John Wayne accumulated as many iconic roles in his legendary career as anyone else I can recall – which is doubly impressive when you consider he rarely left the sanctuary of the Western or War genres he became so beloved for. Always as quick with a bullet as he was with some weather-beaten words of sage, pragmatic advice or a cynical lament, one thing “The Duke”, as he was fondly known as, wasn’t particularly known for was switching his roles up.
Now, this isn’t a complaint, after movie stars as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves built empires around repeatedly playing a certain type of character, but but it could be argued that Wayne’s endless parade of gun slingers could be virtually interchangeable.
However, that was before Rooster Cogburn galloped onto the scene with a set of reigns between his teeth.
After her father is drilled with a bullet after a drunken run in with a hired hand, overly mature and deadly serious daughter Mattie Smith heads to Fort Smith in order to claim the body and settle his affairs. However, while there she witnesses a hanging and subsequently decides that her father’s killer should be brought to justice to dance on the end of a rope and so starts employing her formidable intelligence and almost supernaturally iron will into getting the justice she craves. However, to get the guilty party, Tom Chaney, out of “Indian Territory” she’ll need the services of a U.S. Marshal and so she zeroes in on the aging Rooster Cogburn, a man of true grit who also has a bodycount as long as your arm.
After scoring his payment, Mattie finds she also has to deal with La Boeuf, a young Texas Ranger who insists on sticking his nose in thanks to the fact that Chaney has apparently settled in with an outlaw gang lead by the infamous Ned Pepper and Cogburn let’s him tag along thanks to the promise of more reward money.
As this misshapen trio head towards their date with justice they take turns bonding while simultaneously annoying the crap out of each other, but is all the bonding in the world going to aid a fourteen year old girl, an egotistical Texan and an aging drunkard in an eye patch when they square up to an entire gang of criminals who would rather suck up a bullet than allow themselves to be brought in alive?
After an ambush attempt to even the odds fails and Ned Pepper manages to escape, Mattie’s quest for justice gets even harder when Pepper’s gang and Tom Chaney goes to ground and digs in hard – but the sizable grit of Cogburn may yet even the odds.
There are many reasons True Grit scores top marks, but surely the most obvious is the Duke’s portrayal of the epically curmudgeonly Cogburn which bagged the man his sole Oscar. While the actor formally known as Marion Robert Morrison (look it up) had dallied with roles that teased his advancing years before (El Dorado’s Cole Thornton suffers debilitating seizures thanks to a bullet lodged near his spine), Rooster sees Wayne fully leaning into the fact that the bloated ranger is a complete physical wreck and an accomplished drunkard to boot. It’s endearing to see an American icon huffing and puffing his way through riddling his own legacy with bullets and the movie surely contains some of the greatest moments in Wayne’s filmography. Watch and marvel as he sneers the immortal warning “Fill your hand you son of a bitch!” and then gallops into battle against four men with a revolver in one hand, a rifle in the other and his horse’s reigns clenched between his teeth.
However, aiding Wayne tremendously is the double act he forms with Kim Darby who somehow plays Mattie – a child who could be described as, at best, terminally precocious – with sense of warmth as she uses her intellect to bamboozle most of those who stand in her way. In fact, its genuinely entertaining whenever she uses her unbreakable grip on logic, math and just doing what’s fair to unravel the pomposity of various adults who are trying to swindle her from what is hers – even right down to suggesting she should only pay half her rent when she discovers she’ll be bunking with an innkeeper’s elderly mother. Not fairing quite so well as Wayne and Darby is singer Glen Campbell, who, to be honest, is fairly wooden as the vain La Boeuf and his early remarks to Mattie (La Bouef, much like Campbell at the time, is supposed to be in his early thirties while Kim Darby was 21 playing 14!) play now more than a little iffy as they are romantic of nature.
Rounding out the cast are a few familiar faces with a typically jittery Dennis Hopper popping up as a nervey outlaw and a scar-lipped Robert Duvall holding court of his skeevy gang as Lucky Ned Pepper and its legitimately weird to watch iconic actors of such different generations conversing in the same space. It’s like seeing a young Jack Nicholson appearing with Vincent Price in The Raven or seeing Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in the background of Enter The Dragon with Bruce Lee and feels like a surreal bridge between the ages.
Henry Hathaway keeps things moving at a sedate pace (even force western some might say), but his deliberate direction is crisp and clean and is less about galloping around, taking down lawless cowpokes in the name of justice as it is about a more introspective look at ones legacy as the skills of youth gradually leave you. Still, even when Hathaway’s pacing slows to a trot, there’s still the back and forth between Wayne and Darby to keep things firmly on track as the tired old lion is constantly flummoxed by this relentless, unstoppable cub and the nickname of “Baby Sister” the old groucho creates for her gradually becomes a huge term of endearment.
When you consider the more wholesome, traditional westerns – as opposed to the grittier, cynical spaghetti westerns that came in the wake of A Fistful Of Dollars – then True Grit stands as one of the best due to Wayne’s towering performance alone.
Not bad for a fat old bloke named Marion.