Although most of this article is concerned with political issues that would lead me to award “True Grit” with the rotten it deserved, I want to start off by highlighting its major flaw that has not been identified by critics, to my knowledge. Unlike most of the great movies in this genre from “The Magnificent Seven” to “Unforgiven”, “True Grit” has shallow and underdeveloped villains. This is either due to the original material in Portis’s novel or in the Coens’ screenplay. Not having read the novel, I cannot be sure.
This is especially true of the Tom Chaney character hunted throughout the film. Perhaps the casting of an actor normally assigned “good guy” roles (Josh Brolin), the Coens give tacit acknowledgment that the man is simply not in the same league with memorable villains such as the gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) in “Shane” or the sadistic Sheriff Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) in “One -Eyed Jacks”, so clearly an inspiration for Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) in “Unforgiven”. Unlike all these powerful, carefully etched characters, Chaney is amorphous and seemingly unmotivated. Perhaps the film would have had more dramatic power if the Coens had included an initial scene that depicted Chaney brutally attacking Mattie Ross’s father and taunting him while he was dying. But who am I to give the Coens advice. After all, they are the John Fords and Howard Hawks of our age (god help us) and I am merely the unrepentant Marxist.
If the drama in “True Grit” fails in terms of the traditional hero-villain narrative of this genre, then we are left to the interaction between the 14-year-old girl Mattie Ross seeking vengeance and her two partners, the dirty cop Rooster Cogburn and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Critics seem smitten with the arch dialog of the three characters that is filled with odd constructions seemingly lifted from a Dickens novel.
For example, Cogburn—a poorly educated drunk by all accounts—says at one point: “I’m struck that LaBoeuf has been shot, brambled and near severed his tongue. Not only does he not cease to talk, but he spills the banks of English.” Perhaps this works on the written page, but my reaction to such speeches in the film was what a bunch of hooey.
Speaking of which, has anybody considered the likelihood that someone who has consumed buckets of alcohol over the years like Rooster Cogburn and who has only one eye would be able to shoot down four men while riding horseback with the reins of his horse in his teeth? Hooey, once again I asseverate—to use a Portis type formulation. I have seen more realistic gun duels in the most over-the-top Hong Kong policier.
But for you people who worship the ground that the Coens walk upon, feel free to answer me here. I try to maintain a free speech forum. Just don’t use sexist or racist language and try to stick within three insults per day.
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Let me turn now to the broader historical questions that provide the framework for both “True Grit” movies. Call me incorrigibly dogmatic and a “politically correct” bore, but I just can’t get on the bandwagon for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit”, their latest film that has earned high plaudits across the board, even from the curmudgeonly Armond White who wrote:
This view of the Western’s brutality challenges recent cultural standards regarding violence and sarcasm as established by Quentin Tarantino. Now, True Grit is no longer just a tall tale; it clarifies the Coens’ feelings about violence and America’s spiritual history.
Well, I am not sure about the Coen brothers’ feelings about much of anything. Mostly they are content to produce black comedic yarns, sometimes hitting (“Fargo”, “Blood Simple”), sometimes missing (“A Serious Man”, “No Country for Old Men”.)
I confess that I was prejudiced from the start, having had an extreme reaction against the original “True Grit” that starred Vietnam War hawk John Wayne in 1969. Looking back at Vincent Canby’s NY Times review that year, there is absolutely no reference to the war in Vietnam and John Wayne’s filthy role in promoting it through television appearances and his truly awful propaganda film “The Green Berets”. Most critics agreed with Canby’s assessment and the Academy gave John Wayne an award for best actor as Rooster Cogburn, motivated in part by recognition that the old buzzard did not have long to live after having lost one lung to cancer.
Ironically, Jeff Corey, a blacklisted actor in the 1950s, played Tom Chaney, the “bad guy” being pursued by Rooster Cogburn. When Wayne was making the red scare garbage film “Big Jim McClain” in 1952, Corey could not find work. An LA Times obit on Corey that can be found on the actor’s website recounts what befell him:
The actor was scheduled to appear at the hearing in downtown Los Angeles in September 1951. He was 37 and had a wife and three daughters to support. But he took the 5th Amendment and didn’t work again as an actor in Hollywood for more than a decade, missing out on countless movie opportunities and what would later be considered the golden age of television.
“Most of us were retired reds. We had left it, at least I had, years before,” Corey told Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of “Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist” who also teaches film at Marquette University. “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not? I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly …. They just wanted two new names so they could hand out more subpoenas.”
Now, forty-one years after the original was made, my distaste for “True Grit” runs deeper, mostly as a function of studying the history of the Southwest over the past year or so in conjunction with a research project about the Comanche Indians, who were the “bad guys” in many a classic Western, including Wayne’s “The Searchers”. My study of this period gives me a totally different appreciation for the role of the Texas Rangers, who were whitewashed in Charles Portis’s novel. While Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger character LaBoeuf was depicted as relatively benign compared to Cogburn, the typical Texas Ranger of American history had more in common with the Ku Klux Klan.
As for Cogburn, he fought with the bushwhackers during the Civil War. My study of Jesse James, a bushwhacker veteran, left me with the conclusion that they too were just like the Klansmen, staging robberies wearing white robes. Perhaps it was possible to make a movie featuring two heroes who had ties to the Texas Rangers and the bushwhackers in the 1940s, but not so today if you have any understanding of the rights and wrongs of American history. Of course, in a period where elected officials defend flying the Confederate flag from government buildings, anything is possible.
Most of you are probably familiar with the plot of “True Grit”. A 14-year-old girl hires Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s murderer in Choctaw Territory, a portion of the area that would become Oklahoma eventually. All the Indians living in this area got there as a result of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal “Trail of Tears”. While the movie is not really about whites killing Indians, there is one scene that really got me riled up.
Cogburn and Mattie, the fourteen year old played by Hailee Steinfeld, come upon a meager looking farmhouse in Chocktaw Territory that is home to Indians, including a couple of children sitting on the porch. As he enters the house to find out if the inhabitants have any knowledge of the whereabouts of Tom Chaney, he kicks the children on his way up the stairs. For good measure, he kicks them on the way out. What point were the Coens trying to make, that Cogburn was not a nice guy? I think that was pretty well established from the outset. Audiences would probably get a chuckle out of this since it is part and parcel of the sadism that pervades Coen movies. But using Indian children as butts for this kind of humor is pretty tasteless in my view. One imagines that it would be off-limits to see Black children being kicked around in this manner, but Indians are a different story apparently.
Critics love “True Grit” the novel, as well as the movies, because Rooster Cogburn is such a violation of the stereotypical good guy lawman of the old west. He is also a comic figure, almost Falstaffian. I guess that my exposure to the gritty details of American history would make me hostile to anybody who fought on behalf of slavery. The bushwhackers lynched slaves by the hundreds in Missouri. The most recent Jesse James movie that starred Brad Pitt as the bushwhacker crook was an advance over past films insofar as James was depicted as a violent psychopath. But it didn’t begin to address the villain’s racist terrorism. If I had my way, Hollywood would make a movie that showed the bushwhacker in his true colors, as some of America’s most filthy reactionary dogs.
Turning to LaBoeuf (played by Matt Damon), you are getting the stereotypical good guy of the classic western, a part usually played by Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper. His only fault it would seem is to treat Mattie Ross with sexist contempt, spanking her at one point.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to get into a detailed history of the Texas Rangers, some points have to be made. They were formed by Stephen Austin in 1823 and became a key contingent of the war against the Comanches in the 1860s. They also became foot soldiers of the Confederacy around the same time. The most brutal Texas Ranger in this period was Leander Harvey McNelly, who had been a Confederate officer as well. The wiki on McNelly paints him in colors exactly like Rooster Cogburn, who was a “Dirty Harry” of the Old West for all practical purposes:
McNelly’s methods have been questioned throughout the years, and although he recovered many cattle stolen from the Texan Ranches while aggressively dealing with lawlessness on the Mexican border, he also gained a reputation of taking part in many illegal executions and to confessions forced from prisoners by extreme means. McNelly also made himself famous for disobeying direct orders from his superiors on several occasions, and breaking through the Mexican frontier for self-appointed law enforcement purposes. His actions proved to be effective, however, and he was responsible for putting an end to the troubles with Mexican bandits and cattle rustlers along the Rio Grande that were commonplace during the 1850-75 period.
Sounds just like the men running the American military today, doesn’t it? Why the Coens, known for their “edgy” sensibility, would waste their time making a movie glorifying such scum is beyond me.
Back in the 1970s, Peter Camejo spent a couple of evenings at my apartment in Houston when he was on tour. Digging through my records, he found something by The Band. Picking it up like it was a dog turd, he looked at me with a sour expression and asked how I could possibly own a record with a song like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on it, a song that mourned the passing of the slavocracy in effect. At the time, I wondered if Peter was overdoing things. Bless his soul, he was right.