Fire

The Duke Redux—True Grit, Coen Style

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On the same day, December 22, that the Coen Brothers’ production of True Grit opened in theaters, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) featured the 1969 version starring John Wayne. Watching them back to back provided a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast the two films, the older one considered a classic and the newer one sure to become one. Wayne won his first and only Academy Award for his portrayal of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and Jeff Bridges may follow up his 2009 Oscar win for Crazy Heart with a nomination for his work in the Coen film.

The films are based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, a feisty 14 year-old intent on avenging the death of her father by capturing his killer, Tom Chaney. Seeking a gunman with “true grit,” she engages a reluctant Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal with a reputation for getting his man and drinking too much. While both films follow the book’s storyline (the Coen version is the more faithful one), the similarities end there.

Everything about this newer film is dark and foreboding, from the costumes to the settings. The violence is more graphic and the ending more tragic.

In contrast, Director Henry Hathaway’s film often seems like a travelogue for seeing the West on horseback, with breathtaking shots of mountains, bubbling streams, tall pine trees, and log cabins that might have been decorated by Martha Stewart. At regular intervals, the camera pulls back and pauses to allow viewers to take in the postcard perfect scenery. Even the food looks appetizing—Wayne dishes out a tasty stew in one scene—a stark contrast to the gruel-like substance consumed on one occasion by Bridges.

Each film sets the mood right from the get-go, with Carter Burwell’s haunting instrumentals, in the 2010 version, hinting at the emotional times to come. Hathaway’s opening promises sunnier times with bright red credits filling the screen while Glen Campbell croons the upbeat lyrics of the film’s theme song—“One day little girl the sadness will leave your face…” The song, with music by Elmer Bernstein and lyrics by Don Black, might have won an Oscar, but faced stiff competition that year, up against “Come Saturday Morning” (The Sterile Cuckoo), “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” (The Happy Ending), “Jean” (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and, the winner, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). That raises the question of whatever happened to movies producing great songs? A topic for another time.

The actors in the Coen film actually show the wear, tear, and dirt of traveling across rugged terrain with no fresh clothes, shaving equipment, and bathroom facilities. Matt Damon, who plays Texas Ranger La Boeuf, holds up better sartorially speaking, but he pales in comparison to his 1969 counterpart, Campbell, who, with never a hair out of place, looks like a fresh-faced schoolteacher rather than a Texas Ranger. Although Wayne is his usual gruff self, his jacket never shows a speck of dirt and he always appears freshly shaved.

Both Roosters—Wayne and Bridges—drink with abandon, but only Bridges chain- smokes. There’s a good reason for that lapse. In 1964, Wayne had his cancerous left lung removed. A lifelong smoker, he apparently gave up cigarettes, although he used chewing tobacco and smoked cigars up until his death in 1979 from stomach cancer.

While both films cast major stars in the leading roles, success rides on the shoulders of the youngest cast member—Kim Darby, in the 1969 version, and Hailee Steinfeld in the Coen production. Darby was already a TV and film veteran when she made True Grit at age 21, and she does a good enough job in the film. Steinfeld, however, hits this one out of the park. Like her character, Mattie, Hailee was 14 years-old when making the film, yet her young age and newcomer status only seem to work in her favor. Reportedly beating out 15,000 other actresses for the role, Hailee holds her own against Bridges and Damon. She is the one to watch.

So, all things considered, which film wins as best version? In the end, it can only be a draw. The Coens may have captured the grittiness of the Old West better, but the Duke will always be the Duke.

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