Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hey I Finally Saw...TRUE GRIT!

It seemed like a good time to catch up with the 1969 John Wayne western classic for a few crucial reasons.

The recent death of Dennis Hopper who has a small, yet memorable role was one, but overwhelmingly it's because the Coen Brothers next project is a remake with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin set to be released later this year. Although the Coens reportedly are aiming for their film to be a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis's 1968 novel than a strict remake, the original was a milestone movie that won an Oscar for Wayne's performance as Marshall Rooster Cogburn, therefore a must see.

In the late '60s the genre was undoubtedly winding down, but you wouldn't know it from the opening landscape shots of TRUE GRIT in which the wide-screen western still looks alive and kicking. Henry Hathaway had the formula down as he had directed dozens of cowboy pictures, and of course "the Duke" was a hardcore veteran, but this project had a different element to it in the form of a young tomboyish girl named Kim Darby. Darby plays the fiercely determined 14 year old Mattie Ross who recruits the ornery drunken Wayne to help her hunt down her father's murderer (Jeff Corey).

Accompanied by Glen Campbell as a Texas Ranger they ride out through dangerous Indian Territory. They encounter horse thieves, rattlesnakes, and an extremely shady Robert Duvall as Corey's partner in crime "Lucky" Ned Pepper. Wayne says of Duvall: "Short, feisty fella. He's got a messed-up lower lip. I shot him in it."

That's just one of many great line readings the Duke gives in the best performance of his that I've ever seen. Rooster Cogburn is an iconic role and very comic at the same time. In one scene he sees a rat in the corner of the cabin he resides in. Inebriated though still fairly articulate he declares:

"Mr. Rat, I have a writ here that says you are to stop eating Chen Lee's cornmeal forthwith. Now, It's a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of same! See? He doesn't pay any attention to me."

Then he swiftly shoots the rat. Later the trio came across a couple of outlaw buddies of the men they're pursuing - Jeremy Slate and Dennis Hopper. Hopper, as a character named Moon that wasn't in the book, took 5 days off from editing EASY RIDER to do the film and appears to have been added as a concession to the kids of the hippie era. Or maybe it's the unsettling "tweaking" manner he's acting in that makes me think that.

Darby is very much the heart of the movie bringing a feminist factor in to re-ignite a timeworn formula. Her poise and "never back down" spirit clashes then mashes with Wayne's rugged demeanor in many amusing blustery exchanges. Sadly as an actor Campbell is not up to par with Darby or "The Duke". He was perhaps the real concession to the times as he had just had a hit single - "Wichita Lineman."

It wasn't the last western that Wayne made - he even returned to the role of Cogburn in a sequel simply entitled ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) - but TRUE GRIT was perhaps the most notable of his films in his last decade. It's just a notch below the supreme quality of the movies he made with John Ford, yet it's still a towering achievement and an absolutely essential work. Rooster Cogburn deserves further recognition as one of the greatest characters in the history of motion pictures.

Can't wait to see what "The Dude" will do with it.

More later...

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