The 1969 True Grit, directed by the notoriously exacting Henry Hathaway, made a wagon load of money and, as is well known, earned John Wayne that long-awaited Best Actor Oscar for his memorable portrayal of the raffish, one-eyed Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Seeing it again on the heels of viewing the Coens' movie, I was struck by how unnaturally neat and clean it looks -- fer gosh sakes, outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) has a fresh white sheet handy to bind up the wounds of the hapless Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) after the latter is winged by the teenaged Mattie Ross (Kim Darby)! -- and how thoroughly Wayne dominates the action, even though revenge-seeking Mattie is technically the main protagonist. The cast is made up of neophytes (Glen Campbell as the popinjay Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, Darby in her first major big-screen role) and a raft of indelibly distinctive character actors (Strother Martin, John Fiedler, James Westerfield, Dennis Hopper), and all but a few scraps of action take place in the blazing light of the Colorado mountain-country day, suggesting that Wayne's salary took up a generous chunk of the overall budget. No matter, Wayne's avuncular interpretation of Rooster is a delight, and, for a G-rated movie, the film's scary moments still pack a punch, especially the scene in which Mattie shoots Chaney and then topples into the snake-haunted cave. (The trailer above lists the movie as having an "M" rating, but Paramount was able to get it changed. It's actually somewhat surprising decision in light of the film's use of words like "bastard" and "bitch." Today, I imagine the film would be re-rated "R" simply because of all the smoking that goes on.) Scriptwriter Marguerite Roberts tees up the plot by actually showing us how Mattie's father came to grief at the hands of Chaney, and, while this has the undoubted effect of stripping some of the "evilness" away from Chaney (since he is clearly drunk when he shoots Mr. Ross), the more straightforward narrative approach has the advantage of getting the audience to fully commit to Mattie's "mission" from the start. It also gives the '69 Grit more of the feel of a high-class contemporary TV Western of the time, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Elmer Bernstein's brass-heavy musical score often sounds "TV-ish," as well, but sometimes lightens the mood at inopportune moments; for example, Mattie's trek through Fort Smith to scare up help for her revenge-quest is "tracked" at one point by a chorus of whooping trombones that momentarily had me wondering when the clowns and bareback riders were going to appear. The "happy ending" and memorable Wayne "ride-off" sequence were created for the movie, but no one seemed to mind the changes at the time. Excellent craftsmanship, touches of humor and humanity, and a charismatic performance by the star -- what's not to like? Well, maybe Glen Campbell's mostly woodenish performance as LaBoeuf, but even he isn't completely hopeless -- and he does provide a good title song, which made the Summer of '69 pop charts.
I went to the new edition of Grit never having seen any of the Coen Brothers' previous films, which I remember being festooned with words like "dark," "grotesque," and "weird" in the past. I had been encouraged by what I had heard of the Coens' adaptation -- which reportedly had stuck very close to the novel and consciously avoided any attempts to ape the '69 version -- but I couldn't help but feel that, at some point, I was going to witness the postmodern equivalent of someone peeing on "The Duke"'s grave. I shouldn't have been concerned. The palette is considerably drabber -- all brown, tan, and sepia tones -- and the moments of violence are (as I fully expected) more brutal and more realistic, but the Coens play things reasonably straight, allowing Portis' lyrical narrative to do most of the heavy lifting. The cast, rather than resembling the pyramid of the '69 Grit (with Wayne sitting serene and unquestioned at the top), instead resembles an inverted pyramid: the leads are uniformly excellent, while the supporting players are generally forgettable. You'll need to bring Mumbles along to interpret some of Jeff Bridges' dialogue as Cogburn, but Matt Damon is amazingly good as LaBoeuf, while someone named Hailee Steinfeld acts rings around the occasionally whiny Kim Darby as Mattie. Steinfeld takes Mattie's calm, calculating personality closer to what I would call "spawn of Beelzebub" territory -- think of those horror movies with deathly deadpan evil children -- but a child forced to "grow up before her time" in the still-wild West of the late 1800s would probably have needed this kind of an emotional carapace around her in order to cope with the dirt, death, and disappointment she would encounter on a regular basis. The trio's relationship is spikier in the Coens' version, but not so much so that you actually want to see the gang break up before the job is done, while the ending, which is lifted straight from the novel, is anything but warm and fuzzy, yet nonetheless satisfying.
I have considerable affection for the 1969 Grit, but the Coens have proven that a redo doesn't have to smash all the existing crockery and put a perverse spin on what came before in order to seem fresh and interesting. And with that happy thought, I wish all my readers a Happy New Year.