Directed by Henry Hathaway
June 12, 1969 (Premiere (Little Rock, AR) / June 13, 1969 (Los Angeles)
This is a reappraisal/edit of my original review of the Western classic, the original True Grit. In light of my viewing of the more recent version of the story I felt this was warranted. Check out my review of the newer version this Wednesday.
Upon the death of her father young woman hires a drunken U.S. Marshal to hunt her father’s killer down in Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma).
True Grit is quite possibly one of the best Westerns ever made. I have difficulty thinking of any Western that is more well scripted, acted or just well put together than this film. Some non-Westerns may be better but those are not many. This movie perfectly balances humor and drama like few films are willing or able to do.
True Grit, when it comes right down to it, is just the story of a grown man forced to babysit a child with hijinks ensuing. 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 but that is the foundation upon which this story is built. Cogburn learns a thing or two along the way while he cares for this unwanted charge and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) does more than a bit of growing up herself as she must bring her father’s killer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) to justice. She is a child forced to leave behind childish things in order to what must be done.
Wayne’s nomination for this film was well deserved. Aside from his work in Red River and The Cowboys, he turns in some of the finest acting of his career right here. This is one of his more intriguing characters. I dare say this is one of his top five performances. U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne) is wily yet 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. 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. He was not an actor that could create someone unconnected to him but rather he needed to inject himself into the role.
Kim Darby as Mattie Ross turned in what should have been a very early performance for a legendary actress. Sadly that was not the case. 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 was tough as nails and carried by bring her father’s murderer to the justice he deserved.
Mattie 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 that perfectly showcases the character’s personality.
Mattie is a strong and willful personality that is smarter than her years would indicate. She is an independent personality that is as good and capable as any adult she comes across. What she lacks in experience she makes up for in force of will and sheer determination. She never takes no as an answer. Darby was simply amazing here.
Glen Campbell was cast as the young and charming Texas Ranger La Boeuf who is also in pursuit of Chaney for reasons not connected to the murder of Mattie’s father. He is dismissive of the young Mattie and it takes him a long time to realize she is not just some weak young girl. 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.
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. I half expected when I first saw this movie for it all to be part of an escape ploy. Even so it was not bad but rather a bit much even by the standards of Dennis Hopper.
Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) was not a ridiculous villain. He was a cold man but not foolish. He was not a black hatted Western outlaw given to snarls and steely eyed gazes existing for Wayne’s character to punch. Rather he was a man who bit off more than he could chew by taking Chaney into his group and drawing the attention of Cogburn. He realized it a bit too late and tried to figure a way to save his butt and dump Chaney.
There is not a genuinely bad performance to be found here. No actor outshines another. Even Hopper’s antics in the end are not THAT bad. The dialogue script is witty and snappy. There are real, well defined characters here. 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. It is as fresh and entertaining as the first time viewing.
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. This is most definitely a watch it!