When I first heard that the Coen Brothers were remaking this film, I was pretty sure it was a bad idea. They proved me wrong, completely and gloriously wrong. I’d be happy to be wrong like that a hundred times a year. So, was the original maybe not as good as I remembered it? I was curious to see it again.
No, I wasn’t wrong. This is still a great film, and a great performance by John Wayne. But they are very different, and it’s mostly a result of different approaches to film in 1969 and 2010. Henry Hathaway directed the first one, and he stayed faithful to the book. It was the end of the era of “classical” westerns, and this was just about the last hurrah. After this, there were some very good revisionist westerns, movies that tried to show something more realistic, what the West really looked like. Movies like The Culpepper Cattle Company, and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and The Wild Bunch, and Little Big Man, and later, Lonesome Dove. These movies had a different look, odd and non-traditional settings, and showed the hardships and brutality and everyday life of the West, without a singing cowboy in a white hat anywhere to be seen. In True Grit, there is some of that—mostly from the book and script—but Hathaway could not resist setting it in the towering Rocky Mountains, not the much tamer Ozarks. The Coens corrected that.
Hathaway also retains the archaic, Victorian way of speaking, for Mattie and for characters like the horse trader (wonderfully played by the great Strother Martin), but chickened out when it came to Wayne, such that his speech had some of that flavor—his dialogue is like no other John Wayne movie—but toned it down some. I’ll bet he just couldn’t imagine John Wayne using a word like “thither.” Jeff Bridges did, and it worked very well. The new version shows more ugliness than they could get away with in 1969, for instance the smelly corpse hanging from the tree, and the mountain man who wanted it to trade … for what, I don’t know. And of course there was the matter of the ending. I don’t think audiences could have handled Mattie losing her arm in the original, or the idea that she never again saw Rooster Cogburn. Today, we’re more or less okay with that. The most glaring differnce between the two versions is Glenn Campbell vs. Matt Damon. Poor Glenn was just flat-out over his head. He tries valiantly, but Matt Damon on his worst day is ten times the actor that Glenn Campbell is on his best.
So in many ways the movies are co-equals, in my opinion, with the edge going to the new version. But what it all comes down to, naturally, is the characters of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn. Both Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld are very good, both plucky and no-bullshit and never afraid to say exactly what they mean. If I had to pick—and I guess I do, don’t I?—I’ll go with Hailee. As for Rooster … I’m just not going to pick. I see it as two great actors with different takes on the same role, and hell, that’s what theater is all about, isn’t it? John Wayne put everything he had into this part, and his iconic status make it all work perfectly. Bridges is more raw, more grizzled, more disreputable than John Wayne could ever be, but that’s no reflection on Wayne. If you cast Mount Rushmore, are you going to complain that their faces are stony? John Wayne embodies our myths of the American West, and in a suitable role, no one could touch him.