Directed by Henry Hathaway
Upon the death of her father young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) hires drunken U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” J. Cogburn (John Wayne) to hunt her father’s killer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) down in Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). That is a mouthful there!
This is quite possibly one of the best Westerns ever made. I have difficulty thinking of any Western let alone any film that is more well scripted, acted or just well put together than this film. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to try and equal this greatness with that 2010 version I will never understand. It is definitely my favorite of all the Westerns I’ve seen. Such a great film. I go into this review with a little trepidation because I am talking about a film that is also a classic.
True Grit, when it comes down to it, is just the story of a grown man forced to babysit a child. That is the foundation for the plot. It is an idea that has been used in comedy to ever weakening effect more than it has been in a dramatic presentation such as this. And here they use it to great effect. Cogburn learned a thing or two along the way while he cares for this unwanted charge and Mattie does more than a bit of growing up herself as she must bring her father’s killer to justice.
Wayne’s nomination for this film was well deserved. He turns in some of his finer acting right here. Rooster is wily and fatherly, and I think he sees a kindred spirit in “Baby Sister” as he calls young Mattie. Mattie is someone as tough and determined as he is. I dare say this is one of his top five performances. I have come to the conclusion recently that his performance in The Cowboys was probably his second-best performance with this being the top. There is probably more of Wayne in Cogburn than in some of his other characters. Truthfully, that is when he was at his best. When you felt as if you were seeing Wayne expose his inner self through his performance was when he was at his finest.
Kim Darby turned in which should have been an early performance for a legendary actress. It is a shame what happened to her later in life. Fame got the best of her. Darby gave Mattie a genuine strength and the small girl felt as large as Wayne on screen.
Mattie is a strong and willful personality that is smarter than her years would indicate. She is able to intimidate more seasoned individuals always with the threat of lawyer J. Noble Daggett (John Fiedler) at the ready. Her ability to go toe to toe with adults is shown in an early scene with Colonel Stonehill (Strother Martin) where she bests him in horse trading to earn the money to pay Cogburn. It is a hilarious moment.
Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper both show up in early performances here. Dennis Hopper as the horse thief Moon is probably the weakest performance of the two. Moon’s freak out over his injury just feels a little over the top. It was some serious ham with a touch of cheese. I half expected when I first saw this movie for it all to be part of an escape ploy, but it was not.
Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) was not a ridiculous villain. He was almost a normal individual. He was not a black hatted Western outlaw given to snarls and steely eyed gazes. He was a man who bit off more than he could chew by taking Chaney into his group and drawing the attention of Cogburn.
There is not a bad performance to be found here. No actor outshines another. Wayne brought his A Game to this. He had read the novel and began to campaign for the part. His passion for the project allowed for an award-winning performance. Darby brought as large a persona to the screen as Wayne and was never overshadowed by him. Duvall and Hopper proved they could be just as noticeable in a genre that Wayne practically owned at the time. Glen Campbell gave La Boeuf a personality as strong as Wayne’s Cogburn. Reportedly Elvis Presley of all people was the first choice to play La Boeuf, but he lost the part because of his agent’s demand for top billing over Darby and Wayne. Really? That takes some hutzpah to try to do that at the time. The role though could have been game changing and it is unfortunate that he lost it.
The script is sharp and on point and the dialogue is witty and snappy. For me this film is one of those movies that is so good I can watch it several times a year. It just does not get old. Maybe True Grit stands the test of time not only because of the above-mentioned qualities but because it is also evenly shot. No one scene is way more beautiful than another. It maintains an even tone throughout the film much like Wayne’s later movie The Cowboys. There is consistency throughout both, and both are just as fantastic as when they premiered.
Something I noticed about the cast and it connects to me being a Star Trek fan. This film has several actors that have appeared in Star Trek TOS but in separate episodes. John Fiedler who was lawyer J. Noble Daggett appeared as the alien entity that was actually Jack the Ripper in the 1967 episode “Wolf in the Fold” as Administrator Hengist. Alfred Ryder who was the lawyer when Cogburn was first introduced appeared as Professor Robert Crate who was the husband of a former lover of Dr. McCoy in the 1966 episode “The Man Trap.” Jeff Corey who pkayed Tom Chaney appeared in the 1969 episode “The Cloud Minders” as Plasus. Kim Darby herself appeared in an episode as Miri in “Miri.” That is a pretty heavy Star Trek connection but then again this is a Paramount film so maybe they can all connect because of that. I just found it interesting.
True Grit is an amazing movie. It is a definite classic of the Western genre. It is one of those movies you can watch again and again, and it will not get old. The performances are amazing, and the story is wonderful. Watch and enjoy. If you have not seen this, you must.