True Grit: John Wayne’s Oscar-Winning Role

Of John Wayne’s Westerns in the last decade of his career, True Grit was artistically the most satisfying, if also extremely old-fashioned and sentimental.

True Grit

Theatrical release poster

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)

It marked the best collaborative effort of three Hollywood veterans: star Wayne, producer Hal Wallis, and vet director Henry Hathaway, who oversaw his 59th movie and his 18th Western.

Considered to be one of the most commercially popular Westerns ever made (grossing over $14 million), “True Grit” proved that there was still appeal to the more conventional Westerns, if they are made with authority and craftsmanship.

In the late 1960s, the Western was experiencing a rebirth, defined by the movies of a new generation of masters: Sam Peckinpah’s violent meditations on the Old West and Clint Eastwood ‘s Spaghetti Westerns, made by Italian Sergio Leone.

Wayne had read the Charles Portis’s novel at the galleys phase and liked it so much he bid $300,000 for the screen rights, but producer Hal Wallis outdid the Duke, buying them for Paramount reportedly for half a million. Wallis, however, approached the star with a tempting deal he could not resist–an excellent part and a salary of $1 million plus 35 percent of the gross profits. There were rumors at the time that Portis modeled the book’s character of Rooster Cogburn after Wayne. “The author claims he didn’t have me in mind,” Wayne told reporters, “but everyone who read the book mentions me, so go figure.”

In “True Grit,” Wayne plays a man his own age, early sixties, and constructs his role as a composite of many previous roles, particularly Thomas Dunsen from Red River and Nathan Brittles from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

As a character, Rooster Cogburn was constructed in the mold the charming curmudgeons that Wallace Beery used to play in the 1930s, and Wayne certainly played his part broadly, emphasizing the tale’s comedic aspects, as well as his hero’s sensitivity when dealing with children and teenagers (a staple in Wayne’s movies).

It was a perfect typecasting, as Wayne himself said: “Rooster was a mean, old bastard, a one-eyed, whiskey-soaked, sloppy son-of-a- bitch, just like me.” “Of course, it could have been Lee Marvin,” he said in reference to Marvin’s success in the spoof Cat Ballou,” which earned him an Oscar, “but Lee might make it too theatrical. I can get away with a little theatricality because I seldom use it.”

Like most of Wayne’s films, True Grit” is also a political film, reflecting the actor’s conservative views. The movie makes a clear statement in favor of tougher laws and tougher handling of criminals. Cogburn has no scruples confiscating whiskey from his captives, which we see early in the film. Furthermore, criticized in court for shooting without any apparent hesitation, he says in defense, “You can’t serve papers on a rat,” which was interpreted as a statement of Wayne’s right-wing politics.

Cogburn is described as a person “simply trying to make life habitable for the most people in his territory,” another expression of Wayne’s self-appointed role off screen. “He feels the same way about life that I do,” Wayne described the character he played, “he doesn’t believe in pampering wrongdoers, which certainly fits into the category of my thinking. He doesn’t believe in accommodation. Neither do I.”

It’s a small wonder that the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic: “Readers may remember it as a book about a girl, but it’s a film about John Wayne.”

Marshal Rooster Cogburn provided one of Wayne’s richest roles, one that enabled him to poke fun at his own established screen image. The movie includes many memorable scenes that were humorous as well as self-referential. Cogburn, like Wayne, is indifferent about his appearance; he doesn’t try to conceal his age, and he doesn’t care about the impression he makes on others.

Wayne’s most touching sequences are with the young girl Mattie (Kim Darby), who hires him to avenge her father’s death, especially when he tells her how, as a young man, he had single-handedly charged a whole gang of outlaws. In another scene, he tells Kim of his past, his broken marriage and his son who did not like him.

And, of course, the climax of the picture, in which Wayne confronts the four outlaws, calling out, “I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker’s convenience. “Which will it be” Sneering at him, “Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man,” he cries, “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!” Putting the horse’s reins in his teeth, a rifle in one hand, a pistol in the other, Cogburn fires with both guns.

“The climactic gunfight in which Wayne flips his weapons ostentatiously,” observed the critic Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, “is more moving to a spectator who knows Wayne’s total career, than to one who does not.” “Wayne has never been ostentatious in his past,” Sarris elaborated, “It is only now that he is so near the end that he will give the dudes one last show with the broad, vulgar gestures of machismo alien to the true spirit of the actor and the genre.”

The film’s last scene, at the grave, was not in the book, but screenwriter Margueritte Roberts wanted to end the movie on a more personal and sentimental note. Recovering, Mattie expresses her gratitude by offering Wayne a place in her family graveyard, when the time comes “to meet eternity.” Wayne declares characteristically that he will put off the day as long as possible.

Cogburn invites Mattie “to come and see the fat old man sometimes,” then jumps his horse over a four-foot fence and rides off into the winter sunset. Frozen on screen, Wayne’s last image was so resonant and nostalgic that many critics wished it would become Wayne’s cinematic epitaph.

One of the most interesting interpretations of True Grit” was provided by Vincent Canby, who compared the film with Wayne’s previous one, the preposterous Vietnam saga, The Green Berets.” In the 1968 war film, Wayne befriended an orphaned Vietnamese boy; in the Western, an orphaned girl. However, the imperialist tone of the Vietnam film is not as disturbing in the Western because “we accept Rooster Cogburn in the old West, but we don’t want him dictating foreign policy in this day and age.”

On the more positive side, Canby thought that Cogburn is “practically a perfect representation of the resourceful, commonsensical, essentially good, self-contained, rugged individualist who we like to think–settled the country.” Canby saw in Wayne “the untamed WASP, the one who refused to stay in Boston and aspire to the brotherhood of the Brahmins,” thus an ideal role for Wayne with which he could identify.

Other critics pointed out the two-generational dimension in the casting: Wayne versus Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, both gifted actors in the beginning o their careers.

Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 2
Actor: John Wayne
Song: “True Grit,” music by Elmer Bernstein, lyrics by Don Black
Oscar Awards: 1
Oscar Context:
In 1969, John Wayne won the Best Actor Oscar at his second nomination against tough competition from Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, both up for “Midnight Cowboy,” Richard Burton in “Anne of the Thousand Days,” and Peter O’Toole in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
The winner of Best Song was “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” from the popular Western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis.

John Wayne as Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn
Glen Campbell as La Boeuf
Kim Darby as Mattie Ross
Jeremy Slate as Emmett Quincy
Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper
Dennis Hopper as Moon
Alfred Ryder as Goudy
Strother Martin as Col. G. Stonehill
Jeff Corey as Tom Chaney
Ron Soble as Captain Boots Finch
John Fiedler as Lawyer Daggett
James Westerfield as Judge Parker
John Doucette as Sheriff
Donald Woods as Barlow
Edith Atwater as Mrs. Floyd
Carlos Rivas as Dirty Bob
Isabel Boniface as Mrs. Bagby
H. W. Gim as Chen Lee
Ginger Cat as General Sterling Price (uncredited)
John Pickard as Frank Ross
Elizabeth Harrower as Mrs. Ross
Ken Renard as Yarnell
Hank Worden as R. Ryan, the undertaker at Fort Smith
Jay Ripley as Harold Parmalee
Kenneth Becker as Farrell Parmalee


Directed by Henry Hathaway
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Written by Marguerite Roberts, based on True Grit by Charles Portis
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Edited by Warren Low
Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: June 12, 1969 (Premiere, Little Rock, AR); June 13, 1969 (Los Angeles)
Running time: 128 minutes
Box office $31.1 million ($14 million in rentals)