Written by Books, Films

True Grit

In 1985, I won two tickets in a local newspaper comeptition to see the new Clint Eastwood western, Pale Rider, at the ABC Enfield (now Tesco). It was the first time I’d been in a cinema to see a western. That was partly because westerns didn’t appeal to a 15 year old boy, and partly because they simply weren’t being made any more. Westerns were something you ran into when BBC1’s Grandstand or ITV’s World of Sport didn’t have anything worth watching on a Saturday afternoon – probably horse racing on the former, and “all-in” wrestling on the latter. BBC2 would probably be showing a western. I’d either return to the horse racing, or probably just go out.
That archetypal Saturday afternoon western almost certainly starred John Wayne. It seemed to be the law. I wasn’t interested. In later years, I’d come to appreciate films like Rio Bravo and High Noon. The former even stars John Wayne. But I wasn’t a fan. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll reappraise Wayne, but I’m not there yet.
One of his most famous roles is as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. While I can picture Wayne in his Marshall’s uniform and wearing an eye-patch, I think that’s more from stills and clips rather than actually seeing the film. I have no memory of the actual story.

I always look forward with great anticipation to any new Coen brothers film, but in this instance, I decided that it was worth reading the original Charles Portis novel. It’s a short book, and tells the tale in a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the 14 year old Mattie Ross.
The opening paragraph is one of those gripping ones that just stick with you as soon as you’ve read them:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
That pretty well lays out the story of the film in a simple and effective manner.
The edition of the novel I read with a film tie-in cover, comes with an introduction from Donna Tartt for whom this is a favourite book (Incidentally – she’s not the fastest writer is she? It’s been a while since The Little Friend). But I could immediately see what she loves about the book which incredibly went out of print for a while. At least that won’t happen again – in a digital ebook age anyway.
Getting back to the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit – it really is another exceptional piece of work. It sticks rigidly to the narrative of the book, introducing only a couple of minor elements of difference which don’t affect the flow especially. I loved it.
Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the marshall that young Miss Ross believes shows the most “grit” and is therefore the right man to avenge her father’s murder. He has such a drawl, that to my British ears, it took a little while to attune myself to his dialect, but he’s a terrific character and Bridges’ performance is excellent.
When I first saw the trailer to this film, I watched it intensely and then reached the end where the stars’ names appeared on-screen. Suddenly Matt Damon’s name appeared. Huh? I didn’t recall seeing him in the trailer. Perhaps he hadn’t featured very much. But he had. He plays the supercilious Texas Ranger LaBeouf (“la-beef” as opposed to the way Shia pronounces his name). He swaggers around in the most enormous spurs ever seen, telling tales about how proud he and his fellow Rangers are. Anyone who’s seen Damon cameoing on things like 30 Rock knows that he can do comedy well, and it’s a fine turn here.
Finally there’s Hailee Steinfeld who plays the young Mattie Ross. Her character is the very epitomy of head-strong as she’s determined to accompany Cogburn on the manhunt that she has hired him for. She’s great in her first film role. What I do find extraordinary is that even though she’s essentially in every scene of the film, she’s only been nominated in the Supporting Actress category in the Oscars. According to the LA Times this is purely Paramount playing the odds game. They didn’t think someone so young could ever win Best Actress in Leading Role, so they put her in the Supporting Role category. Utter nonsense. Her role is the equal of Bridges and Damon. BAFTA are somewhat tougher about such things, and she’s nominated in the Leading Actress category. For what it’s worth, I suspect she won’t win in either awards as they’re both tough categories.
Anyway, the film is excellent. The book is excellent. And you should definitely read or see one of them. You should probably do both.