Before the Coen Bros remake, True Grit was known as the film which won John Wayne an Oscar. I’m sure the public consensus back in ’69 was that the win was one of those soft victories recognized more for his body of work than being the best performance of the year. The movie survives surprisingly well with today’s eyes though. Despite having an old studio director (Henry Hathaway) in his 70's directing a film in a time when the Hollywood rules were being broken by its ambitious youth, it doesn’t feel at all old fashioned. And John Wayne fits in perfectly with the times, playing against his diametically opposite in Kim Darby.
True Grit (1969) dir. Henry Hathaway
Starring: John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin
By Alan Bacchus
Wayne plays the aged Rooster Cogburn, an alcoholic Marshall who’s hired by a young but determined girl looking to track down the killer of her father. It was John Wayne’s only Academy nomination, but was it the best performance of that year? No. Was it even the best performance of his career? Probably yes, as there’s some magic and charisma in Wayne which few other actors, ever in cinema, can lay claim to.
The heart and soul of the film and the reason the film is not only watchable but supremely entertaining is Kim Darby who plays the spunky Mattie Ross, a teenager who comes to town looking to hire Cogburn to track the killer of his father because she’s heard he has ‘grit’. Darby is so magnetic, lovable and inspiring she’s a minor miracle. Her diminutive stature, boyish haircut and Christian innoncence contrasts perfectly against Cogburn’s eye patch and haggard appearance.
Every frame of the film is full of life and energy. The intergenerational conflict between Ross and Cogburn never slows down and if that were to get predictable there’s the character of Leboeuf (Glen Campbell), the handsome opportunist looking to make some money off of the warrant issued on the killer. The common thread between three characters is their mutual appreciation for the values and rules of the Old West.
Henry Hathaway, was aged 71 when True Grit was made and compared to the late career output of other directors his age, such as Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, this film is best of these other directors' latter films. The on location work throughout the mountains and valley of Oregan is simply stunning. Little if any process studio work was used and so, Hathaway delivers a film which seems as visually vibrant and modern as say the youthful and stylish ‘Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid’ which also came out that year.
It’s no surprise this material teased the pallette of the Coen Bros. They’ve always been drawn to films with a journey and there’s plenty of warm and wonderful supporting characters the heroes meet along the way makes this a highly updatable and reworkable old film.