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True Grit (1969)

Review

True Grit

One day, little girl, the sadness will leave your face

As soon as you’ve won the fight to get justice done
Someday little girl you’ll wonder what life’s about
But others have known few battles are won alone
So, you’ll look around to find
Someone who’s kind
Someone who is fearless like you
The pain of it
Will ease a bit
When you find a man with True Grit

When Glen Campbell sings these words over the opening credits of True Grit with the camera sweeping through picturesque western vistas, the complete inappropriateness of the tune (for a contemporary version of the same check out Clint Eastwood’s croaking of the theme of Gran Torino over the closing shot of the film) immediately puts a viewer on the defensive, if not ready to fight back and reject the film entirely, like a piece of rancid beef jerky. But then the real film kicks in and soon Henry Hathaway and John Wayne have you swept up in the lush scenery and the oversized western characters and you forget the idiotic opening credits tune.

Released the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit betrays the same jokey, comic tone that downplays the one-time serious western film conventions. It was also around the same time as The Wild Bunch (also photographed by Lucien Ballard); in the face of the incendiary revisionism of Sam Peckinpah’s film, a seriously wrought western genre film wouldn’t stand a chance.

Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit opts for colorful and purplish dialogue in the manner of Guys and Dolls — a Runyon of the Range where people talk in sentences without contractions and ladled with plenty of adverbs. Journeyman director Henry Hathaway takes a literal, four-square approach to the material and this workmanlike style makes the first-reel setup scenes appear subdued. But, 20 minutes into the film when John Wayne makes his first appearance as the ‘drunken, one-eyed fat man,’ U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, the bright light begins to rise from the floorboards.

Wayne’s Cogburn, a decaying, alcoholic gunfighter, is a burlesque of his role as Cole Thornton in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado from two years earlier. Wayne is game and he devours the role, even spoofing his strident right-wing politics — he shoots a rat by reasoning, ‘You can’t serve papers on a rat. You either kill ’em or let ’em be.’ Wayne energizes the film: When Wayne, Kim Darby, and Campbell set out of their journey into Indian territory (accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s jaunty score) the viewer is with Rooster Cogburn all the way. Without Wayne and all that his iconic presence implies, the film would have been merely a so-so diversion.

But although Wayne won an Oscar for his efforts, his is not the whole show. Great characters actors abound — Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, John Fiedler, Hank Worden — more than making up for the limp performances of the two secondary leads, Darby and Campbell.

Hathaway keeps his Searchers-like tale (Wayne is taking Darby and Campbell with him into Indian territory to find the killer of the girl’s father) moving at a good pulpy clip and populated by set pieces ripped out of the pages of an old, ragged western adventure tale — smoking out bandits from their hideout, a rescue from a pit of snakes, a western shootout on horseback, a valedictory fade out of a legendary film presence.

True Grit is the kind of rip-roaring western adventure movie that, like film musicals, have art and innocence that is now lost forever. This is one film where you need a bag of popcorn and the eager-eyed expression of a chump. Dig in to your popcorn and fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!

The new collector’s edition DVD includes a commentary track from historians, plus several featurettes on the film and Wayne.

Eats grit with his grits.