True Grit: 1969 Version Vs. 2010

The gifted and versatile Joel and Ethan Coen take a major step toward mainstream (and more conventional) cinema with “True Grit,” their remake of the 1969 classic Western, directed by Henry Hathaway. 

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John Wayne had won his first and only Best Actor Oscar for playing Marshal Reuben J. (“Rooster”) Cogburn, and now Jeff Bridges, reprising this colorful and vivid part, should get an Oscar nomination; last year, Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for playing another eccentric and alcoholic man, in “Crazy Heart.”
The Coens’ scenario is more faithful to the source material, the novel by Charles Portis, which was published  in 1968, in The Saturday Evening Post, as a serial novel. Laced with deadpan humor, defined by ruggedly individualistic characters, and imbued with richly and uniquely American themes, the novel centered on an unusually stalwart young girl seeking to avenge her father’s death with the aid of a washed-up, frontier lawman and a forthright Texas Ranger.

In 1969, the novel was intentionally (and compromisingly) reshaped as a star vehicle for John Wayne. Make no mistakes, this “True Grit” is no star vehicle for Jeff Bridges, even though he plays the lead and gives an impressively commanding and entertaining performance, if also one that’s a tad too broad
That said, for better or worse, this “True Grit” is not as great a picture as the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men,” which deservedly won the Best Picture Oscar in 2007. I say for better or worse, because “No Country for Old Men” a modern (and modernist) Western was relentlessly grim, but it was also a wonderful and poignant morality tale in purely cinematic terms, showing the Coens at the best of their form, exercising utmost control over each and every aspect of the production.
No matter how you look at it, “True Grit” is essentially a genre film.  As such, it deviates from most of the films that the Coens have made.  Moreover, unlike former Coen films that were revisionist generic works (the neo-noir “Blood Simple” and the screwball comedy “The Hudsucker Proxy” are good examples), “True Grit” conforms perhaps out of necessity to the Western genre’s conventions and codes.  As a result, it feels less of a personal and idiosyncratic feature, when placed in the context of the rest of their film oeuvre.
One of the last pictures to be released this year, by Paramount on December 22, “True Grit” should have an intergenerational appeal to youngsters, and for a change youngsters of both genders, since the girl (and in many ways the protagonist, at least nominally) is wonderfully played by Hailee Steinfeld, who should get an Oscar nomination in the supporting league. But it should also attract older viewers, who belong to the age of the other members of the high-caliber cast, the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin.
The PG-13 rating should broaden the appeal for a Coen movie, which usually merits R due to the foul lingo used by the characters and graphic violence, and while the dialogue in this film is rather wholesome, it does feature one or two strong and brutal violent scenes.
As usual, as co-writers and co-directors, the Coens pay greater attention to the socio-historical contexts of the tale, to recreating the physical locale more authentically, to matter of characterizations, and to visual style, which is sharp and pleasing at the same time.
There’s also significant difference between the two films in the framing of the saga, which in this version is more coherent and told consistently from the POV of the young girl. The voice-over narrated epilogue, in which we get to know what had happened to Cogburn and to Mattie as a grown-up woman after their fateful encounter is also new and poignant.
If I am partial to the John Wayne picture, it’s because I saw it as an impressionable adolescent, and as such, could never forget the climactic shoot-outs, in which the aging Wayne, right after a successful real-life bout with “the Big C,” was tall on the saddle, yelling “Fill your hand, you sonuvbitch!” while holding a cocked rifle and six-gun, gripping the reins between his teeth, and spurring his horse forward.
For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline: Mattie Ross is a bright, tough adolescent seeking to avenge her father’s murder by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in the role originally played by Jeff Corey). 
Mattie seeks out the advice of the sheriff on possible choices, and he mentions Cogburn as “a pitiless man, double tough, fear don’t enter into his thinking.” 
She first meets Cogburn in court, where he is being irked by the criticism of his habit of shooting first and not taking unnecessary risks with any men who seem bad. “You can’t serve papers on a rat,” says the disgruntled Cogburn.
At first sight, Cogburn is just a former outlaw, a boozy, smelly, cantankerous man, indifferent about his physical appearance and the social impression he makes on others. He is known for lining his pockets with the rewards for “doing his job,” and for confiscating much of his whisky supply from the men he captures
Cogburn is both amused and bemused by Mattie’s proposition to hire him, but he gets more interested when she mentions the remuneration. “I’m giving you my children’s rates,” he comments when she tries to bargain with him over the price, though, clearly, he admires her guts. 
Cogburn is joined on his mission by Texas Ranger La Beouf (Matt Damon in the role played by Glen Campbell in 1969), a handsome man who also has an interest in catching Chaney. In a variation on “the Odd Couple,” the two men exchange barbs, some of which quite funny. He takes to trading insults, when the Texan taunts him over his Civil War association with Quant rill. 
In the old version, Mattie’s stubborn determination prompts Wayne’s Cogburn to observe, “My God, she reminds me of me!” Blessedly, there are no such cute and self-referential lines in the Coens’ version. The duo tries to dissuade Mattie from tagging along, leaving her behind a ferry crossing. But insistent, she swims across the river on a horseback, which further gains her Cogburn’s respect. 
Three for the road: Main section of the narrative depicts the trio as they enter into untamed badlands. In the course of the journey, Cogburn reminisces about his broken marriage, former wives, a son who didn’t like him, and so. These nocturnal sessions are leisurely paced by the Coens and offer insights into the figures’ personalities.
                                                                                          
Soon after, they face the outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper in the role that the young Robert Duvall played) and some of his heavies. Pepper, a pragmatic man, gives Cogburn the chance to back down, Well, Rooster, will you give us the road? We got business elsewhere. But Cogburn’s proud stubbornness motivates Pepper to dismiss him as “a one-eyed fat man.”
Charging forward, with guns ablaze, Cogburn passes through the Pepper mob to wheel around. His shots take a toll, but a bullet from another direction brings Cogburn’s horse down, and hr lies trapped under the animal. With a mortally wounded Pepper advancing toward Cogburn, it takes the action of the quick-shooting La Beouf from afar (in a splendid long shot) to kill the villain and make Cogburn survive.
Next crucial encounter is with Tom Chaney, s small fry compared to Pepper but dangerous in his sneaky ways. After delivering a head blow to the Texan LaBeouf, he causes Mattie to tumble into a snake pit, while firing a shot at him. 
Contrary to popular notion, Jeff Bridges is not younger than John Wayne was when he essayed the role.  Both Wayne, who was 62, and Bridges, who is 64 but looks younger, are about two decades older than the character’s age in Portis’ novel.  As a result, both Wayne and Bridges play Rooster as a tough but ultimately benvolent grandfather-igure like.
Spoiler Alert
Cogburn then turns up to finish Chaney, but he still needs the aid of the dying La Beouf to haul Mattie up to the surface. With Mattie seriously ill from the snake bite, Cogburn really comes into his own, riding his horse into the ground, while rushing Mattie to the nearest town for medical assistance. To complete his journey, he pushes on by foot and commandeers a wagon at gunpoint.
Credits
Paramount Pictures Presentation
A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production
Executive Producers Steven Spielberg Robert Graf
Produced by Scott Rudin Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Based on the novel by Charles Portis
Screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Cast:

Jeff Bridges
Matt Damon,
Josh Brolin
Barry Pepper
Hailee Steinfeld