I admire filmmakers who can revisit material and put their own stamp on it, making a film that has its own identity and is not simply a remake for modern audiences. Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World is a wonderful 50s science fiction monster movie. John Carpenter’s The Thing goes back to the original material and makes a movie where the monster is almost incidental to the paranoia at play. Sadly the modern remake/prequel The Thing (2011) was not very good but I digress.
Wonderfully Netflix streaming has both the iconic 1969 True Grit and the sardonic 2010 True Grit. How do they measure up against each other?
True Grit (1969) – Rated G
“John Wayne landed one of his last great screen roles as crusty lawman Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, who reluctantly helps teenager Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) pursue her father’s killer. True Grit is more a character study than many of Wayne’s formulaic Westerns. The rousing final showdown between Wayne and the villains adds to the Duke’s long list of outstanding movie moments.”
True Grit (2010) – Rated PG-13
“After drifter Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires alcoholic U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her exact revenge. The disreputable lawman still has grit, though, and mounts an epic search. Joining the duo on their quest is a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who’s also hunting for Chaney in this updated Western that received multiple Oscar nods, including Best Picture.”
1969: John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. The 1969 version was also nominated for Best Music, Original Song but lost to Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head from Butch Cassidy.
2010: Nominated for a whopping 10 Oscars, it lost every single one: Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Hailee Steinfeld), Best Picture, Writing, Directing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Costume Design and Art Direction.
10 is a lot of Oscars to be nominated for but history only remembers the winners so point goes to True Grit 1969.
Rooster Cogburn – The Duke and The Dude: In spite of this being Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance, it is not his best work. He is having too much fun and there is little nuance to his portrayal. His performances in The Shootist, The Searchers, and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance are better. This is also not Jeff Bridges’ best performance but it is one of his better performances and is quite a bit more nuanced.
Mattie Ross: The part of the precocious yet pugnacious 14-year-old is played in 1969 by a 22-year-old Kim Darby and in 2010 by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. Not just for the appropriate age but also for the intensity of the performance, this point easily goes to True Grit 2010. John Wayne himself said Kim Darby was the lousiest actress he ever worked with. Of course that may have been sour grapes as he wanted his daughter Aissa to play Mattie and after she was rejected, he wanted Karen Carpenter for the role. Kim Darby really isn’t that bad – for bad we have to go to our next category.
La Boeuf: The dandy Texas Ranger is played by singer Glen Campbell in True Grit 1969 and by Oscar-winner Matt Damon in 2010. Need you ask? Point: True Grit 2010. Glen Campbell is just awful.
Villains: Jeff Corey vs. Josh Brolin, Robert Duvall vs. Barry Pepper, a very young Dennis Hopper vs. Domhnall Gleeson. I have to give the edge to True Grit 1969.
Sequels: Yes I used the plural! You probably know that John Wayne got to reprise his role of Rooster Cogburn in Rooster Cogburn, starring opposite a wonderful Katherine Hepburn. While a very entertaining film, it was obvious that it owed a lot to The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. In fact Hepburn’s character in Rooster Cogburn is not terribly different from her character in African Queen.
The part I bet you didn’t know was that there was a TV movie True Grit in 1978. It was a failed pilot starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn. Neither Rooster Cogburn nor the TV True Grit are available on instant Netflix. Since Rooster Cogburn is an entertaining sequel, this point goes to True Grit 1969.
Bottom Line: You can’t really go wrong with either version of True Grit. The 1969 version is a pretty straightforward western adventure with an iconic performance by the Duke and a rousing finale. Strangely even though the 1969 version is listed as having a “G” rating, it contains plenty of gun violence, a triple hanging, a man getting his fingers cut off, a man getting stabbed, a man getting bludgeoned, alcohol use and abuse, and a fair amount of profanity. Supposedly it was an edited version that received the ‘G’ rating but I wonder how much was cut. It isn’t overly graphic but I sure can’t imagine it getting a ‘G’ rating today.
The 2010 version is better in most regards. It is however quite a bit darker even though it covers much of the same territory. While much of the dialogue is the same, Joel and Ethan Coen have given the script a verbal polishing. Much of the best dialogue is still from the original and I will say that the climactic line of “fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” packs more punch from the Duke. Cinematography is good in the 1969 version but better in the 2010 version.
People Watch: In the 1969 version, Jay “Tonto” Silverheels plays one of the condemned men at the hanging. Wilford Brimley makes his film debut there too (though that’s just from imdb – I couldn’t spot him). In the 2010 version listen for J.K. Simmons as the voice of J. Noble Daggett