Wednesday, August 17, 2011

True Grit (1969)

Directed by Henry Hathaway.
1969. Rated G, 128 minutes.
John Wayne
Kim Darby
Glen Campbell
Robert Duvall
Jeff Corey
Dennis Hopper
Strother Martin
John Fiedler

After her dad is murdered, Mattie Rose (Darby) decides she wants to do something about it. She finds the law’s approach insufficient. Despite having the identity of her father’s killer, the sheriff is not willing to go after the man because he’s believed to be hiding out in “Indian Country”. None too please, Mattie enlist the help of the town’s meanest U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) to help her track down the murderer Tom Chaney (Corey) and bring him to justice. He’s reluctant, to say the least, to work for a teenaged girl. Because Rooster is known around town as a man with grit, she never second guesses her own decision to hire him. However, she does have to contend with the fact that he’s quite often drunk.

The two engage in a tremendous battle of wills. They both desperately need to call the shots. Since Mattie has the money, she wins more often than not. She’s also a shrewd businesswoman who wields her bargaining chips many times more fiercly than Rooster does his gun. She is a force of nature seemingly unable to be deterred. Her drive, not only compels the people around her, but us the viewers as well. It’s a complex role written simply. What it boils down to is this: We like her, “they” do not. She rubs them the wrong way. Darby plays the role to perfection. She makes us understand why Mattie is disliked by many in her world while simultaneously making us like her in ours.

Opposite Darby, John Wayne turns in an Academy Award winning performance. Through him, and an excellent script, we see a man full of bravado spouting off the rhetoric of the overtly macho whenever challenged. We also see a man emotionally crippled by his past. This second trait reveals itself slowly over the course of the film. As the pieces of his life before Mattie drift into focus we understand him more and more. What we’re watching is the deconstruction of the John Wayne persona. In my opinion, it’s not quite as good as his work in The Searchers, but it isn’t far from it.

Through it all, we get a western that’s not built on shootouts. They are an element, not the point. It’s much more about outwitting the opposition than gunning them down. Our heroes are more cerebral than instinctive. However they’re not like Hamlet, over-analyzing everything to the point of exhaustion. They are a potent mix of thought and action, as is the entire film.

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