True Grit and Truer Grit

Thursday, my friends Vickie and Janet and I decided to get together for a glass of wine and Girls’ Movie Night. We toyed with the idea of Black Swan until disturbing reports of heinous acts with nail files and stabbings with shards of broken mirror made us think twice. I like my movie violence straight up and classic, so I steered us to the new remake of True Grit. It was the right choice.

John Wayne created an indelible Rooster Cogburn. But it was a John Wayne creation. The marvelous Jeff Bridges gives us another Rooster, one straight out of the cult Charles Portis novel. The Coen Brothers, too, have opted for a straight-forward, straight-up Western complete with panoramic vistas framing an unambiguous story of good and evil and bad guys brought to justice by good guys. Their movie, like the book, is not a star vehicle about a lovable old Western rascal. Their story is of three unlikely compadres — a full-of-himself Texas Ranger, a one-eyed drunken sheriff/bounty hunter and a 14-year-old girl who, in the course of their adventure, discover in each other that rarest and probably most valuable of Western commodities, True Grit.

Grover Cleveland

Rooster Cogburn, in the book, is described as looking like Grover Cleveland. I think I'll take Jeff Bridges.

I don’t intend to give a movie review. Read Roger Ebert, who as always, nails it. I’ll just give you a few random thoughts that the inestimable Mr. Ebert left out.

Jeff Bridges is as close to the literary Rooster as I could imagine, except about 50 pounds too light. I think I remember the book describing Rooster as looking like Grover Cleveland. But after years and years of lean cowboy heroes, I don’t think we’d accept someone of that girth on a horse. We’d worry about the horse. I’d also hate to see Jeff Bridges compromise his health by putting on the weight for the movie. So I’ll accept his Rooster as being as authentic as we’ll get. I did notice, as the credits rolled, that Matt Damon had an “Abs Double” listed, although I couldn’t remember a scene where his or his stand-in abs were on display. Perhaps Jeff should have had an Abs Double or a Girth Double. On second thought scratch that.

I should also note that the Coen Brothers paid particular attention to teeth in this movie. There are a lot of really bad ones on display. You’ll barely even recognize Barry Pepper as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper through the tartar, tobacco stains and snaggles.

The Coen Brothers also wisely steered clear of today’s fashion for revisionists Westerns, where the heroes are not that heroic and hardly distinguishable from the villains. Or maybe Charles Portis’s book itself was the original revisionist Western by creating a West that is probably closest to the truth of what it was like back then.

The bad guys in True Grit, book and movie, aren’t dashing villains or criminal masterminds. They are a loose collection of drifters, near psychopaths, the IQ challenged, misfits and losers. I’m sure then as now, you don’t go into violent or petty crime if you have the brains or the drive to do anything else.

This point really came home as we were contemplating another glass of wine after the movie and Janet suddenly came out with one of those stories you only seem to hear in the West. It was a story that makes you realize that the Western canon is truer than you think. The immortal words of Huck Finn come to mind (as he described the book Samuel Clemens wrote about him): “Some of it were stretched, but most of it were true.”

It seems Janet’s Great Grandmother was one of only two survivors in her family of an Indian massacre. As such, she was given a $75 a month restitution pension by the Government. She was murdered for that check by a man who killed her, ate her waiting supper, then burned down her house. He was apprehended when his horse was recognized outside the bank where he was attempting to cash her check. His days ended quickly after that when he became the last man hanged in Curry County, Oregon.

Whew! There’s the Coen Brother’s next movie.

I’d like to think that, had Janet been alive then, and had she decided to ride out with a one-eyed drunken sheriff and a Texas Ranger seeking justice, Vickie and I would have ridden with her.

NOTE: If you are interested in the historical record on Janet’s family history, she’s forwarded on a great article here. And here is the text of the contemporary article about the hanging.

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Author: Lisa

Although I'd like to think of myself as a rootin', tootin', wine-makin' cowgirl, I currently only live in Sonoma part-time. Mostly I'm on freeways between San Jose, San Francisco and Sonoma. With two yapping terriers in crates behind me. We try to enjoy all three places and points in between. Which will explain why my post subjects are all over the map.

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  1. I read True Grit this summer but haven’t seen the new version yet. I’m waiting for it to come to a TV screen near me soon. Mr. Bridges and I have been close for a long time now.

    I was surprised (in a good way) that you’re in favor of Cowboy Justice.

  2. So, the story behind the Abs Double is that Buster Cohen, Ethan’s son was a assistant to the script advisor on the movie. When asked what he wanted his title to read on the credits he said “Matt Damon’s Ab Double.”

  3. I realized how authentic the clothing and gear were when Lucky Ned literally ground his boot into Mattie’s neck. They were crude. I’d read somewhere that footwear was not differentiated between right and left “back in the day,” and there was an example before me. Considering how boots are made today, those looked more like heavy duty slippers in a primitive form.

    In any other western, the boots would be of the modern narrow toed high heeled cowboy variety.

  4. Jeffro, I’ve heard as much from Civil War re-enactors who are fanatical about period detail.

    Kat, that’s a great story. Now I know my preferred Hollywood credit line: Angelina Jolie’s Breast Double. As if…

  5. as one who grew up on john wayne as as near a god as one can get, i was a bit apprehensive about this new movie. but…seeing trailers, reading exerpts from the book, and various reviews of the movie itself has made me think that i definitely want to see this. i do so love jeff bridges and think that he was probably THE best choice for Rooster.
    canNOT wait for it to come here….IF it ever does…some of the best ones go straight to dvd.

    now desperately thinking of a “body double for…..” to use!!

  6. Debbie, the original John Wayne True Grit will never be replaced. This is just a completely different True Grit.

  7. Cristina was not the sole survivor of the massacre of her first husband and male children, or else we would not be here to tell the story. We descended from her daughter Mary, whom was taken with Cristina and her baby sister by the “Indians”. They were rescued not long after by a man named Charlie Brown. Mary was somewhere around 14 at the time and I have always wondered what went on during her captivity…

  8. Thanks Jo for setting the record straight. A fascinating story…

  9. I grew up in a house where ‘The Duke’ was king…and as such was very reluctant to watch this iteration. I’m pleased to say I will be recommending this film to my father…and picking up the book (for the Kindle app on my iPad)

  10. The Duke True Grit still stands. Both can be enjoyed equally as two completely different movies.

  11. Just finished the book, and am going to order a few more by Mr. Portis. What a gifted writer! Mattie’s voice is hilarious and dead on (pun not intended). I’ll be waiting for netflix, but am looking forward to seeing it!

  12. Did they also make a western called Rooster Coghburn? (? sp.)

  13. Yes, the sequel was called “Rooster Cogburn and the Lady” and the Duke’s co-star was Katherine Hepburn. Ms. Hepburn famously noted that, in a scene where she had to lean on the Duke, “it felt as if I were leaning on a great Western monument — something strong and American.”

  14. I always loved the original film–John Wayne, Bruce Dern and Robert Duvall are absolute icons, and Dern and Duvall brought some wall-eyed craziness to the original that helped tone down Glen Campbell’s hokey miscasting as the Texas Ranger considerably.

    That said, my daughter and I re-read Portis’ fine novel together last year when she was going through casting for the role as Mattie. We found the novel yards to the left of the original film, and are excited about the movie, even though she was found to be “too tall” to play against Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. She did suggest to the casting director that they “put them in lifts”. Too funny.

    And I would like to be a Shoulders Double for Sophia Loren.

  15. Always have liked Bruce Dern, never thought he got the recognition he deserved. Though he did an incredible job in the, now dated and smaltzy, (sp) movie 1969. Also starring, Kiefer Sutherland, the shop lifting actress from Petaluma, Mrs. Cunningham (from Happy Days) and the cocaine addicted actor who I think played Iron man. Sorry I am horrible with names of actors and actress.

  16. Imagine………
    A shirtless Matt-adore
    poolside by moonlight
    twirling a red silk shirt…around
    his motorcycle helmet-for-bull…
    doing a flamenco ballet…to
    Liberace playing Malaguena !!!


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