Gearing up for the Coen remake, it was necessary to revisit this old classic that my siblings and I had practically memorized during our childhood. As is almost always the case with such nostalgic films, it’s quite difficult to offer any “objective” analysis or original thinking, clouded over as one’s perception becomes with preconceptions of greatness. That being said, this one is a real classic. It’s John Wayne as good as John Wayne ever got. Along with his character Ethan in John Ford’s incomparable The Searchers, Rooster Cogburn is a complex figure, not your prototypical Western good-guy. Cogburn, however, is rather the reverse of Ethan. Whereas Ethan appears to be a hero and then displays some ugly but true colors of racism, growing in the process, Cogburn might appear at first to be a sinister, worthless fellow. Only as the story progresses does he display some real humanity and goodness, but then we see that it was probably there all along.
But have we played into the film’s hands by talking only about John Wayne? Apparently the Coens have taken a different route in the remake, following the novel more closely and giving Mattie the priority in terms of viewer engagement/identification. It’s impossible to miss the fact, even in the first film, that this was the original intention of this narrative. A young woman rarely, if ever, was given so much strength and narrative importance in a Western, and so even despite the film’s best efforts to give Wayne the spotlight, Mattie comes across as the central character. She doesn’t narrate the film, but we’re sutured to her at the beginning, plenty before Cogburn makes an appearance. Despite her centrality, the film spins this introduction by using Mattie largely to build suspense before we meet Rooster. We’re encouraged to identify with her, which becomes natural once Rooster shows up. He’s always kept outside arm’s length; he’s John Wayne, the ultimate, canonized Western figure. Mattie, for all her fierceness and bravery, is the more accessible of the two, while Glen Campbell’s LaBoeuf is more annoying than anything else. Wayne marinates in his own legendary status here, apparently as some of the set crew have alleged. If the part wasn’t written for him, the camera shot the character for him. See particularly the climactic showdown with Ned Pepper and his crew, in which Rooster puts the reigns in his teeth and charges at Pepper’s gang across an open meadow with a shotgun in one hand and a six-shooter in the other. Mattie and LaBoeuf admire Rooster from afar, impotent to help him.
One wonders if this film doesn’t contain a kind of self-conscious nostalgia for the Western as it once was. Being released in 1969, the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s infamous The Wild Bunch, and following on the heels of Sergio Leone’s deconstructive Spaghetti Westerns, a film like True Grit could hardly star an aging John Wayne without looking down the barrel at the mortality of its own genre. Wayne himself already had half a lung removed by this point, causing him to get winded pretty easily while filming. The toll that his own lifestyle had taken on him was evident enough that much more rugged, edgy characters were written to accommodate the actor’s wheezy, gruff persona. Still, the film refuses to give into a tragic ending, rather rewriting elements of the novel in order to make the film more storybook. (Mattie keeps her arm, for example.)
Seemingly, while admitting its own numbered days and encouraging a progressivism of sorts, True Grit ultimately embraces the old, the static, and the established. The last shots of the film have Mattie and Rooster back on her homestead, the farm. She will remain there and, as she tells Rooster, be buried there. While looking at the headstones of her own family members, Mattie points to where she will be buried and tells Rooster she wants him to be buried next to her. Rooster resists the idea, insisting that the spot should be reserved for Mattie’s husband. When they part ways, Rooster accepts Mattie’s dare and jumps a fence with his new colt and rides away “in the friscalating dusklight,” as it were. Rooster refuses to be grounded, refuses to be territorialized. This is consistent with his status as a marshall, at a surface level, and with everything that the traditional Western hero has embodied, courtesy of John Wayne.