I grew up in a John Wayne household.
For one thing, I share a birthday with The Duke, something I think pleased my dad enormously when I was growing up. He was the western fan in general, and a Wayne fan specifically. I still remember when he took me to see “Red River” in the theater at a revival screening, and the way he talked to me ahead of time to set up for who Wayne was and how much he meant to my dad as an icon. I think of that conversation when I talk to Toshi these days, knowing how heavy my dad’s words weighed on me.
Over the years, I’ve seen pretty much everything Wayne ever made, and my feelings about him are mixed. I think offscreen he was a reactionary jerk, one of those guys who put the idea of “Amurica” above what’s right and decent and humane, and I think the movies where he let his politics lead his creative impulses are nigh-unwatchable for me. I’m tempted to pick up “The Green Berets” this week just for the jaw-dropping holy crap factor of watching a film that takes an aggressive pro-Vietnam stance while shot entirely on American soil at the height of the actual conflict.
But what got me thinking about Wayne this weekend is the impending film version of “True Grit” that the Coen Brothers are preparing to make with Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn, the role that won Wayne his Oscar. Having read the novel by Charles Portis, I understand why they think a new film version is possible. What I was curious about, since it’s been at least twenty years since I’d seen it, is just how closely the film followed the book the first time around.
The answer is both “closely” and “not at all.”
“True Grit” tells the story of Mattie Ross, a young, tough frontier girl whose father is murdered. She goes after the murderer with the help of two lawmen. One is a Texas Ranger named La Beouf who is already on the murderer’s trail for what he did to a US Senator. The other is a drunken US Marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Some rough things happen, and these people who genuinely do not trust or like each other learn a respect that is based on the fact that they are all made of strong stuff, true grit. In the book, Mattie’s telling the story, and she’s an old woman, and she’s sort of all about the Bible, independent and strong. The voice of the book is remarkable, and it’s the reason there’s room to reinterpret the film, no matter how beloved (right or wrong) the film is. Mattie is still the spine of the John Wayne film, but the film is in love with Cogburn. Of course. It’s a classic case of how the sheer gravity of a movie star can pull material out of shape. He was given that Oscar for sentimental reasons, for the cumulative affection for his iconography, and looking at it as simply a film now, thrown on tonight on impulse, it’s sort of a cakewalk for Wayne. He certainly isn’t pretending to be anyone he hadn’t been a bazillion times by that point. His cadence, his grumbling sonofabitch act… in full effect here. And that’s why he won. It’s like a thesis on what made John Wayne John Wayne. If the new film by the Coens drags the focus back to Mattie and her voice, and the framing device of her as an old woman telling her story, with Rooster as one of the three major characters.
I can see how a John Wayne fan would love this movie dearly. I can appreciate the work by Jeff Corey, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and Kim Darby, the way they fill out the world around Wayne’s character. I think Glen Campbell is okay, but ultimately not right for the movie. He’s a giant amazing guitar god, no doubt about it, but as an actor? Sort of a drag. Henry Hathaway’s work is solid, but I don’t think any of the film’s big set pieces really transcend or work as iconic moments, and the book is pretty much one opportunity for that after another.
But I can’t get misty about the idea of new artists taking a shot at the source here, especially after revisiting it. And especially when we’re talking about Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon as Le Beouf, and Josh Brolin as (I’m guessing and I hope I’m right) “Lucky” Ned Pepper, in a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
I’m glad I rewatched it, but mark me down as optimistic that this is a case where a return to the material could yield something that actually bests the beloved original. It’s going to be exciting to see this one come together.
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