True Grit (1969)


TRUE GRIT —–“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”  The 2010 version of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel is now regarded as superior in most respects, and is more faithful to the book, but the famous 1969 version that won John Wayne his long-overdue Oscar is still, flaws and all, a very good picture, and viable Americana on its own merits. “FILL YOUR HAND, YOU SUNUVABITCH!”

The 1880s. Spunky and stubborn teenager ‘Mattie Ross’ (Kim Darby) is determined to bring her father’s killer to justice. She hires legendarily ornery Marshal ‘Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn’ (Wayne) to track him down; they’re joined by brash Texas Ranger ‘La Boeuf’ (Glen Campbell) as their pursuit takes them into outlaw-ridden Choctaw Indian Territory where they face off with ‘Lucky Ned Pepper’ and his gang.


Marguerite Roberts script adapted Portis’ slim 215 pages to suit Wayne and director Henry Hathaway (the definition of ornery), keeping much of the language styling of the book but putting less focus on Mattie/Darby and more accent on Cogburn/Wayne to suit his star status and the box-office. The book and script are set in Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma, but producer Hal Wallis and Hathaway filmed in Colorado, around Ridgway, Montrose and Ouray, ace cameraman Lucien Ballard (fresh off The Wild Bunch) showcasing the stunning autumnal color palette of the Rockies. Elmer Bernstein gave it another of his full-bodied soundtracks (the title tune was Oscar-nominated), most effective in the rousing action sequences. *


Exact fealty to the book (considered a classic) to the side, what keeps the entertaining movie in the ‘good’ category rather than ‘great’ is the nettlesome casting of newcomer Darby and the inexperienced Campbell. She’s often as irritating to watch as her character is vexing to those in the story, and Glen is game but lame, his pleasant singing voice not making a happy leap into dialogue territory. They’re not terrible, but you’re left wishing other, less-grating casting choices had prevailed. **


The colorful array of bad guys rates a solid: Robert Duvall’s matter-of-fact Lucky Ned, Jeff Corey’s unlucky cur ‘Tom Chaney’, Jeremy Slate’s furious ‘Emmett Quincy’ and Dennis Hopper’s mutilated ‘Moon’ all deliver White Trash with flair.

Baby sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way.”

The expressive and amusing language, glorious late-fall Aspens, callow kids and nasty varmints, sweeping music and booming gunfire all revolve like dutiful satellites around the double-barreled star power of John Wayne, who literally took the reins between his 61-year-old teeth and charged into the persona of the jug-favoring, rat-blasting, justice-dispensing Rooster with more gusto than he’d displayed in years. Loving Marguerite Roberts script, clearly relishing the chance to throw cold water on his critics with a screen-dominating, full-bore, seriocomic coot, he won back those he’d seemingly lost with the travesty of The Green Berets and finally captured Academy Award respect long-denied. Flamboyant and foolish, harsh and warm, in his cups and in the saddle, Duke’s Rooster may have rough edges but they safeguard anachronistic nobility and chips-down bravura decency backed up with guts. As a lifelong fan, I like him better in numerous other roles—The Searchers (which he should have been Oscar’d for), Rio Bravo, North To Alaska, In Harm’s Way, The Cowboys to name a few, but he is really good here, and a helluva lot of fun.


Brought in at $4,500,000, it was the 6th most popular picture of 1969, grossing $40,700,000.  Dependable supporting cast includes Alfred Ryder, Strother Martin (trifecta, showing up in The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid), Ron Soble, John Fiedler, James Westerfield, John Doucette, H.W. Gim, Carlos Rivas, Myron Healey, Hank Worden,Wilfred Brimley (debut), Jay Silverheels. 128 minutes.


* When author Portis complained about using Colorado locations instead of Arkansas, Hathaway shot back “In Arkansas, nobody’s been ten miles from their house in their whole fucking lives. And when they see the picture they’ll be happy to know that some part of Arkansas looks like that.”  Adding juice to that coy riposte is the nugget that the tact-shy director was the son of a diplomat.


** Hathaway wasn’t fond of Darby. Me neither, but to be gallant, she was understandably distracted by having just had her first child, undergoing a divorce and working in a big movie opposite a screen-dominating legend. Initially Mia Farrow (ye gads) was up for it but then backed out when they wouldn’t use Roman Polanski as director (gee, Rosemary, wonder why?), and Sally Field was a possibility–she would have been more appealing than Farrow or Darby. All three of them were a decade older than the book’s Mattie. For that matter Wayne was twenty years older than Portis’ character, Jeff Corey, thirty. The famously impatient director wasn’t nuts about Campbell, either. Elvis Presley had been keen for that part, but his greedy management wanted billing preference—over John Wayne?—and too much money, so The King, who would have been a great fit, lost out on another chance to do some real acting in a real movie. He did do a western that year: the awful Charro! might be the worst Elvian opus, which is saying something.


As for 1969s other famous westerns, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid was the year’s #1 hit and The Wild Bunch blasted its way in at #20. Comparing the Wayne-Hathaway version to the superb job done by Jeff Bridges and The Coen Brothers (with a fabulous Mattie by Hailee Steinfeld) many critics today feel it necessary to slough this old-style warhorse off with a sort of smug “Well, you know…”: yep, we just love it when Inter-snarks whose sense of film history began with Reservoir Dogs condescend to explain the past to those of us who merely lived through it. “Fill your hand….”


True Grit (1969)


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