The Coen Brothers’ latest outing is a contemporary rendition of Chares Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit. Originally brought to the silver screen in ’69 by director Henry Hathaway (Niagara, Call Northside 777) and featuring John Wayne, singer Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby (the mother from Better Off Dead), the over 40 years between the two renditions shows a drastic change in filmmaking. Where Hathaway’s version features an almost lighthearted approach to the Western genre, Joel and Ethan Coen’s interpretation is grim, dark, and explores the darker aspects of humanity. There’s also a vast difference between performances. Although Wayne is a competent Rooster Cogburn, his Oscar winning performance lacks the tough demeanor the character demands – a trait Jeff Bridges brings to the role. The 2010 version of True Grit contains exactly what the title exclaims: grit. It’s a meticulously fashioned film, presenting an honest account of vengeance whereas the John Wayne version embodies the mythological interpretation of the Old West common in western films of the era.
I’ve never read Portis’ book (which I will at some point) so a comparison between the novel and the two film versions of True Grit isn’t possible. However, an exploration of the film’s themes is possible, especially the primary theme: revenge. The new version begins with a Biblical quote from Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth,” setting the tone for the film. Aside from the obvious theme – this appears on the poster: retribution – this quote is a little ambiguous. However, by the end of the film its intention is clear: it’s not that the wicked aren’t fleeing when nobody pursues but without others pursuing the act of fleeing doesn’t contain any importance. It’s like the old proverb about a tree falling in the woods with nobody around; the wicked aren’t escaping when nobody’s following – they’re just moving on. The original True Grit’s devoid of this scriptural implication.
There are subtle differences between the chain of events in both films although, as mentioned before, there are great thematic differences between the two. Joel and Ethan Coen’s version doesn’t portray Frank Ross’ death at the hands of Tom Cheney – which the Hathaway one does – but the events following the plot’s catalyst are almost the same. Both versions feature a public hanging early in the film’s first act, but there are slight differences between the events. Hathaway’s version shows the men hanging without any last words; the Coens’ version does. However, both movies feature the underlying intention of the incident: the aversion and attraction to death. When the executioner pulls the lever, killing the three men, the spectators feign horror – a disingenuous sentiment. Believing those in attendance are actually horrified by witnessing murder is false, since they’re there in the first place. Like the late Bill Hicks states, “you gotta peek.” This scene displays the duality of human nature – we despise violence yet are drawn to it; we abhor vengeance, acting Christ-like about it and say we “turn the other cheek,” but applaud the death penalty. This thread runs through the whole film, with the protagonists cited as good guys who actually take part in rather violent and cruel activities.
This almost hypocritical duality permeates both versions of the story although Hathaway’s rendition portrays Cogburn and La Boeuf as less vile humans; the Coens’ version explores the twin natures of the characters. The 2010 version is more realistic than Hathaway’s, with the main character exuding negative personality traits and embracing dangerous emotions. Cogburn seems to enjoy murder, especially sanctioned murder; Mattie Ross is eager for vengeance and violent retaliation – either at her or Cogburn’s hands or the courts; La Boeuf approaches murder as a tool, backed by ideology. There’s also the sexism ingrained in the men, especially La Boeuf who spanks Mattie and also exclaims during a heated exchange with her: “A little earlier I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss from you, although you are very young… and you’re unattractive to boot; but now I’m of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” La Boeuf regards woman, especially adolescent women, as property; their function primarily sexual. If they misbehave give them a good “lickin’.” Even though Cogburn treats Maggie differently, calling her “little sister,” throughout the film, all the men in the film contain this imbedded chauvinist sentiment. The film takes place in the 1870s – not a time known for equality.
Another issue stems from the not-so-subtle sexism in True Grit, that of racism and prejudice. The new True Grit displays much more overt bigotry but its intention isn’t a positive. On the contrary, the physical and psychological racism Cogburn and his contemporaries exert is a critique; a critique of an attitude embodied by countless Americans against African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians. Hathaway’s’ True Grit isn’t as outwardly racist (Cogburn even rooms with a Chinese shopkeeper, showing genuine affection for him), yet the film embodies a subtle form of prejudice where an entire persona latently embraces a contempt for non-whites. It’s a form of prejudice responsible for ignoble acts like Manifest Destiny, slavery, the subjugation of Asian immigrants, forcing them into slave labor on America’s railroads. The primary difference between two versions of True Grit is this sentiment: 2010’s version condemns the attitudes of America’s past; the 1969 version subtlety champions them.
At the heart of both films is the before mentioned vengeance theme, a theme treated more justly in Joel and Ethan Coen’s version. This new version really demonstrates the negatives associated with revenge; how it can consume somebody and how nothing positive can come from it. By the end of 2010’s True Grit its obvious vengeance’s legacy is hollow, leaving nothing positive behind and damaging everything it touches. It takes lives; it destroys potential, and is only temporary. Hathaway’s rendition, although critical of vengeance, doesn’t show the ill effects stemming from such desires. Following the story’s climax a scene featuring Cogburn and Mattie shows repentance for past actions (this appears in both versions), yet the end result of this altruistic act by Cogburn demonstrates no repercussions in Hathaway’s adaptation. Although Hathaway’s version affirms that actions have consequences, it only says this for those deemed “bad” by society. The Coen brothers’ version shows how negativity can affect people, regardless of where their loyalties lie.
Aesthetically there’s a big difference between both versions. This is expected considering the 40 year gap between both renditions. Personally I enjoy the new version better; it’s realistic whereas Hathaway’s contains an atmosphere similar to Little House on the Prairie or The Big Valley – romanticizing America’s westward expansion instead of criticizing its dangerous effects on countless humans. Also, Joel and Ethan Coen’s version also contains a more realized filmmaking technique than Hathaway’s: night scenes seem shot at night instead of shot during the day and tinting the negative, violence is more realistic, Carter Burwell’s score is much more inspired than the folksy music accompanying the ‘60s version. Also, the acting is far superior in 2010’s True Grit. Although John Wayne’s portrayal of Rooster Cogburn is inspired, earning him an Academy Award, it doesn’t contain the honesty Bridges brings. Wayne’s a limited actor, playing the same part over and over again; Bridges’ range isn’t as narrow, allowing him to explore the complexity of the character.
The latest adaptation of True Grit is another prime example of why Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most acclaimed filmmakers in America today. Their films are honest, extremely entertaining, and brilliantly crafted. Henry Hathaway’s original edition of True Grit is enjoyable yet it just doesn’t say much; it’s more a glorification of men in the Old West than an exploration of humanity. Of course it contains most of the same tropes present in the new True Grit but without the critical eye for what makes us human, relying instead on macho men and their adventurous exploits.
Here’s the trailer for True Grit (1969)
Here’s the trailer for True Grit (2010)