True Grit (1969)

I’d been hanging on to this to post with a review of the Coen brothers’ remake, but as that’s not happening any time soon and I’ve had this waiting around for months (I watched it in February!), the fact it’s on TV a couple of times this week makes now seem a good a time as any.

2011 #16
Henry Hathaway | 123 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG

True GritHaving been remade to Oscar-nominating effect by American Cinematic Gods the Coen brothers, the first adaptation of Charles Portis’ Western novel True Grit was around plenty (on TV, Blu-ray, etc) back in… February, I guess. The story in all three versions (which might sound obvious, but is never guaranteed when it comes to adaptations) concerns a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (here, Kim Darby), whose father is murdered by his hired hand, so she sets out for murderous revenge, recruiting Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to help because she’s heard he has the titular attribute.

What this means in filmmaking terms is the potential for a couple of great lead performances: the strong-willed, old-headed little girl and the rascally old lawman. Indeed, the remake earnt Oscar and BAFTA nominations for both of these roles, while this earlier version saw Wayne win the Best Actor Oscar and Darby receive a BAFTA nomination. This was the only time Wayne won an Oscar, and you can’t help but feel it was probably a career award as much as anything. As fun as Rooster Cogburn is, he doesn’t feel like a particularly exceptional character or a particularly exceptional performance from Wayne.

Darby, on the other hand, gives a great performance. Mattie Ross is a great character — plain speaking, knows her own mind, ready & prepared for anything… and isn’t ever shown up either, instead besting everyone’s low expectations of her. Darby was 21 at the time but is completely convincing not only as aThis lot got grit 14-year-old but as a 14-year-old who’s wise beyond her years. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance in the remake has been much praised, but it has a lot to live up to from this.

The story is told pacily, which is nice, and despite being a Western has the feel of not being too much a Western, if that makes sense. I have no problem with Westerns, but for some reason some people do, and maybe something like True Grit would persuade them otherwise in the first instance. That said, I didn’t like the score much — it’s too often inappropriately genial for my taste — and the climax is a bit dappy — John Wayne defeating four men by riding at them with the reins in his mouth while firing two pistols? Seriously?

Still, those are minor points. True Grit is good fun, both exciting and funny in correct measures, with two entertaining lead performances. And I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the cast, including screen luminaries like Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, all of whom give their own even if they’re less notable alongside Wayne and Darby. The Coen brothers’ remake has a lot to live up to.

4 out of 5

True Grit is on More4 tomorrow at 1:05pm, on More4 +1 at 2:05pm (funny that), and again on More4 at 10am on Friday 11th November.

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