Don’t be deceived by the fact that John Wayne received an Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn. That award was probably more of a lifetime achievement award than recognition for a single performance, much like Paul Newman’s Oscar for The Color of Money. John Wayne had given better performances and made better films. Probably not coincidentally, John Ford was usually involved.
Rancher Frank Ross (John Pickard) sets off for Fort Smith to buy some horses, but it’s clear that his 14-year-old daughter Mattie (Kim Darby) is the member of the family with a head for business. When they reach Fort Smith, his ranch hand Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) gets drunk and thinks he’s been cheated at cards. Ross tries to stop him from doing anything stupid and earns himself a belly full of a buckshot for his trouble.
Mattie comes to Fort Smith with a ranch hand in tow to collect Frank’s body. Unbeknown to her family, she’s also there to make sure that Tom Chaney sees justice for what he’s done. She’s outraged that this drifter would gun down a man who had shown him charity and given him a job. The local sheriff is not optimistic, since Chaney has fled into the Indian territory with Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and is outside his jurisdiction. Mattie asks about hiring a U.S. Marshal. Against the recommendations of almost everyone, she settles on Rooster Cogburn (Wayne), whose reputation for “grit” is equal to his reputation as a drunk.
Fill your hand you son of a bitch!
Cogburn is not impressed with the teenager’s offer, at least not until she manages to come up with the money she promised. There is, however, another interested party: a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf (Glen Campbell), who wants Chaney for killing a state Senator. Mattie insists that Chaney be hanged in Fort Smith, but LeBeouf dismisses her and offers to split his reward money with Cogburn. The two men leave without her, but Mattie isn’t easily deterred.
Never mind what the production date. If I hadn’t known that the Charles Portis novel wasn’t published until 1968, I would have pegged True Grit as a film circa 1955. At a time when even John Ford was making westerns with more contemporary themes and sensibilities, this movie is unabashedly retro, from the staging to the cinematography and even the background music, which sounds for all the world like a cobbled-together collection of theme songs from TV westerns a decade earlier.
The novel’s Oklahoma and Arkansas settings look suspiciously like Colorado, where the movie was filmed. I guess director Henry Hathaway believed that colorful, photogenic locations were more important than fidelity to the source material, but at least the film is pretty to look at.
Sadly, the foreground is not so well served. Kim Darby probably wasn’t “the worst goddamned actress [John Wayne had] ever worked with,” as the actor claimed at the time, but she wasn’t really up to the demands of the role either. She’s not well served by the filmmakers’ decision to turn Mattie into some kind of contemporary tomboy, making her seem more like Beaver Cleaver in drag than an authentic 19th Century teenage girl.
She fares a damn sight better than Glen Campbell, however, who is completely lost at sea as an actor. The film actually expands LeBeouf’s role in the story beyond that of the novel, an incomprehensible decision when dealing with a non-actor like Campbell in the role. The singer must have offered to sing the completely forgettable theme song for free. That’s the best explanation I can think of for this addition to his mercifully brief filmography.
John Wayne, it probably doesn’t need to be said, is John Wayne. He never had to do much more than play himself on screen, but after decades in that role, his is completely at ease in his own skin. Another actor might (and ultimately would) bring more shading, more texture to the role, but John Wayne would still be… John Wayne.
By 1969, of course, the Duke was a bit of a dinosaur amongst the scurrying mammals of the method acting school. Two members of that school, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, are on hand as bad guy Ned Pepper and a member of his gang, respectively. By all accounts, old school movie star Wayne got along with the two new school actors about as well as Rooster Cogburn got along with their characters. Don’t read too much into this, other than being symbolic of the growing pains of an art form about to experience a second decade of rapid maturation. In that light, True Grit feels like Hollywood stubbornly clinging to a piece of its adolescence.