True Grit: The Duke, The Dude and the Dutiful Daughter; Part I

“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” When was a better line ever uttered in a Western?

What red-blooded American male doesn’t love True Grit? I liked everything about the old movie (other than that truly awful song Glen Campbell sings).  I like everything about the new movie (except for the awful politics of the actor who plays LaBoeuf).  But until recently I had never read the source novel.  Now, having done so, I have a renewed admiration for the film makers.  The differences between the novel and movies are creative choices that must have required a bit of reflection on the differences between reading and watching.  All in all, I’m hard pressed to claim that the films are less than the book.  They are each excellent.  But ultimately, the book provides more of the protagonist’s inner voice.  Mattie Ross is the fictional autobiographer here.  It’s her story and she tells it from her very idiosyncratic point of view.  If the main facts of the plot are outlined (young woman goes forth to avenge the murder of her father) it would seem obvious that enormous sympathy should exist for the heroine.  But she’s not the most sympathetic character.  She takes advantage of her formidable lawyer to bully an innocent tradesman into paying her for damages he did not cause.  She is pathologically self-righteous and judgmental.  And she lacks any tact or charm.  Basically, she’s a jerk.  But at the same time, she possesses courage, fortitude, energy and intelligence.  She has worked out the situation around her father’s murder and planned a campaign to redress it.  She has not spared herself (or anyone else for that matter) and follows through with it without concern for pain, weariness or danger.  She is a very original and convincing character.

All through her odyssey Mattie meets up with a number of characters, some barely sketched, others carefully fleshed out. Most vivid of course is Rooster Cogburn. but others, Ranger LaBoeuf, Lucky Ned Pepper, Colonel Stonehill and even Tom Chaney, are fully drawn and interesting personalities.  And here is where the movies don’t let us down.  The portrayals of Stonehill and Pepper in both movies are excellent.  The actors are given a very small window to work in, just a couple of scenes.  But both convey the personality we are meant to see in a specific setting  that reveals interesting components of his character.  At almost all points the plot mixes humor and drama in believable measure.

The Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced by him “LaBeef”) is the foil for both Mattie and Cogburn. At every turn his opinion and motivations are at odds with one or the other or both of them.  This allows for Mattie and Cogburn to develop some solidarity.  The scene where LaBoeuf attempts to switch Mattie to force her to abandon the search confirms the respective places for each of these characters.  In a strange way they resemble a family, with Cogburn as a sort of father and Mattie and LaBoeuf as younger daughter and older son.  Now granted this would be a particularly dysfunctional family but considering the status of Mattie to her recently deceased father it is not unreasonable.  It is this dynamic in the story that I think is chiefly responsible for the appeal of the story for women, but of course that is just one man’s opinion.

And finally (at least in this first installment) we come to the climax of the action. The Duel and the Catastrophe.  If there is in all western cinema a closer analogy to a knightly duel I haven’t seen it.  The hero no longer needs to confront his enemy.  The damsel is rescued, the aim of the quest (the capture of Chaney) is accomplished.  But he is honor bound to conquer or die.  A more perfect tableaux for the American West, I cannot imagine.  And then the reversal, and another reversal, and another.  By the time Rooster is carrying Mattie back to town and doctor we have reversed the journey from adventure to real life.  Chaney’s fate is no longer important, Ned Pepper and the other outlaws are debris on the field.  Even Mattie’s beloved pony Blackie is expended in Cogburn’s single-minded endeavor to save her life.  And here the new movie adds to what the original left out.  The rattlesnake bite costs Mattie her arm.  She recovers and grows up to be a wealthy spinster.  And the last act of the book has her belatedly trying to meet up with Rooster at a Wild West Show that he has ended up in.  Cole Younger, one of his fellow “exhibits” informs her that Rooster had died several days previously.  She has his remains moved to her family plot.  Thus completing the idea that Cogburn had become something of a father figure to her.

I intend to discuss some other features of the True Grit movies and book in future posts.