● A few months ago I enjoyed seeing the Coen brothers’ True Grit, based on the 1968 novel. Hailee Steinfeld’s acting made it easy to warm to the central character of Mattie, a headstrong 14-year-old girl who demonstrates more “grit” than any of the men she encounters. Last week Film4 showed the 1969 movie with John Wayne and Kim Darby, providing an opportunity to compare and contrast.
At first sight the 2010 film seems to have the advantage. The John Wayne version has the chocolate-box quality of standard Westerns, while the more recent film works hard to reproduce the jaded, somewhat dismal atmosphere of 1870s frontier America. Or is that atmosphere just a reflection of the jaded cynicism of the Coens?
I generally find it difficult to enter into the spirit of classic Westerns. There’s something strangely affectless about them, generating a curious flavour of surrealism. More would-be realist westerns like Deadwood inject a dose of everyday ordinariness to increase appeal, but often seem gratuitously bleak and bloody.
As I watched True Grit 1969 I began to appreciate its merits, in spite of John Wayne, whose cowboy roles I rarely find watchable. It made me wonder whether there isn’t ultimately something more honest about older Westerns, even if they’re often wooden and stagey. They tell simple stories. They’re not trying to convey anything pretentious, as True Grit 2010 could be said to do. Its message, that things are by and large hopeless, except for occasional interludes of excitement, has become so ubiquitous a feature of contemporary drama that one hardly notices anymore – but it isn’t necessarily more realistic.
Real life is not much like the movies – for one thing, it’s mostly very boring to watch – but perhaps it is actually more like the plain stories of older films than like their modern counterparts, with their striving for emotional resonance. True Grit 2010, from this point of view, is simply wallowing in sentimentality, more so than the supposedly over-romanticised traditional Westerns. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn, for example, is surely too self-indulgently wistful and philosophical to be capable of the hardened, gun-toting marshal figure he’s supposed to represent.
At the end of the day, both films succeed, via differing styles, in giving compelling visual versions of the Mattie story. One thing about the Coens film jars, however: the penultimate scene. The now 39-year-old Mattie, unmarried and disabled, visits a Wild West Show where she hopes to re-encounter Rooster. Disappointed to find he has just died, she ends up addressing Jesse James’s brother as “trash”. Now insults like this, which had different nuances in the nineteenth century, have to be handled carefully for modern audiences. This one was, I felt, handled badly, so that Mattie – who until then had come across as pig-headed but admirable – was suddenly seen in a different light: a vicious prude, unhealthily obsessed with law and order. The line occurs in the book, but the mean-spirited tone doesn’t. It’s a shame the Coens weren’t able to sustain their sympathy for the feisty female character right to the end of the film.
The John Wayne movie, by contrast, cops out, excising Mattie’s arm amputation, and exchanging the final gloomy scenes for an invented happy reunion between Rooster and Mattie while she is still her young, perky self.
Two kinds of romanticism, perhaps: one celebrating the positive, the other the negative.
Oxford Forum should be given funding.