John Wayne is one of cinema’s greatest heroes and an American icon. In True Grit, we get to see him shine in the role that won him an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn.
Set in Arkansas but filmed in Colorado, True Grit is the tale of a young girl, Mattie Ross, (Kim Darby) set on avenging the death of her father. To aid her on her mission she hires one of the best U.S. Marshals around in the old, rough and tough Rooster Cogburn (Wayne). Her father’s killer also murdered a Texas senator, so he is also sought by a wet-behind-the-ears Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell). Together they set out on a wild adventure into Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, to find this killer and unknowingly take on the gang that he is currently running with.
There are many themes and views expressed in this film that I didn’t catch before watching True Grit as a youth. Mattie’s boyish look and dominant position in her household is due to the fact that she is filling the role of eldest son. She takes care of business at home and after her father’s death sets out to kill the man responsible.
Kim Darby’s role of strong female is twofold. During the film’s setting of the late 1800s and the film’s making in 1968, both were periods of change for women in America. In the 1800s you can see Mattie going on to play a key role in women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. Note how she is always trying to get Rooster to put the bottle down. In ‘68 women were on the march again, no longer accepting the role of traditional housewives and demanding equal treatment. At times on the set, Wayne saw her as an intruder in the “boy’s club.”
Throughout the film, especially in the courtroom scene and when he kills a rat, Rooster’s philosophy applies to the then-current positions of Wayne on American society and involvement in Vietnam. As you watch the film keep your eyes open and pay attention because this film has a lot to say about America and its history.
True Grit is also packed with outstanding performances from many fine actors. The film’s stars work well together. There is a tension that brings out the best in each one, keeping them sharp of wit yet not making them seem as if they truly dislike one anther. On the contrary, they actually care for each other very much. Rooster finds Mattie reminds him of himself and he wouldn’t use all those playful nicknames if he didn’t see some thing to like in Ranger La Boeuf.
A couple of young actors, who would become legends, play outlaws. Even though we only see him for five minutes, Dennis Hopper is authentic as Moon due to his focus and concern about his wounded leg. As gang leader Ned Pepper, Robert Duvall brings a personable vibe to Rooster’s foe. Listen as they talk, you can see that they know each other and at one time may have even gotten along but sides were chosen and paths taken that put them on opposite sides of the law.
This brings me to another fact about this film. It contains one of the greatest showdowns in Western film history. Hell, make that film history in general. One man against four, all mounted with weapons loaded. The stage is set, the meadow is clear. Rooster states his terms for Ned Pepper, who responds by insulting the Marshall, calling him a “one-eyed fat man.” Rooster’s reply is an all-time classic and ranks with the best movie lines ever. After giving a surprised “I’ll show you” look, Rooster yells out, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch,” puts the reins in his mouth, charging straight into them while firing both pistol and rifle. Earlier in a quiet moment, Rooster tells of how in his younger days he did something similar to some “New Mexicans.” That’s all I’m going to say about the showdown. Watch it for your self, its better that way.
The collector’s edition of True Grit has some very good special features. The writing of the book and screenplay are compared and contrasted. There are reflections of the cast on working with John Wayne, and a tour of the locations. Western historians of both film and real life adventures provide the commentary. Jeb and J. Stuart Rosebrook along with Bob Boze Bell provide fascinating stories and little know facts about the movie and true-life events that helped to shape the films own exciting tale.
From start to finish True Grit is much like the Duke’s own life: exciting, straightforward, and filled with humor. He was one of the best that Westerns had to offer and still today we think “what would a certain cowboy role be if Duke was at the reins,” driving the lines home and walking that unmistakable John Wayne walk.