Possibly the biggest change from the 1969 to 2010 versions of "True Grit" appears to come in the form of facial hair. Bridges sports a face full of whiskers where Wayne refused to add the handlebar mustache that author Charles Portis had envisioned for his character in the original novel.
"Just picture yourself as an actor," Wayne explained, "You've got a big hat on. That cuts down part of your expression. Now they put a patch over your left eye. That cuts out more. Now they put a walrus mustache on you. How in the name of God are you going to react so that the audience knows how you're feeling? It was just too much to have all that on?" (Davis, Ronald L., "Duke: the life and image of John Wayne" [University of Oklahoma Press, 1998], p. 288.) While audiences valuing Bridges' mug can already see two different versions of it in this month's "Tron: Legacy," Wayne didn't want some writer's vision covering the merchandise that he felt audiences were paying for.
Watching the original "True Grit" again, it's easy to see why Joel and Ethan Coen were drawn to it. The dialog, mostly taken from the book, is so rich that I practically filled an entire notebook with it before leaving myself at the tender mercies of IMDB. Mattie, the hardheaded girl who hires Cogburn to track the man who murdered her father, refers to Episcopalians as "kneelers." Cogburn tells Mattie that she's "no bigger than a corn nubbin." Cogburn is described as a "notorious thumper" who "likes to pull a cork" by quirky townspeople. As Mattie insists on accompanying Cogburn and the Texas Ranger La Boeuf (country star Glen Campbell) on their manhunt, both men threaten to paddle her rump to dissuade her. However, when La Boeuf finally goes at her behind with a switch, Cogburn says, "Put it down, you're enjoying it too much."
Joining Wayne and Darby are Robert Duvall as the desperado "Lucky" Ned Pepper and Dennis Hopper in a bit part the same year that "Easy Rider" transformed moviemaking itself. It was also a big year for Strother Martin, who went for a classic Western trifecta in 1969 with his character roles in "True Grit," "The Wild Bunch" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Darby, Jeff Corey, Alfred Ryder and John Fielder are all probably best known for their appearances in various episodes of the original "Star Trek," another Paramount production. Having not yet seen the new version, I can only wonder if the Coens will resist lampooning these characters with the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" treatment instead of just letting their eccentricities speak for themselves the way that veteran director Henry Hathaway ("13 Rue Madeleine," "Kiss of Death") does in the first version.
Wayne himself played along with his new marketing direction by telling a young Roger Ebert that "True Grit" was his "first decent role in 20 years." Those two decades before the Duke donned that eye patch include his performances in "The Quiet Man" (1952), "The Searchers" (1956), "Rio Bravo" (1959), and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (1962)—a set of career highs that few actors of Wayne's barely more than one-dimensional range could ever hope to achieve.
As Rooster Cogburn, Wayne embraced being a fat old man, but this was hardly an about-face for him. Romancing a young Angie Dickenson in Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" was the exception and not the rule for Wayne, who had been playing the part of the grizzled patriarch since Hawks first directed him in "Red River" in 1948. Projecting himself as a national father figure with few romantic entanglements gave him unmatched career longevity, a pattern that is now being repeated by Sylvester Stallone as the overly chaste hero of "The Expendables" and the Rocky and Rambo revivals.
But whatever Wayne and Paramount did to redirect critics and audiences from any bad feelings left in the wake of "The Green Berets," it worked. "True Grit" was a box office and critical success and also netted Wayne his only Oscar. That year's best picture winner was the X-rated, gay themed "Midnight Cowboy," which TCM host Robert Osborne calls "a different kind of cowboy" in the last installment of the documentary series "Moguls & Movie Stars: a History of Hollywood." Wayne still had enough strength to strike a blow for his brand of patriarchy, but he couldn't reverse the changes to the old studio system, which had mostly ceased to exist.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Unlike Disney with the original "Tron", Paramount has just released a new Blu Ray disc of the first "True Grit" to coincide with the remake. Unfortunately, I didn't send my request for the Blu disc in time, so I based this essay on the 2000 widescreen DVD of the film, which I rented from Sheila at Nickelodeon Entertainment in Pacifica, Calif. (not to be confused with the cable network). When I first started the straight-to-DVD column in Film Salon, Sheila helped out a lot by giving me her extra DVD ordering catalogs. I wouldn't have known about "Flavor Flav's Nite Tales" without her.