I should clarify that I'm a huge John Wayne western fan. I've seen just about every western he's made, even the pre Stagecoach B-movies where he cut his teeth as an actor and roustabout. In my opinion he never made a bad western. He's made some absolute classics (Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), a few fun but middling flicks (McLintock, War Wagon, The Alamo), and his last movie, The Shootist is perhaps the best cinematic farewell ever made. If you understand what was going on in Wayne's life at the time he made the movie you realize that he is merely reflecting his real world anguish through the main character, John Books, who is dying of cancer and can't bear the thought of a slow, painful and undignified end.
John Wayne had an extremely prolific career and was a consistent box office draw right up to the end, but he only won one Academy Award, and that was for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie True Grit. While this is certainly one of Wayne's best performances, the other lead cast members - Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby - are second-rate at best and drag the entire movie down. Campbell in particular gives a very stilted, wooden performance and I wince every time he comes into the frame. (An interesting historical 'might have been' is the fact that Elvis Presley was under serious consideration for Campbell's role but his manager blew the opportunity by insisting on top billing. Elvis was actually a pretty good actor and was desperate to grab more serious, non-musical roles to expand his film career. Sadly it was not to be.)
|The lead cast from the 1969 version of True Grit - John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell|
I put True Grit at second-tier status; a great story and a great performance by a leading actor but an otherwise middling piece of film making.
Then along comes 2010, and the Coen brothers remake of True Grit. The Coen brother's films are often so nuanced and so well crafted that I have to watch them several times before I fully appreciate them. I've watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou perhaps a dozen times and I'm still marveling at the quality of the work and I'm still pulling things out of it that I hadn't discovered before.
I made a huge mistake when I went to see the Coen's True Grit in the theater. I went with the intent of comparing it to the original. I spent far too much time just listening to the dialog and viewing the scene construction and saying to myself, "Harumph, this is just like they did it in the 1969 version. Nothing new here." I left the theater under the impression that I had seen a good, solid remake that was perhaps a bit better than the original, but nothing really special. But I was wrong. I should have gone into the theater from the perspective that the 1969 movie had never been made and judged the Coen's work on its own merit.
Since 2010 I've watched True Grit a number of times and now understand that the movie is not a reinterpretation of the earlier work, but instead is a reimagining of Charles Portis' original novel. From that perspective the 2010 version of True Grit stands as a classic western. It doesn't need the 1969 version to prop it up or to offer comparison, In fact, to consider the 2010 movie in light of the 1969 version is to do the Coen brothers movie a grave injustice.
|Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the 2010 version.|
A far better cast in a far better movie
I'm confident True Grit will go down as one of the best westerns of the early 21st century.