Having recently seen and thoroughly enjoyed Joel and Ethan Coens’ “True Grit”, I decided to check out
Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel.

I was happily pleased with the 1969 version starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, finding it a well done film in its own right but also very interesting to see alongside the 2010 version. Below I will discuss some of the similarities and differences of the two great films.

1. The Duke vs. The Dude
As much as Jeff Bridges brings a light comedic touch to Rooster, so does The Duke. I found The Duke’s one eye glaring a fun affect and I appreciated how it seems The Duke has a bit of a rooster strut. This makes sense to me as an ‘on edge’ marshall with one eye may begin to swing his head a bit. I also wondered at how much Jeff Bridges was influenced by The Duke. I do think that Wayne was sending himself up a bit in doing an untraditional hero but Bridges is coming  from the other direction, known less as an action hero (Tron aside) he was able to strike a perfect balance of a lovable offbeat cold blooded killer. I loved the scene in the original where John Wayne falls down drunk and can’t get up and looking around says, “Here. We’ll camp here.” I think that Daniels deserves an Oscar nomination in his balance of comedic and dramatic acting (a feat matched by Christian Bale in ‘The Fighter’–another Oscar deserving role).

2. On Matters of Mystery 
What differed in the Coen Brothers version was how much was left to mystery. I believe that talented script writers know when to draw the line of “what is better left unsaid”. Two important decisions of mystery were made by the Coens. First, they do not say if Mattie actually has access to this lawyer she always uses as a threat. We are left to imagine that she could be bluffing, or truly doesn’t know how much interest a lawyer would have in her affairs, or maybe really does wield influence with her family’s lawyer. On the other hand, in Hathaway’s version, we even see the lawyer serving papers for her. Secondly, in the case of Rooster’s eye, Hathaway chooses to disclose how it was lost. Again the Coens correctly (imho) left it open to speculation.

3. Justice Is Blind…At Least In One Eye 
In both films, there is the question of appropriate justice and the workings of revenge and retribution. It is no mistake that a hanging is occurring when Mattie enters town. Is the hanging of these three men just? What is the function of public executions? Is it moral for any court to execute a criminal? The theme continues with Rooster’s examination on the stand. He justifies and rationalizes his killings not only to the court, but it appears that he does so to himself also. He is judge, jury, and executioner if he sees fit. Interestingly in both films, there is a bit of ambiguity about Maddie’s intentions. She at times says she wants Chaney to be brought to court but she also says she plans on shooting him herself with her father’s pistol. She may perhaps consider both options, but in both films when she confronts Chaney she does try to convince him to come peacefully to Marshall Rooster. In Mattie’s view of justice Chaney had to die on account of his killing her father, and to be killed for any other crime would be unsatisfactory. In both films, Rooster is concerned with the capture or killing of Lucky Ned Pepper, and Chaney is just a means to that end. Any ‘justice’ for the killing of Mattie’s father is on the periphery if at all. The Coens do well in bookending the theme of justice. In the narration in the beginning, Mattie states that nothing goes unanswered for, that there is an accounting–nothing is free but God’s grace. At the end of the film, we see that she has lost an arm and she and Rooster appear to have led isolative lives of disconnection. It is these quiet judgments of life that are just as stirring as any. One may look to the repurcussions of Moses’ attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac: disconnection, isolation, loss. God’s vengence is sometimes portrayed in quiet fashion. This theme of justice is closely related to the next topic…

4. Its Morally…Je Ne Sais Quoi  
Moral ambiguity is handled by both films quite well. Both films use one conversation between Rooster and LeBoeuf
to bring this theme to the fore. It occurs when they discuss the fighting companies that they were associated with during the Civil War. Each accuses the other of being essentially a rogue and identifying with illegitimate companies. Who was right? Who were the bandits? The terrorists? On the side of good? That is a matter of perspective. In war, these issues are more pronounced perhaps, but they permeate all of our daily lives. Is LeBoeuf lying when he says that he’s drank from a hoofprint? Most likely. Is he inappropriate when he says he’d have liked to kiss a fourteen year old girl? Yes. Is he wrong to whip her with a stick? Yes. Is he a good guy? Is he a hero? These questions are doubly more pertinent to Rooster. Both films are working with an original text that played up the idea of dark anti-heroes and that is why, I believe, each film is so interesting to watch. The ambiguity is strong with the question of John Chaney’s crime and each film handles it a bit differently. In Hathaway’s 1969 version, we are shown Chaney killing Mattie’s father. The man is desperate, drunk, and is played as a crime of passion. Is he to die for this crime? How would we judge his actions today? In the ’69 version Chaney is also portrayed as an uncomplicated person, not scheming certainly, almost childish and naive. The Coens don’t show Chaney’s crime but they do talk about his cognitive acumen. LeBoeuf believes Chaney to use being ‘simple’ as a rouse but Mattie disagrees and we as the audience see him in honest moments and can agree that he does have  the mind of a child. Does Chaney understand his actions? Is he responsible in the same way other adults would be?

5. A Horse of A Different Color
One way the Coens succeeded I believe, was in creating greater emotional impact in almost every way for just about every character. In my viewings I saw this starkly in the death of Mattie’s horse: Little Blackie. In the 1969 film, the horse collapses and Rooster and Mattie carry on. It is just an event. In the Coens’ version, we feel like we are seeing the death of a friend. I was crying the entire ‘night ride’ and when Mattie yelled “you’re killing him!” I was overcome. We see the pain conveyed in Mattie’s face as she is carried away where the pain of the poison is replaced with a deathly pain of grief.

6. Hot Lead Served In Family Sized Portions
One aspect of character relations that the 1969 version emphasizes that the Coens do not include really to any degree is the way Mattie mirrors Rooster. In Hathaway’s film, we are given three clues that the hardheaded Mattie serves as a younger version or potential Rooster. The first is when Rooster says of Mattie, “she reminds me of me.” The second comes when the horse trader says to Mattie regarding Rooster, “you two could be related.” Lastly, towards the end of the film, Rooster calls Mattie “Sis.” There is a sense that Mattie is a child not of her parents. She seems to have acquired a worldliness, a wisdom and clarity that exceeds her parents’ even at age fourteen. It appears that Rooster could be the ‘spiritual’ father of Mattie, a picture of herself as an adult. His quick judgments that could cut someone down in cold blood is echoed in her capacity to judge a person as “trash” (which she does in both films, though to different people).

In closing, I would just repeat that both films are great films–interesting in their own ways but very enjoyable to view alongside each other.

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