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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

True Grit (1969)

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Hello! For those of you who've been tuned in to my reviews, you may remember that I did a critique on the original True Grit. I felt like the story, while not pushing the envelope in the Western genre, did a tremendous job of crafting an engaging story with some terrific characters to take us along for the ride.

Well, for its 50th anniversary, I'm finally going to be talking about the classic film starring John Wayne, shot in (where else but) my good ol' hometown of Ridgway, Colorado.

I’ll hop onto the story soon, but until then, let’s talk about the acting first.

John Wayne was fantastic as Rooster Cogburn. Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t seen many of John Wayne’s other movies outside of How the West was Won, but this performance was one of his finest that I’ve ever seen. His appearance gave off his lazy, somewhat uneven demeanor, while his acting highlighted his cocky showoffiness that was subject to much confrontation from Mattie herself. But together, they all concealed and yet demonstrated a tough-as-nails attitude and persistence that Mattie sought in his character. What makes this even more impressive is that out of the actors chosen to portray Charles Portis' characters, John Wayne as Cogburn was the one Portis was the most pleased with.

I was frankly perplexed by Kim Darby’s acting as Mattie Ross. Don’t get me wrong, I thought she did nicely, nailing the stubborn, unyielding attitude of her character. At the same time, I caught notice of the actress’ age, and thought of what that added onto her character. In the book, Mattie was around 14 – the same age where kids today would be transitioning from middle school to high school – when her father was murdered and when she ventured out into the Indian Territories with Cogburn and LaBeouf. Here, she looked like she could easily have been in her early 20s – as in, she could easily still be in college. As a result, this made her look like a stubborn young woman who was constantly treated like a child instead of as a child being treated as such. Again, that’s not to say she did a disservice to her character, nor did her character deviate from the original in a bad way. It was just a unique take on Mattie Ross, and the end result, while not flawless, was still fun to watch. I’m also more forgiving of it due to the time period in which the movie was released; I think female role models were going through a transitional period during then, as far as moving away from the typical ‘damsel-in-distress’ and/or romantic stereotypes were concerned.

Glen Campbell provided his character, Texas Ranger LaBeouf, with a little more sturdiness, which, everytime he interacted with either Mattie or Cogburn, made him a fairly more enjoyable character than in the book. One minute, he looked like your typical Prince Charming. The next minute, he demonstrated how much dedication he had with his duties, similar to Cogburn’s whenever he showed it. As a result, watching him, a serious ranger, bicker with Cogburn, a sometimes-dedicated-and-sometimes-not marshal, made for some slight chuckles whenever this occurred. Outside of that, he added nothing new to his character.

Jeff Corey felt like the right actor to portray such a scoundrel as Tom Chaney. His scraggly appearance, his untrustworthy demeanor, his childish complaints, he nailed down almost all of the aspects of his character to a tee. And, even though this side of Tom Chaney wasn’t explored as thoroughly as I hoped it would’ve been, I’d even say he snuck in his cowardly side, too, such as when he shot Frank Ross and immediately rode off. This all made him look delightfully hateful, and made us cheer when Mattie finally got her chance to fight off Tom once and for all.

The rest of the actors did a fine job, too, including Robert Duvall as the composed and sneaky Lucky Ned Pepper, Dennis Hopper as (to my surprise) the tortured and innocent Moon, Jeremy Slate as Moon’s aggressive companion, Quincy, and H.W. Gim as Cogburn’s housemate, Chen Lee, whose performance I did not once think felt as overtly stereotypical as I thought it’d be. The one bit of casting (and acting) I thought was a little weird was John Fiedler as Lawyer Daggett. Much like Cogburn, I was taken aback by how small and soft-sounded he was after expecting Daggett to be a tall, manly, bombastic kind of guy.

Having grown up for most of my life in Ridgway, CO, I really like how the movie was shot. Whether it was in Fort Smith, AK, or anywhere in the Indian Territory, the Colorado landscapes lended a natural beauty to the movie, and gave off a very romanticized portrait of such locations to boot. Even with the violence or the hangings that occurred, it didn’t detract from the stunning shots of the landscapes or of Ridgway. Truth be told, though, because I grew up in Ridgway and didn’t have a chance to see this movie until a couple months ago (as of this writing), it was a little distracting to see my hometown acting as Fort Smith, AK. This was only after I pictured Fort Smith in a very different light as I read the book. Nevertheless, it still looked nice and felt just like how it’s supposed to feel as Fort Smith, so I can’t complain.

Now, as for the story, it remained pretty much the same as far as I know, with some noticeable differences from the book.

One, the movie felt like it amped up the story's more "classic adventure" styles, which I thought was part of the movie's romanticization of the story.

Two, the story played out as if it was occurring in the present, right down to the prologue, in which we saw Frank Ross getting shot. This was unlike in the book, where it was all told in past tense by Mattie, making it feel more like a flashback of what happened that led to how Mattie got to where she was at the time of her recount.

Three, when Mattie, Cogburn, and LaBoeuf confronted Moon and Quincy about Lucky Ned Pepper’s whereabouts, as well as him and his henchmen later on, it all looked like it took place in the span of a couple of days: the Moon and Quincy situation in late afternoon, and the fight with Ned Pepper in early morning. This was very different from the book, where this all occurred in the span of just one night.

But the absolute biggest change this movie made – and one that I never thought I'd see coming – was the ending. I was surprised to notice just how vastly different from the source material that the rest of the movie was after Mattie was rescued from the snake pit by Rooster Cogburn. Let me break it down for you.

For one, LeBouf, after taking blows by Tom Chaney, actually succumbed to his wounds and, just as he finished pulling Cogburn and Mattie out of the pit, died on the spot. This was unlike in the book, where he managed to ride off with Tom Chaney's corpse in tow, and the book even ended with Mattie expressing hope that LaBoeuf would eventually track down her report on the events and get back in touch with her.

For another, while Mattie did get a snake bite on her arm and had to get treatment for it, it wasn't so bad that her arm had to be amputated. Instead, Mattie spent the rest of the movie with that arm in a cast as it healed.

And finally, the movie never had a flash-forward to Mattie as an adult remembering her adventures with Rooster Cogburn, nor did he even pass away before the end of the movie. Instead, it ended with Mattie burying her father in her family's backyard and with her and Rooster reconciling. And this all occurred just shortly after their adventures together in this movie. I actually just found it pretty trippy to see Mattie burying her father in the movie instead of burying Cogburn like in the book.

Reassuringly, I found out that the original author, Charles Portis, was somewhat content with the changes made, to the point of having faith in director Henry Hathaway to make good entertainment out of the movie.

He even reacted similarly to the ending. As he told The Ouray County Herald:

I deliberately set out to third-guess the reader then. When the ending seems cut and dried, there is a great deal of surprise action.

At the end of the day, I think these deviations didn’t steer this movie completely off-track from its source material, and instead made it feel like a very unique, stylish, rowdy take on Charles Portis’ classic story. The movie brought the story to life with vivid colors, palpable atmosphere, and some terrific acting. So terrific, in fact, that John Wayne went on to win an Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn. That’s quite an accomplishment! True Grit may not have as much ‘grit’, so to speak, as its original source material, but its acting and settings helped propel this movie into being the classic western flick that it is. And it makes me really glad to have one of those settings as my home.

Word to The Wise

You may notice how True Grit is rated G. With the romantic scenery of the Wild West, you'd think that this would be a sure bet for family viewing, right?

Think again. This movie actually has hefty scenes of violence, not to mention a handful of strong obscenities. Take, for example, this classic battle cry from Cogburn:

Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

Yeah, that's in the movie. If this went through the rating system today, this would feel more like a strong PG, so bear that in mind as you get yourself set to see this movie.

Additional Thoughts

I have to give props to the costume designers who gave John Wayne the classic eyepatch. If I'm not mistaken, while Cogburn did have one eye in the book – I don't remember which one it was – the vacant spot where his other eye would've been was never covered. The addition of the eyepatch felt aesthetically pleasing, and it did arouse a little intimidation concerning Cogburn.

Works Cited

“Portis, Author of ‘True Grit,' Visits Movie Location Here.” The Ouray County Herald, 3 Oct. 1968.

“Portis, Author of ‘True Grit," Visits Movie Location Here.” True Grit: A 50-Year Tribute, 1st ed., Ridgway Western Heritage Society, pp. 26–27. The source being described originated from The Ouray County Herald, October 3, 1968.

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