TRUE GRIT: 1969 & 2010

Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld (December 9, 2010)

The two Mattie Rosses, Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld, at a 2010 industry screening of the Coen Bros’ TRUE GRIT. (Reuters)

[a spoiler-free review of the 2010 Coen Bros Film TRUE GRIT]

TRUE GRIT 2010 Move Poster

The 2010 poster emphasizes the theme of frontier justice.

In 1968, Charles Portis published a little novel about a barely teenaged frontier girl, Mattie Ross, who hires a ruthless Federal Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to avenge her father’s murder.  The novel was called TRUE GRIT.

In 1969, the novel made it to screen as a bona fide John Wayne western classic directed by Henry Hathaway.  Not only did it garner Wayne the 1969 Oscar for Best Actor (some claim as a “lifetime achievement” award, some claim because Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt split the votes for their respective performances in MIDNIGHT COWBOY) but it also made an instant star out of film-newcomer Kim Darby as Mattie Ross.  (Darby got the role after Mia Farrow famously turned it down on advice from Robert Mitchum who told her not to work with Hathaway.)  The cast also included great performances by Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper, and especially Robert Duvall.

And now in 2010 the Coen Bros have decided to tackle the same material.  The reason? They claim it’s to stay closer to the original novel.  But this seems to be a typical Coen Bros tongue-in-cheek comment. The 1969 film stayed very close to the source material even lifting most of its dialogue directly from the book.  There are only three primary areas where the original film took liberties.  First, the filming took place among Aspen trees which wouldn’t have existed in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) described in the book.  Second, the film’s structure differs from that of the novel where Mattie’s story is told as an extended flashback.  And, most significantly, the 1969 film fiddles with the novel’s ending.  It’s not so much Hollywoodized as just “different”.

Nonetheless, we can still ask, do the Coen Bros make good on their word?

Well, yes.  And no.

TRUE GRIT 1969 Move Poster

The 1969 poster emphasizes the stars, particularly John Wayne.

First and foremost, the 2010 film is truer and grittier to time and place than the original version.  In this the Coens improve upon the 1969 film in every way.  Hathaway’s film looks more like the old school, golden-age-of-Hollywood style even by the standards of the day.  BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was also released in 1969 and has a more modern feel (if you can ignore – try to ignore! – the Burt Bacharach interludes).  THE WILD BUNCH was released the same year with its killings more brutal and graphic.   It’s not insignificant that both of these films are on the National Film Registry’s list for 1969, but not TRUE GRIT.  As a result, it’s clear that TRUE GRIT represented a sort of throw back in style, even for 1969.

That left the film ripe for re-exploration for 21st century tastes.  Just as movie styles for war films have progressed (think THE LONGEST DAY versus SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), so, too, have westerns and the Coen Bros succeed admirably here.  Think sets that are as rich and as historically accurate as those of the television show DEADWOOD.  Think period music like that of Ken Burns’ CIVIL WAR documentary.  Viewers have become more sophisticated in what they expect from period pieces, and the Coen Bros oblige.  You can feel the scraping of chairs on unvarnished flooring in the courthouse.  You can see the drab colored clothing on the townspeople.  You can smell the manure in the livery.  You can hear the thwunk! of 19th century bullets penetrating into flesh.  All contribute in small, nuanced ways to remind us that this is truly the frontier and Mattie is after frontier justice.

The Coens also filmed in locales more appropriate to the original tale, with Texas plains and New Mexican deserts filling the screen rather than Colorado mountains.  And they take full advantage of advanced moviemaking techniques to place the story back in its snowy time of year.  Indeed, the Bros must have enjoyed that particular rejiggering, given their love of snow imagery (think THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and FARGO).  Must come from their Minnesota background.

Second, the Coen Bros keep to the basics of the Portis’s original framed tale structure.  We start off and end up with Mattie’s voiceover, just as in the book.  There is also a strong thread of this point of view consistently in the movie:  unlike the 1969 film, Mattie is in every scene here.  If someone leaves the frame to go inside a building, we don’t follow them – we stick with Mattie.  This technique immerses us in ways that the original film, more a third person retelling, does not.  Again it is nuanced but it does add to the overall experience.  (However, I felt the Coens failed to exploit a major theme here, see the spoiler comment below.)

This leads us to the ending.  The 2010 film sticks very closely to the book here, while the 1969 version does not.  In fact, it’s this difference in the plot that most viewers familiar with the John Wayne film will probably notice first.

So, with all these changes that bring their filmed version closer to the book, why shouldn’t we buy into the Coen Bros’ statement?  Well, for starters, both the 1969 and 2010 films pillage the original book’s dialogue liberally.  In fact, most of the charm and humor of both films comes straight from the dialogue – which Portis wrote.  The Coen Bros were probably first attracted to the material precisely because of the rich sarcastic, sardonic, and ironic Portis dialogue.  The tonal fit is so near previous Coen projects that some reviewers, including Roger Ebert, are mistakenly attributing much of the Portis dialogue to the Coens themselves.

But, alas, these same words were already in the original 1969 film.

In fact, the Coen Bros excised dialogue and changed internal plot points from the original book and that the original 1969 film kept!   Moreover, the Coen Bros kept Rooster Cogburn’s iconic eyepatch – a pure invention of the 1969 film.  Anyone familiar with Portis’s book will recognize that the Coens didn’t simply film it as written.  Indeed, the 1969 film is probably closer overall to the source material.

So that begs the question:  why remake it?   Part of that answer is pure business. You get free buzz when remaking a classic film and at least part of your audience will come just to compare it to the original.  How else to explain the unnecessary remakes of PSYCHO by Gus Van Sant, PLANET OF THE APES by Tim Burton, or KING KONG by Peter Jackson?

But there is something more here.  The Coens decided to make a western that they didn’t have to write themselves.  For them, the Portis book is a “ready-made”.  The basic story is already twisted in a Coen Bros way (how many westerns feature a teenaged girl?) and has favorite Coen Bros elements (murder and revenge) as its central plot points.

And this is probably the reason that the Coens’ TRUE GRIT truly delivers.  The film’s originality in vision is no mean feat given any awareness of the iconic 1969 version which surely must have hung over all the actors.  Two of them, Dakin Matthews as the horse trader, Stonehill, and Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned Pepper (stunt casting?), practically channel the roles from the original film played by character actor icons Strother Martin and Robert Duvall, respectfully.  However, the tonal similarities in the newer performances do not distract in the least.  In fact, the horse trading scene with either Martin or Matthews is one of the high comic moments in both films.

Of the three leads, Matt Damon, as the Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, has the easiest time since Glen Campbell was terribly miscast in this role in 1969.  Damon’s LaBoeuf is a little less dandified and not nearly the side kick and quasi-love interest role portrayed in the original film.  Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross has to contend with the ghost of Kim Darby and does so ably and with spunk.  She easily deserves a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her work here.  Many reviewers prefer Steinfeld’s performance over Darby’s, but I think this has as much to do with the overall film tone and Steinfeld actually being the same age as her character as anything else.  (Darby was 21 years old playing 14.)  For my money, Darby’s performance displays a tiny bit more human range, but I’m guessing the Coens insisted Steinfeld to keep to her tight, no-nonsense, grimness throughout.  One thing is certain: Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross will garner as much justified attention as Darby’s had in the original which is also a testament to Portis’ finely written heroine.  For this reason I was disappointed that Steinfeld was not given third billing here just as Darby had in 1969.  After all, the entire movie hangs on her tiny shoulders.  Instead, third billing went to Josh Brolin who, while well-known, barely registers much screen time in the role of Tom Chaney, the man who murdered Mattie’s father.

And finally there is Jeff Bridges, as Rooster Cogburn, the “one-eyed, fat man”, the character identified with John Wayne himself.  Disclaimer:  I’m a big Jeff Bridges fan.  I relish watching his shrewd, yet commanding US President in THE CONTENDER or his previous outing with the Coens as The Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI.  In TRUE GRIT, he is anything but John Wayne, but he is all Rooster Cogburn.  And while his Rooster is filthy and mumbles, he is just as heroic as Wayne’s.  However, any talk of Oscar nominations for Bridges probably wouldn’t exist if he had not been playing such an iconic role.

For, in the end, the Coen’s made this Mattie’s film, just as the novel is Mattie’s story.  All characters in the 2010 film are in service to her, this is no star vehicle like the 1969 film clearly was.  That is the biggest difference between the two versions and also explains why the 1969 version veered from the book’s original ending.

The Coens made a Coen Bros film.  Their trademark twisted humor abounds in ways both obvious and subtle.  Examples of the former include shining a bright light on the accepted racism towards Native Americans in the 19th century, an unexpected run-in with a crazy dentist (a Coen fiction not found in the original Portis book), and Mattie trying to wear her dead father’s oversized outerwear for the journey.  Examples of the latter include flip-flopping the location of all the distinguishing facial features from those of the original film.  Cogburn’s eyepatch, Chaney’s gunpowder burn, and Pepper’s lip injury are all on the opposite sides of the face from their original portrayal.  Of course, the biggest joke of the original book – and played well in both film versions – is that these rough and tough adult men are forced to deal with the stubborn, focused teenaged girl.

The Coen Bros succeeded in faithfully adapting the tone of the original material to the screen, while Hathaway’s 1969 vision, ironically, stayed closer the original plotting in service to an old-school star vehicle for one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons.  There is much to enjoy in both films – though the experience will be quite different for each.  But regardless of the Coen Bros’ superbly crafted film or John Wayne’s equally well crafted iconic character, it is incumbent for the honest reviewer to also direct people back to the 1968 Portis book that started it all.

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3 thoughts on “TRUE GRIT: 1969 & 2010

  1. SPOILER ALERT!

    A recurring motif in Portis’s book is what money can represent: a means to institutionalize power and a way of taming the frontier. Hathaway keeps much of this flavor by explicitly showing Mattie as her father’s accountant, negotiations with Stonehill and Cogburn, and an obsession with her father’s gold pieces; all consistent with the book. The Coens, however, downplay this aspect significantly; for example, the extended negotiations with Cogburn are missing in their film. This is a shame because by their maintaining the original flashback structure of the narrative, the Coens could have shown us that Mattie owns a bank in the present day (as originally written by Portis). This would have had a significant resonance with audiences in 2010 America.

  2. […] why is this word on my mind?  Well, I just finished writing how the Coen Bros’ version of TRUE GRIT was truer and grittier than the original 1969 film version.  No varnished wood in the courtrooms, no spick-and-span liveries, no rich Elmer […]

  3. This fellow knows his “True Grits”

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