Finally saw the Coen Brothers' remake of TRUE GRIT last Saturday night and figured I'd use this space to throw in my two cents' worth, as so many others have already done, on how it compares to the 1969 version starring John Wayne.
First, full disclosure on a couple of points: 1.) I've never read the Charles Portis novel upon which both films were based, so none of the following will be influenced by how faithfully either film stuck to the book; 2.) I am a huge John Wayne fan so, although I'll try to be as objective as possible, some amount of bias may possibly leak through.
Having expressed my feelings about the Duke, let me further say that TRUE GRIT was never in the top tier of my favorite Wayne movies. I liked it well enough, but my recollection has always been that it was way too hammy in the "drunk scenes" and the inclusion of Glenn Campbell in a key role really dragged down the entire picture. This wasn't the first time Wayne included—for the sake of helping to attract younger audience members—a popular singing artist of moment in one of his films. Ricky Nelson in RIO BRAVO (and Dean Martin, too, although he's out of a different mold) and Fabian in NORTH TO ALASKA worked surprisingly well; Frankie Avalon in THE ALAMO was even worse than Campbell but his screen time was thankfully very limited. These shortcomings (and a few others) aside, however, I nevertheless found the original TG enjoyable and recognized Wayne's display of acting chops, especially in the quiet camp scene where he tells Mattie about his past life, ex wife and son, etc. I felt his Oscar was deserved … although, as often happens in that particular race, it likely was earned as much for his body of work as for one particular film.
Now. The remake. The new TRUE GRIT is a very good film. Top-notch production values and direction (as you would expect from the Coens), strong acting across the board. Hailee Steinfeld is superb as Mattie Ross, and as of this date she has just received an Oscar nomination in the category of best supporting actress. Jeff Bridges puts his own distinct brand on the role of Rooster Cogburn and he, too, has just received an Oscar nomination in the best actor category. I would agree both are probably deserving, although I would be inclined more strongly toward Miss Steinfeld. The rest of the cast also turned in good performances, particularly Matt Damon putting a serio-comic spin on his interpretation of Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. I would note, however, that Josh Brolin, who has proven to be a very capable actor in many previous roles, seems ill-suited and used to little advantage here in the role of Tom Chaney.
As a whole, this new TRUE GRIT may be a more powerful, better-constructed film. It is certainly darker, grimmer, grittier, and thereby perhaps a more realistic representation of the period.
I think it's fair to remember, though, that the original version was made over forty years ago, at a time when Westerns were still being done in a gentler, more romantic and idealized way.
Still, upon re-viewing the original TRUE GRIT, which I purposely did before going to see the new one, I found it also to be realistic and somewhat grim in many of its scenes. And I gained a better appreciation for Wayne's portrayal of Rooster (perhaps now seeing it through the prism of time as someone who has himself grown older, crankier, and thicker through the middle as opposed to the relatively young sprout I was back in '69). It struck me, too, that despite recent comments dubbing that version as being tilted primarily toward the Wayne/Rooster role it really wasn't—not that much more so than the current version. There are entire long scenes early in the movie centered on Mattie and her various dealings, with Wayne being absolutely no part of it (other than as a discussion point in some instances). As for Kim Darby's portrayal of Mattie in the original, while it is not as powerful as Miss Steinfeld's, I think it is underappreciated, probably in large part due to sharing scenes with the afore-mentioned Mr. Campbell. (No matter that Wayne also shared scenes with Campbell—whoever he was on-screen with, he simply blew them away; as Montgomery Clift famously said after seeing screenings of RED RIVER: "When Wayne comes on camera, I just disappear.") The rest of the cast was made up largely of old-pro character actors (Robert Duval, Strother Martin, John Doucette, etc.) all of who provided yeoman-like performances and gave the whole thing a nice, comfortable feel.
The original > 1.) Has a better opening sequence, giving us a more complete feel for Mattie, her family, and the low character of Tom Chaney; 2.) The lead-up to Rooster Cogburn is better, giving us a brief glimpse of him in action and allowing us to learn a number of things about him before Mattie actually confronts him for the first time; 3.) The "rat writ, writ for a rat" scene (absent from the new film and, from what I understand, also no part of the book) gives us a very telling - and important, I think - glimpse into Cogburn's character and what makes him tick; 4.) The scene where Mattie skips the ferry and rides her horse across the river is better done and includes the classic line from Rooster – "By God, she reminds me of me" – which gives us another peek into his character and also is the first clear sign of his growing admiration for the girl; 5.) The big one-against-four shootout in the meadow is more rousing, partly due to Elmer Bernstein's wonderful music, partly due to seeing Duke twirl his famous Winchester, but largely because, well, it's John Wayne, man; 6.) Having LeBoeuf die at the outlaw's hideout (and here I don't know if this was in the book or not) is effective because it finally allows Rooster to show grudging respect for the man with the great line: "Damn Texican, saved my life twice … once after he was already dead."; 7.) Finally, I like the more upbeat ending with Duke saying: "Well, come see a fat old man some time" as the camera goes to freeze-frame with him jumping his horse over a three-rail fence in response to just being told he was too old and fat to be jumping fences.
The remake > 1.) The spot-on perfect performance by Hailee Steinfeld will last in filmgoers' memories for a long time; 2.) Jeff Bridges' portrayal of Rooster is gutsy for its distinction and for veering Cogburn away from drunken, quasi-charming buffoonery toward mean, grungy, dangerous nastiness; 3.) The LeBoeuf character, not only because of Damon's superior acting skills, is written and presented in a more layered and entertaining way; 4.) The cabin scene with Quincy and Moon is better written here due to the knife that is brought into play coming from a hidden place – I could never understand, in the original, the logic of Rooster handing a weapon to Quincy in such close quarters; 5.) The Rooster vs. four climax here, while not quite as rousing as in the original (for reasons noted above) was far better choreographed and edited, making it still very exciting in its own right.
Quibbles/Flaws > 1.) The word emphasis in certain phrases from the original have always bugged the hell out of me. There were a number of different places where this occurred, but the most prominent one was Mattie cheering LeBoeuf after he shot Lucky Ned, proclaiming: "Some bully shot!" —like bully and shot were all one word, bullyshot. It should have been: "Some bully shot!" That may seem a stupid quibble to some (or most) but, like I said, it's been bugging the piss out of me for forty-plus years so I wanted to get it off my chest; 2.) After Mattie is snake-bitten, the whole reason Rooster rides out with her on Little Blackie is because that's the only horse he could catch. This is clearly stated in the original. In the remake, however, they ride right past Pepper's horse, still standing in the meadow … Why didn't Rooster take that second horse along so they could switch to a fresher mount after Little Blackie started to play out? Serious oversight in a key scene, to my way of thinking.
Bottom Line: Both versions are very good films, capable of standing proudly on their own merits.
One hopes that the popularity of the new version is due to the viewing public's hunger for more good Westerns like Hollywood seldom makes any more. I have to wonder, though, if the new version would be as successful if not for the popularity of the original and, moreover, the enduring popularity of John Wayne. Thirty-odd years after his death, Wayne rates among the top favorite male movie stars in poll after poll. Yet there are many who still despise him and his image. I think part of those who went to see the new TRUE GRIT were life-long Wayne fans (like me) hoping this remake would do justice to our icon; while others were Wayne haters who went hoping the new one would give them cause to put down Duke's version and then (as some have hastened to do) praise the superiority of this one. That, by turns, saddens me and pisses me off.
But I nevertheless give props to the new TG. Like I already said, it is a very good film.
Tell you what, though: After another forty years, when movie viewers think of TRUE GRIT, I'll bet the one they think of first will be the Wayne version.
Persevere, pilgrim — WD