Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film True Grit is the definitive spaghetti western: A rowdy tale of three mismatched Western flavors that travel together in hopes of capturing Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), a man wanted for two counts of murder — one for a loving father, Frank Ross, who Chaney kills following a debacle at the poker-table (which Frank was not directly involved in), and the other for a Senator, who was killed on his porch. The trio includes Ross’s teenage daughter, Mattie (Kim Darby), a small-town tomboy who teams up with the infamous Marshall Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (John Wayne), and La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), a prideful Texas Ranger, who is working on behalf of the Senator’s family. But while their descent into Indian Territory does have its dark moments, True Grit is essentially a light-hearted affair; the script by Marguerite Roberts being full of playful dialogue between the three characters, all of which are played beautifully by their respective actors and actresses (the most famous of the performances being John Wayne’s, who won his first (and only) Oscar for his work).
However, many people seem to forget that True Grit was an adaptation of a Charles Portis novel — a crying shame as Portis is a decent author, who was actually born on El Dorado soil. That being said, it is almost unfair to compare Hathaway’s film to Joel and Ethan Coen’s version, which, 41 years later has just been released in theaters. But the comparisons are inevitable; fortunately both productions stand on their own, sharing their own individual problems and strong-points, thus leaving fans of the Western genre with not one, but two exceptional retellings of the Portis classic. Nevertheless, part of enjoying this latest installment of True Grit requires at least a casual viewing of the Hathaway original — less from a critical standpoint and more from an analytical one, as recognizing the differences between the two is key to understanding the director’s specific tone, although it should be made explicitly clear that the Coens reportedly “did not watch” Hathaway’s version (though celebrities are known to stretch the truth, but just hogtie that raging cynicism for a moment), so any accusations of artistic assassination should be maimed immediately, or else!
The contrast between the two is visible from the get-go; whereas Hathaway’s adaptation begins with a simple aerial shot with Don Black’s eponymous theme song playing in the background, presenting a very welcoming tone, the Coens decide to take a drastically darker approach — one that is more faithful to the Portis tale — with a scene-card that reads “The wicked flee when none pursueth,” a quote from the Proverbs that ends the novel’s first chapter. From there, instead of seeing Frank Ross (originally played by John Pickard) being killed by Chaney (now played by Josh Brolin — a wise casting decision), Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) explains the situation in a brief monologue, thus creating a storybook feel. The Coens then cut to a scene in which Ms. Ross sets foot in Fort Smith, where her father was murdered and where she meets Cogburn (the immensely talented Jeff Bridges). But Fort Smith is also full of important plot points — implicit and explicit — and coincidentally, the setting that is the most different from Hathaway’s vision, for better or worse. Minor changes include the exclusion of a scene in which Cogburn plays poker with Chen Lee, his “father,” while drinking reprimanded liquor and discussing Chaney’s capture (a small albeit entertaining sequence) and the removal of fan-favorite, General Sterling Price, who is . . . well, a “Ginger Cat,” as listed in the film’s credits (however, Bridges’ Cogburn has acquired a certain admiration for donkeys). All of these are miniscule revisions do not affect the film’s storyline or its thematic elements, although Sterling Price was one charismatic feline.
But the two major differences between the Fort Smiths involves the toning down of both a haunting execution and the overall likeable of the town’s one and only Col. Stonehill (now played by Dakin Matthews), a horse salesman, who falls victim to Mattie’s sharp tongue. Despite both being satirical in nature, Hathaway’s envisioning of a public hanging does not boast — it is an example of “quiet humor,” often surprising audience members that it, in fact, was meant as comedy, whereas the Coens, who penned their own script, decide to make a mockery of one of the story’s most powerful scenes. Instead of having a crowd of chanting townsfolk, who frequent the venue because of their own attraction to murder, the Coens have the convicts either plead or scoff at their sins — a slightly funny, but simple-minded attempt at comedy. Also removed is Church Parker, a character only mentioned, who watches all of the hangings from afar to ease his “sense of duty.” Parker, though never appearing on-screen, single-handedly symbolized the jadedness and disregard of human-life — a production of post-Midwest expansionism. An old woman, who utters one line to Mattie, is also changed from laughing as the show concludes, to being completely flabbergasted, further ruining the effect Hathaway had. The second complaint involves Col. Stonehill’s respective actors — Dakin Matthews and Strother Martin. Once again, Hathaway surpasses the Coens; however, this is not completely the fault of the directors. Whereas Martin was an incredibly talented actor (who died at a rather young age), dominating the screen as the interesting Stonehill, Matthews is boring and one-note, making a rather enthralling exchange with Mattie bland.
But where the productions do meet is cinematography. For True Grit, the Coens have hired Roger Deakins, a professional who has gained acclaim for films such as Revolutionary Road, Doubt, and even their own No Country for Old Men. Hathaway hired Lucien Ballard, an equally talented yet less diverse cinematographer known for The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, and The Killing, a respectable portfolio. Both films have excellent and idiosyncratic imagery. Hathaway presents the Wild West in a state of peace — luscious mountain-tops and sparkling rivers parade the land — an intentional juxtaposition with the violence, while the Coens use the cold snow, and the dirty, gritty (living up to the film’s title) landscape that is full of leafless trees and rotting corpses, to present a darker, more Edgar Allen Poe-esque view of the West — one of the most tumultuous places in America to live in following the Civil War.
Further adding to the split in tones is Elmer Bernstein’s score in Hathaway’s True Grit, an upbeat matchbox orchestra that adds a sort of nonchalance to every beat, a trademark of the Spaghetti Western. Ethan and Joel do the opposite, hiring Carter Burwell, who composes piano-driven melodies that evoke sadness, fear, and needless to say, the struggle that accompanies “true grit” — the Western curse, a complete antithesis for the Christian ideals and “justice” that these characters preach.
In both films, Mattie is a faithful worshipper of the Lord — quoting the Bible and putting it into context for most-every situation. However, she lies, cheats, and is completely blind to her grit, blood-thirst and ache for vengeance. “I’ll be happy when Chaney is barking in hell,” Kim Darby’s classic Mattie preaches, explicitly showing her hatred for the man who killed her father. Hypocritically, Steinfeld’s Mattie proclaims that she’ll “shoot him with [her] father’s gun. . . . if the law allows it.” But both Darby and Steinfeld are excellent in the role, the latter being somewhat more likeable due to the Coen’s script, which is brimming with marginally snappier dialogue (admittedly, Marguerite Roberts, who penned the original, included some amateurish interplay between the characters that is not present in this darkened version). Steinfeld, with her break-out role in True Grit, has a good chance of becoming a major success — look out for her.
Next up, there is Matt Damon as La Boeuf. Damon, a talent that has been around for what seems like ages, is phenomenal. Channeling Campbell’s performance, Damon engrosses himself in the character — embodying the womanizing, “spankaholic,” with perfection. This was no easy task as Glen Campbell is the second most talented actor in Hathaway’s installment, giving a tour de force performance that shot the film past just being a vehicle for John Wayne. However, the Coens cut back on the character’s scenes dramatically, and so La Boeuf only appears on-screen sporadically.
The same fate is shared with Josh Brolin, who appears for a maximum of twenty minutes. Though Brolin is much more enjoyable to watch than Jeff Corey, who barely looked hardened, there is a drawback. Brolin employs an idiotic accent — a primate-like series of grunts — that is easily forgivable since the actor’s physical performance and overall appearance is what really propels him past Corey (though it was not exactly a difficult feat).
Lastly, there is Bridges — a favorite of the Coens — who steps in for Wayne. Seeing that “The Duke” has already won an Oscar for the role, Bridges had his work cut out for him, but he does not disappoint. While maintaining the drunkard mentality, Bridges, with a roughness to his voice, matches Wayne — totally encompassing Cogburn, his demons, and his likability. Following a decent performance in TRON: Legacy, Bridges shakes off anyone who has the nerve to discredit his abilities — the man is a genius and one of the few actors that can really demolish a role. It would come as no surprise if he were to be nominated for yet another Oscar, although his chances of winning are still cloudy.
The Coen Brothers outdo themselves with True Grit, a Western that is sure to become a staple for any fan; reinvigorating love for the genre, while not trashing Hathaway’s original, instead standing beside it.