Mattie Ross: I'm off early tomorrow morning for the Indian nation. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and I are going after the murderer, Tom Chaney.
Col. Stonehill: Cogburn? How did you light on that greasy vagabond?
Mattie Ross: They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.
John Wayne won an Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit (it also won the Golden Globe’s Best Film prize that year), and even if John Wayne doesn’t float your boat in general, this film will likely give you a few good laughs and perhaps (mildly) alter your perception of one of Hollywood’s most manly men. (Maybe what I really mean to say is that Wayne was one of Hollywood’s most “man’s man” type of actors, as women never really swooned over him, but men like my dad sure admired him, in their own, clearly manly way.)
The appealing thing about Wayne’s first appearance as the outsider lawman Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit was his ability to completely embrace the feral, less than perfect aspects of the character. Rough around the edges, living in the equivalent of shack in the back of a Chinese restaurant, a fresh bottle of drink always within reach, Cogburn is a little bitter but not a bit remorseful over some missteps earlier in life, and is resigned to his current situation. He doesn’t care a whit to get married again, or to turn his life around and live in what might be considered “normal” circumstances. He just wants to bring criminals to justice, get paid for it, and have a drink ... everyone else can just mind their damn business.
The gist of the story is Cogburn’s reluctant acceptance of a job that pays good money but means he’s working for a tough, spirited teenage girl (Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby), who wants him to find her father’s killer. Of course, to make the film really interesting, she insists on going along on the adventure. She’s a tomboy, not a bad shot, darn sure of herself, and possesses sass by the wagonload. True Grit can be seen as an early, low-key, feminist fable, and certainly helps enforce the idea of equality between the sexes.
The writing is colorful, clever, and one would assume, true to the time. It’s a joy to listen to this kind of dialogue:
Mattie Ross: You never told me you had a wife.
Rooster Cogburn: Oh, well, I didn't have her long. My friends was a pack of river rats and she didn't crave their society so she up and left me and went back to her first husband who was clerkin' in a hardware store in Paducah. "Goodbye, Reuben," she says, "the love of decency does not abide in you!" That's a dee-vorced woman talkin' for you, about decency. (Snorts.) Well, I told her. I said, "Goodbye, Nola, and I hope that nail-sellin' bastard makes you happy this time!"
Anther plus for the film is a plum bad guy role played by Robert Duvall. Dennis Hopper, who has a slightly smaller part as another bad seed, further sweetens the deal. They make a great team.
I have a real soft spot for old westerns. (I have to say here that, come to think of it, some of my favorite movies in recent years include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, and the fantastic The Proposition, written by one of my longtime musical obsessions Nick Cave, who writes songs filled with dark, twisted plot lines, and kept true to form in The Proposition. There’s some pretty grisly violence in this movie, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But it rocks.)
When you want something kid friendly, it’s hard to find westerns that don’t feature an overabundance of drinkin’ and whorin’ and cussin’ and fightin’ – not to mention potentially bothersome sub-plots about killing “injuns,” etc. True Grit passes the kid friendly litmus test, but not without needing a little grease to help it squeak by.
Apparently, the video version of True Grit was edited slightly and earned a G rating. However, the DVD version has a PG rating, equivalent to the original “M” (for mature) rating the film received. While John Wayne’s eye-patched, swaggering, growling, manly man seems to survive on not much more than whisky, it’s done with an effectively light, buffoonish touch, and so offers up moments ripe for observations such as, “Oh, see what getting drunk does? That’s just no good, is it? He fell off his horse!” etc. There’s a sprinkling of hard language, and bit of peril (honestly, nothing too frightening). But it’s all wrapped in a woolly cloak of spunk and humor, delivered with plenty of clever storytelling and witty dialogue.
Wayne’s second appearance as Rooster Cogburn was with the great Katharine Hepburn as his feisty, brazen feminine counterpart in Rooster Cogburn, which was clearly a ‘70s film (1975 to be exact). I personally enjoyed it a great deal, but think it’s a bit much for kids; it has more violence and harsh language, plays up Rooster’s drinking habits more, and just doesn’t seem appropriate for kids under 12 (it also has a PG rating). It’s a great character study, if you’re up for an old fashioned western some night on your own. The two main characters, Rooster and Hepburn’s Eula Goodnight, come to life here, and again the writing sparkles with smart and snappy dialogue. It's great fun for the ears, and the western scenery (filmed in the Grants Pass and Rogue River areas in Oregon) is a lush treat for the eyes.