Saturday, April 6, 2013

True Grit - Then and Now


   So I just watched the Coen Brother's 2010 "True Grit" followed by Henry Hathaway's 1969 version with John Wayne.  Both stripped most of their dialogue straight from Charles Portis' source novel and hew pretty closely to the story.  Both are great fun and it's really interesting to watch the different choices made by the two directors.  
   There are probably lots of folks who've written about the similarity of Westerns to swords & sorcery. Lord, knows REH wrote a ton of them. They've got a lot of the same things I'm looking for in S&S; the struggles between civilization and the frontier, the lone hero upholding his own code in the face of his enemies, or just a straightforward adventure.  Reading some other bloggers' recent comments over on Adventures Fantastic on the desire for adventure in their reading material, I thought I'd write a little about Westerns.
   For whatever reason I've only read few Westerns.  My dad had boxes of them in the attic but they never caught my fancy.  When he got sick, prior to his death, he gave them all to the used book store we frequented and a little old man bought most them in one fell swoop. So aside from Larry McMurtry's hefty "Lonesome Dove" cycle, Joe Lansdale's "Magic Wagon" and a few short stories here and there, Westerns to me mean movies. 
   I'm a movie guy.  I watch movies like other guys watch sports.  I've got a whole section of my DVD closet dedicated to Westerns and I need more space. I try to discriminate, only buying movies I know I'll re-watch, but I'm still running out of room.  I still don't have any of the Jimmy Stewart - Anthony Mann films from the early fifties or the Jack Nicholson - Monte Hellman low budget movies "The Shooting" or "Ride in the Whirlwind".
   Westerns were the lifeblood of Hollywood and television for decades. There were hundreds of Westerns produced over the decades, ranging from A-movies like "High Noon" and "The Searchers" to endless Saturday matinee fodder like the Durango Kid serials.  According to Wikipedia (which we know is never wrong), the highpoint for Westerns on tv came in 1959 when there were 28 prime time shows.  One week in March of that year, 8 of the top 10 shows were Westerns.
   And then in the seventies they died.  Oh, they struggled on for some time after 1970 and some great films were made, but by 1980 the Western had pretty much vanished as a regular production.  On television the demise appears to have come from a combination of parents' groups concerns about violence and the "rural purge" carried out by the networks in order to concentrate on urban viewers.  The decades old "Gunsmoke" came to an end in 1975.  While increased urbanization probably is part of the answer, I think the movies died from, I'd argue, from more complex reasons as well.
   There have been many Westerns made since then but never anything that came close to restoring the genre to its preeminence.  "Lonesome Dove, one of the best Westerns ever hit tv screens in 1989.  "Dances With Wolves", a  pretty but historically flawed work, won Oscars.  Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" is a terrifying examination of violence and worthy of standing up along the greats of the past.  None of their success did anything to make Westerns common again.
    Perhaps one of the things that undermined the Western as a thing of mass entertainment was the rise of the revisionist Western.  Their roots can be traced back to certain films of the late forties and fifties but they really took off in the sixties.  Like the works of current fantasists like George R. R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker, these films purported to take a more realistic look at the violence and heroics.  Instead of an upright noble sheriff with a white hat you got a man with his own personal motives and a gray hat.  Later the cynicism that arose in the sixties permeated Westerns as much as it did every other genre.
   As the Viet Nam War and civil rights moved to the center of public concerns, the racism and exploitation interwoven with America's westward expansion became themes to be explored.  Indians took on a larger role, moving if not to center stage, at least out of the wings.  Cavalry men were often depicted as racist, jack booted murderers, not the planters of American civilization.  Black men, who made up maybe 25% of all cowboys and several regiments of the US Army, got to come out of the shadows a little bit.  Several Italian Westerns played with explicit Marxist themes of class and power as well.  The early revisionist movies gave way to wholesale critiques of the whole American undertaking as well as just heroism and violence.  
   Now I love many of these movies but believe the reduction of the heroic aspects of the Western reduced its mass appeal which in turn decreased their box office returns and encouraged Hollywood to find new subjects.  Most folks don't want to see Clint Eastwood raping and killing or a re-enactment of the Sand Creek Massacre on a date movie.  Many of the seventies' Italian Westerns are so odd and baroque they're practically art house films.  When Westerns were basically (very basically) about good guys in white hats fighting bad guys in black hats it was easy for them to be more broadly appealing.  Most people like to watch heroes restoring order from chaos and bringing justice to the downtrodden (which is why I don't it's surprising that private eye shows flourished as the Westerns faded from television) People don't want their noses rubbed in the muck of mankind's darkest nature.
   "True Grit" was John Wayne's comeback effort in the wake of the critically lambasted (though a box office success) "The Green Berets".  While Wayne had played an old man before ("Red River" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"), here, at the age of 62, he really was an old man.  Here he was playing a fat old drunk with one eye with gusto.
   For those who haven't seen either version, "True Grit" is about fourteen year old Mattie Ross' effort to bring her father's killer to justice.  To do so she hires Rooster Cogburn, the toughest federal marshal around, to chase the killer down in the Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma).  She's a smart and determined girl and he's a drunkard who has probably spent more of his life on the wrong side of the law than the good.
   The 1969 "True Grit" is a conservative effort to be a revisionist movie.  Though a drunken reprobate and bushwacker, John  Wayne's Cogburn is not drastically dissimilar to many of his other roles over the decades.  Played a little too broadly at times, his portrayal's more curmudgeonly and fatherly teddy bear than weathered souse.  Nonetheless, Wayne was clearly having fun and it's infectious as he speaks Portis' mannered words.  Maybe it wasn't Wayne's best played role (I might go for Thomas Dunson in "Red River" or J.B. Books in "The Shootist"), but it did earn him an Oscar.
 What makes the story a revisionist one is its slightly jaundiced view of Western heroics and a more realistic take on frontier violence.  Rooster and the Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf, are in it for the money, not a need to see justice done.  Rooster makes it clear he won't budge until Mattie puts gold in his hand.  Men are killed in drunken fits not carefully staged showdowns.  Mattie's drive for justice is seen as a fool's errand by most of the people she meets.
   Elmer Bernstein's score is the greatest concession to traditional Western tropes and the greatest factor undermining the movie.  If you've watched enough Westerns you've heard the same sort music before.  The music's just too upbeat and sweeping for a story about an expedition into the violent frontier of the Territory.  It's like they needed to provide aural cues to let you know Rooster Cogburn really was a hero.  The music's similar to the epic score Bernstein had composed earlier for "The Magnificent Seven".  It's got a big, epic sound I find inappropriate to the intimate scale of the story and with little of the gloominess inherent to the story.
   The Coen brothers' "True Grit" is visually darker than Hathaway's.  Sticking as closely to the text as the earlier movie did it does sometimes feels like a recreation.  Still, it's not a pointless new version like Gus van Sant's awful "Psycho".  The Coen's brought some great things to their project that justified the reworking of a classic.
   The new "True Grit" does something I wish all adaptations would do.  In the role of Mattie Ross, it uses a real fourteen
year girl.  Hailee Steinfeld is terrific.  When she stands her ground verbally, it's all the more impressive for hearing a real teenager say those lines.  When she's in danger it's actually more nerve wracking.  Kim Darby's good in the older movie but she was an adult and her presence doesn't have the same visual and visceral impact of Steinfeld (just imagine how much creepier and disturbing HBO's "Game of Thrones" would be if Daenerys was played by a thirteen-year old or Bran a seven year old).
   Carter Burwell's score is the movie's best element.  Drawing its inspiration from 19th century hymns, using several as recurrent themes, the music sounds proper.  While using modern orchestration, it still sounds right for the period.  Also, unlike Bernstein's score, Burwell's has darker and mournful shades.  The music never sounds like just another adventure movie score.  Jeff Bridge's Rooster Cogburn may be a little more subdued than Wayne's but his actual performance isn't much subtler.  Somehow, though, it feels that way.  My wife suggested that if the new soundtrack was place over the old movie it would make it a much better movie and I agree.  It adds nuance sometimes lacking in the original movie.
   Both movies are great.  Right now I think I'd put the Coen's version a little bit
higher on my list of favorite Westerns.  Their inclusion of the novels' end with Mattie looking back on events as a middle-aged spinster is powerful.  Hathaway's movie ends playing up John Wayne's paternal side too much.
   Still, Hathaway's holds up pretty well.  I was surprised how much I liked Glen Campbell's performance, never having really though about it before.  Maybe it's his natural Southern accent (as a New Yorker I don't know how much or little his native Arkansan accent compares to a real Texan one), but he delivers LeBoeuf's lines better than the still very good Matt Damon.
    I'm actually sort of happy that Westerns don't rule the roost anymore.  The ones that get made tend to be better done than the raft of oaters that used to get turned out by Hollywood and the tv studios.  In the past, for every good Western there were maybe a dozen quickly cranked out clunkers.
   Here's a list of Westerns I think fans of heroic fiction might get into pretty easily; "The Man from Laramie", "Seven Men from Now", "The Professionals", "A Fistful of Dollars", "The Wild Bunch" and "High Plains Drifter".  And of course, both "True Grits".


  1. Great post. And thanks for the shout-out. Until recently, I've never been a big fan of westerns. As I've gotten older, though, I see past some of the trappings to the core archetypes. It's been said often that the private investigator is the western gunslinger transplanted into an urban environment, but I don't think many comparisons have been made between S&S heroes and western heroes.

    You hit on a important point. At some level, most people want to read about/watch heroes. The heroes can (and arguably should) be flawed, but the borderline psychotic antihero has a limited appeal.

    A generation has passed since the implosion of the western in popular culture, and I think the time is ripe for a resurgence of the form. I've seen what appears from my limited perspective to be an increase in indie-published westerns. It will be interesting to see what will happen over the next few years.

    And while I haven't most of the movies you list at the end, I completely agree with you about "High Plains Drifter".

  2. Thanks and you're welcome;
    Westerns are just a specific type of historical fiction like Lamb's Cossack stories. It's just they became such a huge industry for so long all sorts of varnish got overlaid those deeper heroic/adventure archetypes. My wife never really considered sitting down to watch Westerns until I introduced her to a couple of the better ones.
    I am curious about a resurgence of Westerns. Unlike fantasy, which has changed as society's changed, Westerns are at least a little constricted by the realities of history. Does that limit audience appeal or end up with the creation of books with only a tangential connection to the real world?