Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun
Pacifica, California, USA
June 18
Bob Calhoun is a regular contributor to Film Salon and observer of offbeat media. His 2008 punk-wrestling memoir "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (ECW Press) has spent one entire week on the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area bestseller list.

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 20, 2010 3:04AM

The Duke, the Dude and "True Grit"

Rate: 5 Flag
 The trailer for the Coen Brothers' new version of "True Grit" at times looks like an accidental shot for shot remake of the original.
 There isn't a clip in any of the trailers for the Coen Brothers' upcoming remake of "True Grit" that doesn't conjure its counterpart from the 1969 original. The plucky Mattie Ross still plummets into that snake pit, although Hailee Steinfeld (born in 1996) is a much younger Mattie in today's version than Kim Darby, who was a 22 year-old mother when the original was made. That iconic scene of the one-eyed reprobate Marshall Rooster Cogburn riding into a line of bandits with guns blazing is also structurally unchanged. The most noticeable difference between old and new takes is that Jeff Bridges' duded up 21st Century Cogburn opts for two pistols instead of Duke Wayne's odd pairing of a revolver in one hand and Winchester repeating rifle in the other.

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.
Coincidentally, the thumbnail for this trailer of the original "True Grit" is almost a mirror image of the freeze frame from the current trailer.
It's tempting to see Wayne's performance in "True Grit" as a comeback, but it's really more of a slight repositioning. The year before "Grit," the Duke got behind the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War by partially directing and starring in "The Green Berets," a film that still turned a profit despite being pounded by the critical equivalent of a deadly mortar barrage (Renata Adler of the "New York Times" called it vile, insane and dull). Paramount's trailer for the original "True Grit" contained raves (for the novel) from the Times and "Life Magazine" in an effort to let those lefty liberals know that this was a John Wayne movie that was okay for them to like.

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.

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We just re-watched the original last Summer. It was filmed close to where we live and we love seeing the scenery we recognize. I'm sure that the acting will be better. John Wayne was the true actor, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby left alot to be desired. R
Even as a big western fan, I never saw this movie until recently. As a woman, i was always put off by John Wayne's version of patriarchy, but with True Grit, you get an amazing woman's part. And I'll bet this is a big reason that the Coen Brothers have taken it on.

If I'd have seen this movie as a young girl, it would have been my favorite. In the end, its Mattie who has the real True Grit.

Great perspective on this film, Bob, historically, culturally, and technically. Rated!
I guess you haven't read any of the interviews the Coen Brothers have given over the last few weeks but if you do you will learn that they did NOT use the film as their inspiration. They used the book.

That's right: It was and is a book. And if there are any "coincidences" between the two films they are probably a result of both films using the book as source material.

Not rated (I can't rate someone for not doing due diligence).
Runaway, I actually mention Portis in the piece you've just commented on, but I think the Coens are stretching the truth a bit as far as not watching the Wayne version or creating a false impression that the original film is nothing like the book at all. The Coens are either knowingly or accidentally spreading an idea that the Hathaway's film is somehow lacking or disrespectful. It's more than a little off to me that many of their shots appear to be the same as Hathaway's.


At first I thouhgt the Coen brothers wouldn't be going for a by-the-letter remake of the original, but it certainly does look like Bridges is evoking John Wayne.
Nick, the Coens and Bridges say they aren't referencing the first film version. One explanation is that Hathaway actually stuck a little closer to Portis' novel than he's being given credit for. One difference between the literary Rooster Cogburn and the cinematic one is that Cogburn is a younger man than Wayne was when he played the role, but Bridges is only one year younger than the Duke was in 1969.

Thanks for the comment.
Excellent! I didn't realize until now that John Wayne had different facial expressions. Never too old to learn.
Excellent review! Thank you.