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True Grit (1969) (Blu-ray Review)

3 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G.’
Stars John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall.

In 1969, Charles Portis pulled off the dream of every writer — and especially every newspaper vet who has ever taken a flyer at fashioning fiction. He got a huge critical and commercial success out of a Western novella whose deadpan humor (a sharp “ping!” here, a sharp “ping!” there) was and is more suited to the Coen Brothers’ straight faces than to a pair of old-timers who were approaching the end of long careers: producer Hal Wallis and director Henry Hathaway.

But just because the Coens’ fresh take makes for a better movie than John Wayne’s Oscar showcase of four decades’ past, it doesn’t mean the original is without merit or fails to retain some of the charm that made it so popular at the time. The first True Grit was among the “big ones” of an outstanding movie year that included several releases that seemed superior even then: Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Alice’s Restaurant, Z and even Easy Rider. But aside from Jack Nicholson in the last or the draft board sequence and slipshod police procedurals in Alice, none of these could be categorized as a load of laughs, which True Grit occasionally was.

There’s some context here. Once Wayne came back from lung cancer surgery with The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965, he started to coast — and momentarily leaving True Grit aside, the only movies of real merit he made for the rest of what had been a magnificent John Ford-Howard Hawks career were Hawks’ 1967 El Dorado and swan song The Shootist in 1976, both of which keep getting better with every year. Neither, though, made particular waves at the time outside of auteurist camps, so the idea of Wayne taking on a hugely popular novel’s broad character part (one-eyed Federal marshal who loves the sauce) had tremendous appeal. And this was especially so on the heels of 1968’s virtually unwatchable The Green Berets — which, despite its box office success, was and is probably the worst movie Wayne made after finally escaping 'Z' Westerns in the pre-Stagecoach 1930s. (At least his performance as Genghis Khan in 1956’s loopy-beyond-belief The Conqueror has entertainment going for it.)

Wayne doesn’t show up until about 13 minutes into True Grit, and it’s a fairly grim time of it waiting for the movie to get in gear outside of Elmer Bernstein’s music and the postcard perfection of the great Lucien Ballard’s cinematography (though it was The Wild Bunch that got Ballard the National Society of Film Critics’ citation that year — the same one in which Oscar preferred Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s visuals to either). In one of the egregiously miscast roles of the decade, 21-year-old Kim Darby was given the tough burden of playing vengeful 14-year-old protagonist Mattie Ross — wispily mangling most deliveries of Portis’ eccentric dialogue (adapted by Marguerite Roberts) and coming off as a kind of flower child when what the role demands is some early-adolescent variation on Alice Roosevelt Longworth or a like alternative with that kind of “sand” (to use a favorite Portis noun). Which may be why, a year later, Darby turned out to be rather appealing displaying a semi-hippie dimension in the not-on-DVD version of James Kunen’s hit counterculture bestseller The Strawberry Statement.

None of these opening 13 minutes — which Darby has to carry — even addresses singer Glen Campbell as a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, whose performance has probably been panned even more than Darby’s over the years but is at least on the mark for a handful of laugh lines. In other words, True Grit is a vastly different movie whenever Wayne is on the screen — and the better scenes that Campbell and Darby have are always with him. A year later, producer Wallis would actually reteam the two in a barely shown adaptation of Portis’ also-funny first novel, Norwood — a movie probably worth reviving (assuming Paramount even knows it owns it) for a Ripley’s kind of cast that also includes Joe Namath, Carol Lynley, Dom DeLuise, “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” regular Leigh French, ’40s comedienne Cass Daley, Pat Hingle, dishy Tisha Sterling, grownup ’50s kid singer Jimmy Boyd and (by this time elderly) Tin Woodsman Jack Haley.

Parts of True Grit were shot in Colorado, and more than any other movie, it looks like the Colorado to which I used to escape every summer for varying numbers of weeks in 1968-75, specifically to escape the moviegoing grind. Ballard’s work has nowhere near the cinematic virtuosity of just about any scene in The Wild Bunch, and Dennis Hopper, who has a small role here, once claimed to Bob Costas on the latter’s grand old late-night interview show that Hathaway never moved the camera (which is close enough to the truth). But the result is undeniably gorgeous, and the Blu-ray does look exactly as the movie did in 1969, when I saw it five times in its first-run engagement. The bonus extras, carried over from the 2007 DVD, are short but venture in directions both desirously expected and surprising. One Western historian has a lot of fun talking about how one of the keys to being a successful outlaw was to carry the right moniker.

In terms of old-vs.-new, I think Wayne and Jeff Bridges are equal but compatibly different — while Matt Damon and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld are almost mortifyingly superior to Campbell and Darby. Give the young Robert Duvall a strong edge over Barry Pepper (playing outlaw Ned Pepper), while the original’s Jeff Corey and the new version’s Josh Brolin amount to something like a toss-up playing central villain Tom Chaney (Corey sometimes plays the role for laughs and has more to do). As a wily horse trader who is overwhelmed by young Mattie, Dakin Matthews is as good as the original’s Strother Martin, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Only occasionally does the original film approximate the twistedly wacky Portis tone, but it has always felt to me as if there were more to Roberts’ script than Hathaway or Wallis ever understood.

Both Roberts and Corey had been ‘50s victims of the Blacklist, which doesn’t even address the Dennis Hopper issue. One has to wonder, given Wayne’s own view of the world, if they all had a grand old time talking politics on the set.

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