Two rode together

Whether the original or the remake, 'True Grit' is about much more than an eye patch

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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Think of “True Grit’’ four ways. First there was Charles Portis’s best-selling 1968 novel about a 14-year-old girl who sets out to avenge her father’s murder in frontier Arkansas in 1880. Then there are the two movies based on it: the 1969 original, starring John Wayne; and now the Coen brothers’ much-anticipated remake. It opens Wednesday.

Besides movies and book, it’s also an eye patch. That’s shorthand for the way everyone tends to remember “True Grit’’ rather than what it actually is. What people recall about “True Grit’’ is that Wayne won an Oscar for playing its hero, Rooster Cogburn, a hard-drinking, big-bellied, one-eyed US marshal who wears, yes, an eye patch.

How could they not remember it that way? The Duke finally wins an Oscar! He has a few sly laughs at his own expense (falling off his horse, even)! He helps out a teenage girl (sort of “The Searchers’’ turned inside out)!

It’s all very lovable-warm and lovable-fuzzy. The character’s so irresistible Wayne played him again six years later, in “Rooster Cogburn,’’ with none other than Katharine Hepburn as costar. Sort of “The African Queen’’ turned inside out (or at least on horseback).

“True Grit’’ isn’t the first time a story that everybody thinks they know is very different from a story as it actually exists. Set aside the eggnog next time you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ and try not to notice its darkness and hysteria (which, paradoxically enough, are the source of the movie’s greatness).

What’s so unfortunate about this happening to “True Grit’’ is that it obscures how bracingly strange and subversive Portis’s creation is. Of course, that’s also what makes the prospect of the Coens’ version so intriguing. Strangeness and subversion are the brothers’ bread and butter.

Frontiers are very strange places, after all, and partially settled frontiers are stranger still. In Portis’s Arkansas and Indian Territory, as Oklahoma was then called, strangeness breeds like locusts. People have names like J. Noble Daggett and the Original Mexican Bob and Lucky Ned Pepper. Public hangings draw such crowds vendors sell peanuts at them. As if to counter the randomness and chaos, no one uses contractions. People cling to formality and daintiness as barriers against anarchy.

One reason for the formality of speech is that the King James Version is never far from the characters’ thoughts — or speech patterns. That’s no less true of those on the wrong side of the law than those who (more or less) uphold it. “True Grit’’ is biblical through and through. In their version, the Coens make sure the story is Old rather than New Testament. Who knows, maybe they see it as a sequel to “A Serious Man.’’

Or as a prequel to the collected works of Flannery O’Connor. Move Mattie Ross, the heroine, from Arkansas to Georgia, and she could be the great-grandmother of any number of O’Connor characters: formidable child-women who combine relentlessness and religiosity, obnoxiousness and innocence. Maybe the biggest disservice done by the eye patch version is how it disguises the fact that “True Grit’’ is Mattie’s story, not Rooster’s.

Jeff Bridges, as Rooster, is a natural. Even just the idea of Matt Damon playing the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf is a vast improvement over Glen Campbell in the first movie. The real test of the Coens’ version will be Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. Kim Darby, in the original, is extremely good, though her merits can be concealed by her finishing-school enunciation. The Ozarks Mattie comes from sure don’t have the speech patterns of the Ozarks Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly comes from in “Winter’s Bone.’’

Mattie’s universe is more charnel house than finishing school. Hers is a deathstruck world. With the local boarding houses all full (thanks to that hanging), at least one visitor bunks down in a coffin at an undertaker’s. Lethal violence seems as common as bad teeth. Rooster admits under oath that in pursuit of his duties he’s killed 23 men — and he’s been on the job barely four years. As westerns go, “True Grit’’ is a lot closer to Sam Peckinpah than John Ford. In fact, Lucien Ballard, who shot the original adaptation, also shot “The Wild Bunch’’ that year.

The first movie version does its share of prettifying and sentimentalizing, starting with Elmer Bernstein’s score (which keeps wandering off into Marlboro country). But irruptions of weirdness frequently poke through. Partly, that’s owing to the sheer robustness of Portis’s sensibility and language. Partly, it’s the director, Henry Hathaway, who may have been old school (he directed his first picture in 1932) but his credits included “Kiss of Death.’’ Put Tommy Udo in chaps and Stetson, and he would have fit right in with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang. Mostly, though, it was the era. Not even a big-budget, John Wayne-starring western was immune to the gale-force winds of change blowing through Hollywood.

Who plays Lucky Ned? That soon-to-be mainstay of the New Hollywood, Robert Duvall. The guy with the ponytail who’s yowling with pain (his hand having just come into contact with an unfriendly knife), isn’t that Dennis Hopper? Yes, it is. His other acting credit that year was a very different kind of western, “Easy Rider’’ — and an even bigger hit at the box office. “True Grit’’ the novel is very much a revisionist western. “True Grit’’ the movie may not have wanted to be, but the nature of the times insured that it strayed at least a little from the straight and narrow.

Still, that was more than 40 years ago. Memories fade. Awards and starpower interpose themselves. Certain assumptions set in. What we remember isn’t necessarily what we saw. Maybe the Coens will scrub away the misconceptions and reveal the skull beneath the skin. Until they do, though, it’s John Wayne and that damned eye patch that define “True Grit.’’ Really, there’s no getting around it, and the Coens and Bridges would be the first to understand.

The Duke abides.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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