True Grit (1969)

Directed by Henry Hathaway

Distances to cross; troubles to overcome; wrongs to be made right: that’s a western. Good guys, bad guys, horses, boots and guns firing. They all go into the mix because the best westerns are morality tales told within adventures. They are also simple.

True Grit has all these elements and delivers all those things. It also has two old school boys who know their business: actor John Wayne and director Henry Hathaway. Both were nearing the ends of their careers and both had been through a life of working in Hollywood – the old Hollywood. Both were also in a world that was changing, a world enthused about change, and working in a business, cinema, that was enthusiastically embracing change. (Well, the younger parts of it were.)

The movie Hathaway and Wayne made, then, is a kind of reminder that it’s best not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to use an old expression. True Grit is such an old style western, complete with its swelling strings as riders crest a hill, it could easily become parody.

Yet somehow it doesn’t. I’ve referred to some films as comfort movies and this is one of them. It doesn’t aspire to change the world of cinema. It simply wants to tell a good story.

I think what I like most about this movie is that it is so unapologetic about what it is: an old style western; an old style story. Roger Ebert says this is a movie, not a film. He’s right.

The IMDb synopsis is as simple as the movie: “A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn young woman track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.” That’s it; that’s the story this movie tells.

A man is murdered. His 14 year old daughter (Kim Darby) wants him caught and dealt with so she looks to enlist a man with “true grit” to do the job. That man is Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne), a cranky, drinking, one-eyed U.S. marshall. He’s joined by a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) who is after the same man but for a bigger reward – the one available in Texas where the scoundrel murdered a senator.

What they don’t anticipate is that the daughter, Mattie, is determined to join them. They aren’t happy with this and try to lose her until it’s more than clear that there is more to Mattie than they expect from a young girl.

What we get on screen through the wonderfully straight-forward directing of Henry Hathaway is story of, yes, grit. It’s about tenacity and resolve and in its way a code of honour. The hunt for the killer, while resembling a revenge movie, is a bit of misdirection. The movie is really about the relationship between Rooster and Mattie.

As far as acting goes, Glen Campbell is in over his head here but holds his own to some degree. But with the great performances by John Wayne and Kim Darby, it doesn’t really matter however.

Wayne received an Oscar for this movie and while you can argue whether it was for his career or his actual performance in True Grit, what he puts on screen in the movie is marvelous to watch. He is so at ease with this character it’s hard to believe acting is work. I think what he gives us, thanks to the character he plays, is a synthesis of a number of characters he’s played in movies like The Searchers, Rio Bravo and even Donovan’s Reef. I suppose you could argue that the Oscar was for his career because, in a sense, the role is his career.

In the end, this is a good movie because it is a good story. It’s also a fascinating movie seen as “the last old western.” Look at how it is shot: bright and beautiful. Notice how workman-like the shots are framed. The camera is only interested in capturing the performance. It wants the performance to tell the story not the elements of film like lighting, angles, camera movement. It’s functional and happy to be so.

I’ll be interested in seeing the Coen brothers’ take on True Grit when it comes out. It should make for an interesting comparison between the film they’ve made and the one Henry Hathaway made. My guess is the two, taken together, will be a revealing study in style and sensibility between eras.

On Amazon:

Leave a Reply