In a New York Times article on John Wayne’s True Grit (1969), Michael Celpy describes the film as a last bastion of the classical form, one in competition with bold new hits like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. Celpy speculates that the Coen brothers, ever the explorers of expired genre, might dig closer to the soul of the Charles Portis novel True Grit was based on. Without Wayne domineering the screen verbally and physically (the Duke was 6’4”), the complex character of Rooster Cogburn, and his hunt for the coward Tom Chaney, would be allowed to take centre-frame.
I read Celpy’s interesting rehash before seeing the Coen’s True Grit – a real work of art, if not always likeable – and then watched director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation. While many pieces of the dialogue (presumably lifted from Portis’ book) are exactly the same, the two films could not be more different animals. In general, Hathaway has gone for the sunny and saccharine: a familiar (overly so, in my opinion) Western at the end of the genre’s heyday. The Coens, unsurprisingly, have embraced the stark sensibility of the novel, using their trademark irony and coal-black humour to re-imagine True Grit.
Their revisionism discards some of John Ford’s iconography, including the panoramic backdrops of the glorious American Southwest. Hathaway loves his wide-angle lenses, hardly missing an opportunity to frame Wayne with a stunning mountain, cliff, or other postcard section of Colorado or California. Look at the title card:
And now look at a frame from the 2010 version:
Part of the difference is technological. Hathaway was shooting in vivid technicolor, while the Coens might have used filters to achieve a more washed-out look. The 2010 film also employs more close-ups and medium shots, largely ignoring the landscape. Hathaway is a resolute classicist, using medium shots and continuity editing. We are meant to see the landscape, the characters, and the action as we would if we were watching the action unfold in front of us, not through the highly controlled medium of film.
Instead of romanticizing the American frontier, the Coens turn up the grit meter. Their Dardanelle, Arkansas is dusty and dirty. It is, like in the novel, winter, not yellow-tinged spring/summer in Hathaway’s adaptation. Hathaway’s set designer Walter Tyler gave Dardanelle a clean, wholesome sheen. It is basked, like most of the film, in cloudless sunshine and its inhabitants dress colourfully, which brings me to…
Kim Darby as the plucky heroine in 1969:
And Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in 2010:
Steinfeld is clearly in her father’s clothing: the wide-brimmed hat, thick coat, and belt are too big for her. She is trying to step into his shoes, literally and figuratively. Darby has her own clothing: orange-brown sweaters, feminine jackets. More colour. Her androgynous bowl cut make her seem younger; Steinfeld’s stern (and long) pig tails suggest an intense drive for preparation and presentation.
Casting Kim Darby as an assertive young woman was possibly, for 1969, a feminist statement, but the Coens toughen their Mattie Ross even further. Steinfeld never mourns for her father. She is all business and no-nonsense Protestant work ethic. Darby is caught weeping and gazing at her father’s coffin, while Elmer Berntsein’s emotional chords make a go at your heartstrings.
Bernstein’s score sounds like a variation of his superior work on The Magnificent Seven (1960). The theme is bouncy, raucous, and goes down easy. In 2010, frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell looked to religious sources for inspiration, borrowing piano arrangements from Protestant hymns for a minimal score.
Jeff Bridges wears his patch on his right eye; Wayne wore it on the left. Maybe it’s a sly statement by the Coens that they are not reprising a John Wayne character. Bridges, in a scraggly beard and unkempt clothes is a baroque disaster. He does not strut and drawl like Wayne, but slouches and speaks out the side of his mouth. Both are colourful, self-conscious performances (even Bridges, the most natural actor out there, is mugging for the camera), and both, in their own way, are great characters. Wayne is especially engaging when he tells Darby about his divorced wife and estranged child, a moment when he sheds the grand gestures for more vulnerable confession.
In 1969 and 2010, the pompous Texas ranger enters with the clank of his enormous spurs, dressed in the best frontier fashion and sporting a cowlick. Matt Damon is a serious-faced fool in the Coens’ version, while country singer Glen Campbell is hokey – or maybe he just appears that way because of the buck-teeth and the forty years of irony-saturated culture that have passed since he played La Boeuf.
Like Rooster, the 2010 La Boeuf has facial hair – changing attitudes to beards, maybe? There is also less regard for assuring the audience that Mattie is safe from two grown men. In 2010 Mattie awakes to find Damon’s La Boeuf smoking a pipe, staring at her from across the bedroom. When he tells her he was considering kissing her in her sleep (as Cambpell did in a different context in 1969) it comes off a touch creepy. This could be the Coens playing dark tricks, or maybe a move to instill unease in the viewer, to align us with Mattie’s loneliness and vulnerability at the hands of patriarchy.
Tom Chaney, the father-murdering coward in question is a whiny Jeff Corey in 1969 and a whiny Josh Brolin in 2010. The latter radiates more danger, and equal amounts of odd stupidity (“Everyone is against me”). Hathaway cast a young Dennis Hopper as the unfortunate Moon, who tells Mattie and co. when Ned Pepper’s (Chaney’s boss) will arrive. He is stabbed by his partner Quincy, an eerie night scene cinematographer Roger Deakins lit in flickering candlelight in 2010. Of course, that same moment occurs at sunny midday in 1969.
Overall, the Coens deliver a grittier True Grit. While most of the plot is unchanged from Hathaway’s film, a few key differences do make all the difference. La Boeuf splits off from Rooster and Mattie in 2010, giving more screen time for the pair to banter, fight, and develop an unusual but endearing relationship. There are more moments when the protagonists are on the verge of giving up; Wayne and Campbell, meanwhile, are always certain they are hot on Chaney’s trail. In 1969, therefore, the plot moves along on a comparatively straightforward path. In 2010 the characters waver, bicker, abandon and save each other.
There is a lot more desperation in the Coens’ envisioning of the frontier. When Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake, Jeff Bridges charges over moonlit fields, first on a horse and then on foot, to get the child home before the venom kills her. In contrast, Wayne rides the horse out (but does not shoot Little Blackie in the head, as Bridges does) and steals a horse and wagon from some cowboys. His trek, in daylight and Bernstein’s uptempo music, feels like high adventure. The Coens have never been so optimistic.