent 14-year-old girl, who, today, would likely be diagnosed with autism.

Every character quickly hates Mattie. So, many of her interactions begin with smiles that devolve into rancor.

When Mattie rejoices with Mrs. Bagby, the woman at the provisions post, that they’re both Presbyterian, La Boeuf confides that he’s Episcopalian. Mattie fires back, without a breath: “I figured you for some kind of kneeler.”

The strange connection between Mattie Ross and The Duke is electric. As the story progresses, we all realize that these two characters are mirror images. Rooster even exclaims, “By God! She reminds me o’ me!”

But, again, the beautiful humor of “True Grit” won’t leave this moment unsullied: Glen Campbell, scowling, replies, “Well, we just might not get along.”

But then there’s the scene in the hotel room, when she encounters her father’s final belongings. The way she grips her father’s belongings, crying a little. It reveals a character who is heartbroken but tough as nails.

I have done business with the G.A.V. & G., yes

Mattie’s interactions with Col. G. Stonehill, the horse dealer and, as Mattie puts it, “Mr. Licenced Auctioneer,” are a masterclass in conflict and comedy. The magnificence of Strother Martin’s acting, the palpability of his annoyance and disgust for Mattie, is another brilliant part of the original that the Coen brothers botched.

Within minutes of meeting Mattie, Stonehill loses his smile and amiability and caves under the intensity of Mattie’s autistic blitzkrieg.

Like his flagrant hostility anytime he sees her: “I just received word a young girl fell head first into a 50-foot well on the Townsend road. I thought perhaps it was you.”

Mattie’s bafflement at the statement, followed by, “It was not I,” reveals her innocence and offers more evidence that she’s “on the spectrum,” as we say today.

The American Bar Association even included this scene on a list of “12 pivotal movie scenes with lessons for lawyers.”

Looking back is a bad habit

Then, we get the scene that proves the merit of Duke’s Oscar. One of the finest moments in Western cinema is Rooster’s backstory monologue about an hour and fifteen minutes in. This is classic John Wayne storytelling.

There’s so much warmth in this scene. It’s a perfect example of the idea that, in order to be upright, a man should be tender but not soft.

Or better yet, the way he calls Mattie Ross “baby sister” is heartwarming. It’s so paternal, so protective, so loving, so manly — manly to the core.

He’s a man leery of attachments and wary of the dangers of looking back. A man who once had a wife, until she left him for her first husband, a clerk in a hardware store. Rooster dismisses the painful memory with typical bravado. “I hope that nail-selling bastard makes you happy this time,” he recounts telling her.

He’s no family man, yet Wayne makes us believe that he’s found something of the daughter he never had in Mattie.

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