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Monday, January 17, 2011

True Grit (1969)

Directed by Henry Hathaway
Staring John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell


Music by Elmer Bernstein Lyrics by Don Black
Sung by Glen Campbell

One day, little girl, the sadness will leave your face
As soon as you've won the fight to get justice done
Someday little girl you'll wonder what life's about
But other's have known few battles are won alone
So, you'll look around to find
Someone who's kind, someone who is fearless like you
The pain of it will ease a bit, when you find a man with true grit

One day you will rise and you won't believe your eyes
You'll wake up and see, a world that is fine and free
Though summer seems far away
You will find the sun one day

Even as a kid I was no fan of John Wayne. I’ve made one great exception in my dislike of the Duke and that is for his role in True Grit.  I first saw this movie on the big screen, and when I say “big screen” I mean a very big screen—a drive-in movie. As a kid growing up in the heart of the country I had never seen mountains and the film bursts with them. You can bet that over the course of my adult life I have taken the trouble to see some mountains up close. Seeing True Grit again recently made me homesick for the great ranges I left behind in the great state of Washington. The movie could have easily been made at a number of the places where I would regularly hike or mountain bike. I haven’t missed anything so much since I moved (except friends and family). Of course now there is a remake of the film done by the Coen brothers.  I can’t think of many films less in need of a fix or make-over.

I come here not to bury the Coen brothers’ film but to praise the original which opens with the title song and a spectacular shot of a ranch house in the mountains that hints at the coming majesty of the rest of the movie. Just like seeing the east side of the Cascades as you drive west towards Seattle, there are scenes in the movie that just take the air out of your lungs.  

The screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts who wrote dozens of films but this had to be one of her easier tasks at the studio as all of the heavy work had been done by the author of the novel.  Charles Portis had an uncanny ear for the language of the period and any detour from his dialogue in the book was simply an error on the part of the screenwriter. Folks just plain spoke different back then, something Portis was keen on having us hear. Take this little exchange:

“I don’t believe you have fifty dollars, baby sister, but if you are hungry I will give you supper and we will talk it over and make medicine. How does that suit you?

I said it suited me right down to the ground.

I just don’t think you could make up a line like “right down to the ground.” Portis was a newspaper reporter and it shows in his attention to details like this small one (but all details, big and small, are important, of course).  I suppose that I take more notice to Portis’ ventures in language because I am up to my own eyebrows learning Spanish and I subconsciously am translating everything I hear and read into castellano, as it is called here, mostly.  And evidently Portis was a bigger fan of the Duke than I because he wrote the character of Rooster Cogburn with him in mind. The author also had a fair ear for humor of which the novel and both movies abound.   

I found myself one pretty spring day in
Las Vegas, New Mexico, in need of a road stake and I robbed one of them
little high-interest banks there. Thought I was doing a good service. You
can't rob a thief, can you? I never robbed no citizens. I never taken a man's
watch."

"It is all stealing," said I.

"That was the position they taken in New Mexico,"

At least both sets of film makers have enough wisdom to recognize the wisdom in the book.

The original movie certainly isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But any criticism of it would be like criticizing the way people talked back in the 1880’s. Films are different today, mostly better in my opinion. There are some problems in the 1969 version with some of the side characters and bad acting. The musical score is sometimes bombastic and annoying. The first five minutes which recount the murder of Mattie’s father are tiresome and have been wisely excluded in the Coen brothers’ remake. More than anything I think the 1969 movie is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. This admiration for the beauty of the Colorado mountains where the movie was made may have a bit to do with the fact that it’s been over four years since I have set out into the Cascades or the Olympics or the beautiful mountains of British Columbia. I think the old movie has a better and more satisfying ending than the new one which follows the book more closely. The old movie is pure Hollywood, not always a pejorative, especially in this case.

“You’re too old and too fat to be jumping horses.”

“Well come and see a fat old man sometime.”

Trailer for the 1969 version:

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