There is one genre in the art of cinema that will forever remain a truly American invention, the western. Other countries have imitated it but none have ever surpassed the good old fashion horse opera. From the weekly serial to the deeper, more intense films the westerns cover it all. You can not have a valid discussion of the American western without one name coming up, John Wayne. He made the genre his own and one film in particular is famous even if westerns aren’t your favorite type of film, ‘True Grit’. This film is a mature western, one that transcends the usually ‘shoot-em-up’ members of the genre possessing an engaging story, excellent actors and incredible screen play and direction. Unlike so many films based on a novel this one actually remains true to the work of Charles Portis. This is an engaging story of strength, dedication, change and pure humanity. As one of the truly great classic films, not just an exceptional western, this is a film for the whole family. While this film has been available on DVD for about seven years now Paramount is re-releasing it as a Special Collector’s Edition. With more features than ever this is one not to miss.
Life in the west is not easy for young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby). She was barely fourteen years of age when she took off into the untamed territory to avenge the murder of her father. It was only a short time ago that she was living on the family spread in Arkansas, near the town of Dardanelle in Yell County. One of the hands her father hired, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) was disreputable to say the least. Her father was a kindly man who thought that every man deserves a chance and hired the drifter. One day while in town to buy some horses Frank Ross (John Pickard) takes Chaney along. Ross is carrying the sum of $150 plus two gold pieces he was never without. During a barroom brawl Ross intervenes and Chaney sees his chance for some quick money. He murders Ross, steals the money and gold and escapes to Indian Territory. When Chaney hooks up with the infamous outlaw gang headed by Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) the local marshal refuses to pursue the murderer. This leaves Mattie to bring the killer to justice herself. Knowing that she cannot possibly accomplish this on her own she looks to hire the toughest marshal around, Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (John Wayne). The downside is he is more than a bit past his prime. Rooster is old, fat, a drunk and missing one eye. His one redeeming quality is he does have grit, a determination see the job through to the end. An uneasy partnership is formed out of a mutual necessity. Mattie needs a hired gun and Rooster is always in search for funding for his many drunken binges. They soon come across someone else hunting Chaney down. Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) is after the outlaw for a murder of a state senator and his dog he committed in Texas. La Boeuf hopes to score big with recognition and the reward. The men realize that the girl is holding them back and try their best to ditch her. Mattie is far more resourceful then they imagined and soon become a recognized member of the posse. Chasing Chaney is going to be difficult since his new gang is comprised of the worse men in the west. Besides Pepper there is Quincy (Jeremy Slate) and Moon (Dennis Hopper), two of the most volatile outlaws riding. It also turns out that Rooster and Pepper have history together and it should come as no surprise it is not an amiable one. The film shows these two groups drawing closer to the final showdown.
Many have criticized this film for the slow first hour. This is completely unfounded. While most of the westerns we are used to start off with action and keep up the pace this one has to be different. It is a character study trying successfully to capture the tone and themes of the novel. It takes time to flesh out the different characters and let the audience understand their motivations. Marguerite Roberts provides a script that is faithful to the Portis novel and that in itself is rare with Hollywood. One of the main themes presented here is that of transition. Everyone is experiencing a major arc in their lives. Mattie has to transform from a protected young girl to a determined young woman. She has to cope with the loss of her father while balancing her religious beliefs with her desire for vengeance. La Boeuf also changes through the journey. Initially his motivation was recognition but he comes to see the bigger picture due to his interaction with Rooster and Mattie. His pride gives way to being an unselfish man. One of the best examples of change is with Rooster. He started his life as a store clerk, became an outlaw and finally a marshal. He is facing the end of the road in his life. His reflexes are not what they used to be. He craves drink more than just about anything. He is a shambles of a man but his grit is still there under the surface. Mattie begins to see him as a hero when he takes on four gunmen. One thing about Rooster, he will not back down. The writing here is something you don’t often see in a western. The direction by Henry Hathaway is impeccable. Hathaway has an impressive resume that runs the gamut from westerns to war flicks to the film noir classic ‘Kiss of Death’. This was a man that knew how to present a story correctly.
While the cast is always an important part of any film in a character driven movie like this it can make or break the production. The casting here is nothing short of perfection. Kim Darby embodies her character. She is a slip of a girl whose slight frame is deceptive. She has more strength and determination than most grown men. The scene where she shows her worth by out horse trading men is fantastic. Many singers have tried their hand at acting and failed. Glen Campbell nails his role with talent and flair. His character arc is something special to watch. For the bad guys you couldn’t ask for better than the likes of Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. They are men that can bring dimension to any character they take on. Then of course there is the Duke himself, John Wayne. His career spanned many decades but this is the film that finally got him his Oscar. Filmed only a few years after he had a lung removed he not only played a man with true grit he was one. Only Wayne could pull off this role. In the scene where he rides into battle, six shooter in one hand, rife in the other, holding the reigns in his teeth we believe it. A lesser actor would have come across as silly but the Duke is the man who we believe would do this.
Paramount is re-releasing this classic with a truly special edition. Even if you have the version released back in 2000 this one is a must have. The anamorphic 1.85:1 shows hardly any signs of age. It is clear, well balanced and without any transfer artifacts. The sound track offers you a choice between the original mono and a re-mastered Dolby 5.1. The surround track is very well done with better than average especially for a re-master. There are also some great extras provided. There is a commentary by writers and film critics Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Baze Bell and J. Stuart Rosebrook. Their insight into this film is far better than the usual faire. There is also a featurette detailing the task of bringing a novel faithfully to the screen and another about the beautiful western locations used in the film. Added to this is a tribute to John Wayne and a look at law and order in the west. It is rare that a film has something literally for the whole family but this one does. Get it and enjoy it over and over again.