Such is the cultural heft of the 1969 Western movie True Grit, for which John Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar playing the irascible, overweight and eye-patched US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, that until a few years ago I didn’t even know it was based on a novel written by Charles Portis and published in 1968. It was only when the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, were about to release their own version of True Grit in 2011, with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, that I read a preview of the film and saw Portis’s novel mentioned for the first time.
I recently read the novel and I thought I’d devote a blog-entry to comparing it with its two film adaptations. Needless-to-say, if you haven’t yet read the novel or seen the Coen brothers’ film, or if you’re one of the four people on the planet who haven’t seen the John Wayne film and don’t know its dialogue off by heart (“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”), I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead.
To cut to the chase: True Grit-the-novel begins brilliantly. “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Worth, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”
The narrator of True Grit is Maddie Ross, who is looking back on her youthful adventures from the vantage point of middle age. She goes on to describe those adventures in the same, mannered – she writes her words in their entirety, for example, and doesn’t use contractions like ‘I’ll’ or ‘didn’t’ – but wonderfully direct prose. Portis’s use of a simple Southern female to tell his story has led some to compare True Grit with Huckleberry Finn. However, as has been pointed out by Donna Tartt, who wrote the introduction for the edition of True Grit that I read, there’s a big difference between Maddie and the narrator of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel. “Where Huck is barefoot and ‘uncivilised’, living happily in his hogshead barrel,” notes Tartt, “Maddie is a pure product of civilisation as a Sunday school teacher in nineteenth-century Arkansas might define it: she is a strait-laced Presbyterian, prim as a poker… tidy, industrious, frugal, with a head for figures and a shrewd business sense.” Indeed, it isn’t difficult to see Maddie Ross’s influence on one of the most memorable of Donna Tartt’s own characters, the juvenile would-be detective Harriet Cleve in her 2002 novel The Little Friend.
Thanks to Maddie’s combination of precociousness and strait-lacedness, sparks soon fly as she allies herself with two men in the quest to hunt Tom Chaney down. Firstly, she hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to do the job, using money she’s acquired from some skilful haggling in Fort Worth following her father’s murder: she manages to sell four Texas mustang ponies, which her father had just bought from a trader called Colonel Stonehill, back to Stonehill. (Later, she buys one of the ponies, called Little Blackie, back again from the understandably bamboozled Stonehill.) Cogburn has many bad habits, including a weakness for the bottle, which Maddie doesn’t approve of. When he offers her a spoonful of the hard stuff to drink, she snaps, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”
Then at the lodging house she’s staying at in Fort Worth, Maddie encounters a young and conceited Texan Ranger called LaBoeuf, who’s hunting Chaney for a murder he’d committed previously in Waco, Texas. Maddie is wise to LaBoeuf’s conceit immediately and is unhappy about the idea of him taking Chaney back to stand trial in Texas – she’s determined to have him hang in Fort Worth, the scene of her father’s murder – and tells him so, much to his displeasure. LaBoeuf growls, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” To which Maddie retorts brilliantly, “One would be as unpleasant as the other.” (It seems icky that thirty-year-old LaBoeuf would consider ‘stealing a kiss’ from fourteen-year-old Maddie. Mind you, by nineteenth-century standards, I suppose this wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows.)
In the 1969 film, Maddie is less central to the plot and she’s also played by Kim Darby, who was in her early twenties at the time. These things remove much of the humour from the situation – no longer are two rough, tough grown men being bossed around by a pushy and prudish girl in her early teens. Because of Darby’s maturity, Maddie seems much more compatible with LaBoeuf (who’s played by country singer Glen Campbell) and as the film progresses there’s a whiff of romance between the two of them. Furthermore, there are times when John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems almost like a father-figure to them both.
Nonetheless, the 1969 True Grit remains an amusing film. With Maddie portrayed in more conventional terms, there’s more focus on Cogburn himself – and of course Wayne, who’d thought the film’s script was one of the best he’d ever read, seized the opportunity and played the marshal as an entertainingly rambunctious, almost Falstaffian figure. I know serious film-buffs are sniffy about Wayne winning an Oscar for the role and dismiss it as a long-time service award rather than as recognition of specific acting ability, but to be fair, Wayne’s turn as Rooster Cogburn has stayed in the popular consciousness for longer than many other Oscar-winning performances from the time. (Nowadays, for instance, who really remembers Cliff Robertson in the previous year’s Charly?)
In 2011, the Coen brothers returned to the novel’s framing device and to the concept of Maddie being little more than a child. As well as recapturing the wry humour of the novel, this approach puts Maddie centre-stage and pushes Cogburn a little to the side – as played by Jeff Bridges, he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure than Wayne’s version. LaBoeuf, who’s played by Matt Damon, is side-lined even more. Damon’s portrayal of the ranger is pretty low-key anyway, and for some reason the Coens have him abandon Maddie and Rooster twice during the film – neither of these departures happened in the novel – which further lessens the character’s impact. With Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen years old at the time of filming) playing Maddie, the character’s solemn and priggish voice that was so memorable in Portis’s book comes across strongly.
However, I would have liked it if the Coens had included a few more of Maddie’s quaint, religious pronouncements. “…(A)ll cats are wicked, though often useful,” she says at one point in the novel. “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, this is superstitious ‘claptrap’. My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.” Elsewhere, she describes Woodrow Wilson as “the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age” and she reprimands the breakaway Cumberland Presbyterian Church by saying, “Read I Corinthians 6: 13 and II Timothy 1: 9, 10. Also I Peter1: 2, 19, 20 and Romans 11: 7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too.”
The novel sees Maddie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off into Indian Territory, where Chaney has fallen in with a band of desperadoes led by ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper. At first, neither man is enamoured with Maddie’s presence. Only gradually does she earn their respect and acceptance. Cogburn sides with her when LaBoeuf, in a fit of impatience, starts beating her with a switch: “Rooster pulled his cedar-handled revolver and cocked it with his thumb and threw down on LaBoeuf. He said, ‘It will be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper.’” Later, it’s LaBoeuf’s turn to support Maddie against Cogburn, who proposes leaving her at J.J. McAlester’s store, a rare safe haven in the territory: “LaBoeuf said, ‘There is something in what she says, Cogburn. I think she has done fine myself. She has won her spurs, so to speak. That is just my personal opinion.’”
The 1969 and 2011 films follow the novel fairly faithfully during this section, although as I’ve said, the Coen brothers have the threesome separate for a time. Also, they insert some characteristically perverse stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin. It’s as if the brothers decided they had to make the story a little more Coen-esque, so that it would appeal to their normal audiences. Both films are similar in how they show events at a dugout where Cogburn captures Quincy and Moon, two associates of the Ned Pepper gang. In order to stop the weak-willed Moon from blabbing to Cogburn about the gang’s movements, Quincy grabs a knife and whacks the fingers off one of his hands (“which flew up before my eyes like chips from a log”). In the 1969 movie, the unfortunate Moon is played by the great Dennis Hopper. In the 2011 movie, he’s played by the currently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleason.
Close to the book too is how both films depict the climactic action sequence where Cogburn squares up to the Pepper gang:
“Rooster said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience! Which will you have?’
“Lucky Ned Pepper laughed. He said, ‘I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!’
“Rooster said, ‘Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’ and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.”
In fact, I have seen one film critic – clearly ignorant of the book’s existence – complain that the Coen brothers’ True Grit was too similar to the John Wayne version, citing this scene as an example. As might be expected from the Coens, the confrontation between Cogburn and the Pepper gang is better staged in their film. However, in the 1969 film, which was directed by the workmanlike and unshowy Henry Hathaway, the scene contains more of an emotional charge – no doubt because, over the years, it’s become one of the key sequences in John Wayne’s cinematic oeuvre.
Subsequently, Tom Chaney batters LaBoeuf insensible with a rock and, though Maddie manages to shoot him, he knocks her into a deep, rattlesnake-infested pit. Rooster finally rescues her, but not before a snake bites her, and he embarks on a desperate race to get her back to civilisation before the poison kills her – riding her luckless horse, Little Blackie, to death in the process. In the novel and in the Coens’ film, LaBoeuf survives his injury but is, temporarily, left behind in Indian Territory. In the 1969 film, the blow from Chaney’s rock is enough to kill LaBoeuf. Neither film quite does justice to the claustrophobic horrors that Maddie experiences in the pit, which Portis devotes ten pages of his novel to describing. The Coen brothers are, however, brutal in showing the sacrifice made by Little Blackie.
The novel ends a quarter-century after those events with Maddie as a one-armed middle-aged woman – to save her, a doctor had to amputate her snake-bitten arm – travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s discovered, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing. But she arrives too late. After having a conversation with the former outlaws, now show performers, Cole Younger and Frank James (“Keep your seat, trash!” she snorts contemptuously at James), she learns that Cogburn died a few days earlier. All she can do is have his remains dug up and then re-buried at her family plot in Arkansas, with a $65 marble headstone commemorating him as “a resolute officer of Parker’s court”. The 2011 film stays true to this wistful ending, which symbolises how, by the start of the 20th century, the old Wild West had been tamed and domesticated. However, it’s a tad more positive, because it has Cogburn writing to Maddie to inform her of his participation in the Wild West show. In the book, there’s no hint that Cogburn even remembers her, and she only hears about him being in the show after her brother sees it mentioned in a newspaper advertisement.
Although there are other westerns where John Wayne played a character who died at the end, symbolising the passing of the Wild West – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for instance, or Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) – the 1969 True Grit goes for a more upbeat ending. Not only does Maddie remain in one piece (we last see her with the bitten arm in a sling), but there’s a final scene where she’s reunited with Rooster Cogburn at her murdered father’s graveside. That said, I find this version of True Grit sad in its own way. This is because of the death of LaBoeuf, who’s a more likeable and heroic character here and, indeed, had seemed likely to end up romantically linked with Maddie. In fact, as a kid, when I first saw the film on TV, I was quite upset at Glen Campbell’s unexpected demise near the end.
I like both cinematic versions of True Grit. I appreciate the Coen brothers’ film because it captures much of the sombre but quirkily amusing tone of the source material, and I enjoy the John Wayne film because of its straightforward, old-fashioned entertainment value. But to experience the truest True Grit, you need to read the book by Charles Portis.