A rollicking and entertaining movie, True Grit is one of those westerns that can be safely recommended to people who don’t like westerns. It’s also one of those westerns people who dig westerns enjoy to an almost embarrassing degree, thanks to one of John Wayne’s best performances and director Henry Hathaway’s supernatural ability to sum up everything that’s great about the Duke.
Indeed, Wayne won the only Academy Award of his career for his performance in True Grit. Based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, Hathaway’s 1969 picture features a screenplay by Marguerite Roberts and cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Wayne would reprise his role in a 1975 sequel entitled Rooster Cogburn.
The film opens as young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) seeks justice for the killing of her father (John Pickard) at the hands of Tom Chaney (Jon Corey). She rides into town and wants someone to seek Chaney out, which turns out to be trouble because he rode off into Indian territory. Mattie learns of the aging Rooster Cogburn (Wayne), a U.S. Marshal with “true grit.” She hires him.
A young Texas ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) has been tracking Chaney and wants in on the arrangement. The trio hits the frontier, with La Boeuf and Cogburn initially insisting that Mattie says home. But she’s a tenacious young lady and wants to see Chaney swing by his wretched neck, so she’s more than game to ride hard and take down the bad guys.
Darby is tremendous as Mattie, a character who should be the model for all young spitfires in movies. She’s smart and tough. She’s used to getting her way and isn’t without her flaws, but she’s also an unrelenting presence. That’s no easy task when Wayne is hulking around, but Darby steals her scenes and then some.
Wayne is the marquee figure and for good reason. He brings a compilation of his characters to True Grit and manages to fill Cogburn’s hands with gallons of undeclared history. He’s commanding when he needs to be, making every dot of crackling dialogue sound trustworthy and exhilarating. Wayne is a hero and a drunk, an aging has-been and an eye-patched legend with his whole life ahead of him.
If there has to be a weak link, it’s Campbell. While his La Boeuf has some amusing moments, he seems an almost unnecessary complication to draw in another young person. The relationship between Rooster and Mattie is compelling enough on its own and La Boeuf feels a little like a third wheel, especially considering how unimpressive Campbell is in the saddle.
True Grit embodies the darkness and light of the western by fusing the comic with the tragic. There is inherent heartbreak to Mattie’s story, but the passing of her father has urged her to action. She is impeccably prepared and she knows the score. She even knows how to cross the male-dominated world of the West. One suspects she could take Chaney down all on her own.
But naturally, there’s more to it. Chaney is working with a larger gang, with horse thieves and Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) rolling around causing trouble. Rooster knows these men, knows the way they move. He may be too “old and fat to be jumping horses,” but he understands how to steer the terrain and has ages of experience at his back.
Speaking of the terrain, Hathaway and Ballard do an extraordinary job showcasing the open range. Hathaway is fond of putting the telephoto lens high in the sky, allowing the audience to watch characters move from one side of the long shot to the other. A particularly scintillating shot takes place as La Boeuf rides around a cabin to stuff a blanket over the chimney.
True Grit is a tremendous western and a wonderful movie. Hathaway has delivered one of his finest pictures and Wayne delivers the performance of his career. Darby is capable of stealing scenes and does so with fresh-faced aplomb, while the cinematography is glorious beyond measure. This is an amusing, well-paced, stirring film, with sizzling dialogue to boot. It is, as Rooster might say, “the real article.”