Wednesday, 2 September 2015

True Grit (1969)

John Wayne picked up his only Academy Award - for best male actor in a leading role - for this film.  That perplexes me a little.  His performance is good, but I wouldn't call it great.  Perhaps it was the fact that he played against type here: Rooster Cogburn is a far cry from his usual upstanding heroes, and the novelty - plus Midnight Cowboy's votes probably getting split between its two leads - may have carried him over the line.

The success of the film was apparently a surprise to Wayne, who did not get on with leading female Kim Darby, a fact which seems to have coloured his opinion of her performance.  For my money, she's great entertainment, especially in the first 45 minutes of the film when the narrative is almost entirely centered around her.  In fact I think the movie is at its best in those early stages: once Wayne moves from supporting player into a co-lead role, it becomes 'merely' a good western.

The premise of the film is simple: the father of young Mattie Ross is killed, and she is determined to see his murderer brought to justice.  When she learns he has fled to a reservation, where the local Sheriff has no jurisdiction, she seeks out the "meanest" of the local US Marshals to do the job.  This is Cogburn, who usually gets his man - but rarely brings them back alive.  Cogburn's also a drunk, and none too encumbered by scruples.  The script has the good sense never to say so in as many words, but there's definitely the sense that the line between the Marshal and the men he hunts is a mighty thin one, and that he could easily have ended up on the other side of the chase if things had gone a bit differently.

This is a solid film, though as I said I feel its strongest period is the first act.  If you don't mind that, and can also deal with the sexist attitudes of the main male characters (who are admittedly not portrayed as particularly noble men in general), then it is worth your time to see one of the iconic westerns.  For my own part, it's made me very keen to track down the Coen Brothers' remake, as it apparently keeps Mattie as the main character throughout the story, rather than enlarging the Cogburn role as this one did.

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