Sunday, 22 January 2012

True Grit (1969)

Dir. Henry Hathaway
Starring: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall

What is ‘true grit’? And who has it? Those are the questions that were posed in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit and the subsequent two films based on it. Last year I watched the 2010 Coen Brothers version; this year for the sake of my United States of Cinema challenge I am watching Henry Hathaway’s 1969 original.

I remember whilst watching the remake that there was only one answer that hit me as to who actually has grit: Mattie Ross. The teenager has come to Fort Smith to settle matters after the death of her father and to hire a U.S. Marshal to travel with her into Indian Territory to bring back the murderer for trial. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in that movie was a revelation, outdoing Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon with her determined cussedness to see justice done, whatever the circumstances.

Her predecessor in the role was Kim Darby. She set the template for gutsy wilfulness. In the 1969 version Mattie combines a certain naivety about the more squalid aspects of life with a steadfast belief in getting her way. The very first scene shows her organising her father’s affairs and providing him with spending money like an officious (but efficient) company secretary. Arriving in Fort Smith the young woman from near Dardanelle, Yell County, is treated to aspects of life she has never previously experienced such as a multiple hanging. She holds an almost religious faith in the powers of Lawyer Daggett. However she is still able to out horse-trade the local ostler however. Of course, her perspicacity and forthrightness can verge on rudeness, as when she calls out the value of the dumplings at her boarding house dinner. Her supreme moment though is when Cogburn and La Boeuf prevent her from boarding the ferry across the Arkansas River into Indian Territory. Instead she urges her mount, Little Blackie, into the water and together they swim across to the other shore. They even arrive there before the ferry. The only surprise is that she does not then demand her ten cents back from the ferryman! But after that Cogburn allows her to accompany them – she has impressed him with her determination.

The relationship between Mattie and her two elder companions is possibly one of the most interesting aspects of the film. This is a triangle where the three end points are constantly moving in relation to each other. The first point is the handsome young Texas Ranger La Boeuf (played, to my utter surprise, by musician Glen Campbell). His cowboy comes without rhinestones fortunately; there is, however, a load of compromising on the road to his horizon. He at first tries the charmer act on Mattie. He even admits that he was thinking of “stealin’ a kiss” from her. However his aims are diametrically opposed to hers. He wants to find Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer – but he wants to bring him to justice in Texas for the murder of a Texas senator, something that will win him a reward, renown, and the eye of a young woman of good family. Mattie is insistent that Chaney be brought to justice in Arkansas for her father’s murder instead. La Boeuf does not want her accompanying him on the journey across the river at all. He eventually comes to accept her, and it is interesting to see how he and Rooster play up to her, telling tales of bravado to out-do the other. He comes good in the end, showing his own grit when Mattie needs rescuing. Cogburn has to admit that the ‘Texican’ saved his neck twice.

One-eyed Rooster Cogburn is a hackneyed shoot-first-ask-questions later relic of the western frontier soaked in liquor, a man whose glory days have long-since passed. He describes himself as “a fat old man”. But he can still jump. There’s life in the old geezer yet and he enjoys proving it – he gets results, and when he can stay on his horse he can show any newcomers a thing or two. The same could be said of Western legend John Wayne, who finally won an Oscar for his performance here. I would not say that it is a flawless characterisation. He goes from ornery and lucid to ornery and dead-drunk in about two glugs of a whisky bottle. His drunkenness does not build up gradually the more he drinks; nor does he move in a permanent alcoholic fug as Jeff Bridges’ 2010 version seems to. But that quibble aside Wayne / Cogburn is there to remind people that he’s still got it. No wonder La Boeuf’s braggadocio gets on his wick. “If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies who ain’t drunk water from a hoofprint”, he exclaims, “I think I’ll… I’ll shake their hand or buy ‘em a Daniel Webster cigar!” He mocks the Texan’s Sharps carbine – too big, too loud, too showy, only useful if they were attacked by elephants. Used to shoot a turkey it damn near takes half the bird away with it. He also mocks his shooting. ‘The horse-killer from El Paso’, he calls him, implying to Mattie that La Boeuf probably fell asleep at the dug-out ambush site. There is a game of one-upmanship constantly going on, as both he and La Boeuf try and ‘out-man’ each other before Mattie. His feelings towards the girl are clearly paternal. He talks about how he never got on with his son, but when she swims across the river his look is one of pure pride. “By God”, he says, “she reminds me of me.” And the feeling is returned – she says that she would like him to be buried alongside her in the family plot. And his grit is shown in the climactic scene when he charges four outlaws on horseback, the reins between his teeth, blazing away with a gun in each hand.

Rhinestone Cowboys:
Glen Campbell joins John Wayne and Kim Darby
These three carry the movie. A few villains get screen time, but their villainy hardly seems up to scratch. Quincy (Jeremy Slate) appears a nasty piece of work, stabbing poor Moon (Dennis Hopper, playing much the same part as in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a young man who has fallen in with the wrong crowd but who wants to do the right thing in the end), but Moon points out that up until that point they had never had a cross word. Furthermore the gang’s leader, ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall, who after his silent turn in To Kill a Mockingbird finally gets some lines) is hardly a fearsome opponent, resorting to setting a guard over the captured Mattie rather than disposing of her. I can’t even remember what he was wanted for. Even double murderer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) cuts a rather pitiful figure. Shot by Mattie, he is astonished: “I didn’t think you’d do it” he mutters, before starting to bewail his fate. “Everything happens to me – now I’m shot by a child!”

It is nice to see much of this take place against a real location backdrop. Three horses galloping across a wide plain, a braided stream hemmed in by a rocky valley where the dug-out hut is located, the snow-capped peaks of lofty mountains cresting along the horizon. Fort Smith is remarkably well-kept for a frontier town on the very edge of Indian Territory however. When Mattie first arrives there, with her hat and gamine haircut, walking through the bright green parks of glorious Technicolor, the mountains behind, I expected her to burst into a verse of “The hills are alive with the sound of music!”  The bombastic Elmer Bernstein score doesn’t help. At first I was happy to hear all that classic Western brass blaring away; by the time Mattie is captured the constant whomp-whomp-whomping away on the kettle drum, seemingly regardless of whatever was occurring on screen, just served to rob the film of any tension or atmosphere. Whereas the soundtrack in, say, 3:10 to Yuma, fitted so perfectly to the action on screen that it was barely noticeable, here it became a real distraction by the end.

The 1969 version is a fine film, where the heroism of all three main characters finds full expression… but given the option I think I prefer the 2010 remake. Jeff Bridges is not as obviously charismatic as John Wayne, but he gives a more sustained performance as a ruined man in his cups. Wayne just looks too good to ever be discounted as a has-been. The Coen brothers’ version is earthier and darker – both in terms of colour palette and in atmosphere. Rather than 1969’s wide open meadows and awe-inspiring mountains 2010’s has claustrophobic woods where the hostile territory of the Indian nation presents an all-surrounding threat. Frankly in 1969 I never felt afraid for the characters. Without that sense of peril it was hard to be urging them on. In isolation however, the original film has plenty to recommend it.

What have I learnt about Arkansas?
There is not that much of the film that is set in Arkansas actually – I misremembered its setting. The Ross family live ina  little spot of paradise near Dardanelle, Yell County, in Arkansas, and a business trip to the ‘big city’ of Fort Smith is an event. Fort Smith is a frontier town however and across the river is the start of Indian territory – what we now know as ‘Oklahoma’. Over half the film therefore actually takes place in Oklahoma. But Arkansas in this case would be the last civilised land. There may be spots of civilisation over the river like McAlester’s store, but these are few and far between. It is only in Arkansas that the government’s writ runs. And even there people don’t seem to think much of the Texans to the south-west.

Can we go there?
No viewer can have failed to notice the majestic snow-capped mountains in the background of many scenes. That sort of mountains just don’t exist in Arkansas or Oklahoma. Straight away that tells you that you are looking at the Rockies, and a filming location somewhere far to the west of where the film is set. And indeed, location filming principally took place around Ouray, Colorado, ‘the Switzerland of America’. The courthouse scene in Fort Smith was filmed at the historic Ouray County Courthouse. The gang’s cave hideout and the rattlesnake pit are still present on private property up Camp Bird Road outside Ouray apparently. The Ross’s Arkansas homestead is west of town up Last Dollar Road and is also privately owned. You can find the site of Rooster’s charge at Ned Pepper’s gang near the top of Owl Creek Pass, outside Ridgway though. The riverside dug-out scene was shot by Hot Creek, just south of Mammoth Lakes, California, however.

Or you might just want to see where the film was supposed to be shot instead. Dardanelle, Mattie’s home town, is situated on the Arkansas River, roughly half-way between Little Rock and Fort Smith, Arkansas’s two largest cities. Fort Smith still has traces of its frontier past, with a historic downtown district that includes the only former brothel on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Judge Parker’s courthouse still stands; known as ‘the Hanging Judge’ Parker sentenced 160 people to death in just 21 years’ service here. Rooster would be proud to know that Fort Smith is to be the home of the National U.S. Marshals Museum. The route taken in the movie then crosses into Oklahoma and heads south-west past McAlester’s Store – now the city of McAlester. But we won't be reaching Oklahoma until September!

Overall Rating: 3/5

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