You just have to glance at my Big Hollywood contributor’s photo to realize that I love a good western – the cowboy hat with the tux kind of give it away. So it was with much anticipation that I awaited the release of the Coen Brothers remake of the classic western True Grit which helped John Wayne win his well deserved Best Actor Academy Award in 1969. I’ll admit to a certain amount of prejudice here. When John Wayne puts the reins to his horse in his teeth, levers that big looped Winchester carbine, pulls his Colt’s revolver and hollars “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!” Well, it’s one of my favorite scenes in any film ever made, beautifully summing up Wayne’s legendary status as the most American of icons. Unfortunately, despite the considerable talents of Jeff Bridges, the Coen Brothers and others the new film literally throws that great cinematic moment away.
For those too young to have seen the original, True Grit, based on the excellent Charles Portis novel tells the story of precocious young Mattie Ross who hires a boozy, tough-minded U.S. marshal to bring in her father’s killer from 1880s Indian territory, a large chunk of what is now Oklahoma. Her stubborn caveat is that she gets to come along. Indian territory (that’s what they called it – not Native American Territory) was a no man’s land where the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole settlements sometimes gave uneasy safe haven to American outlaws on the run from Hanging Judge Parker’s U.S. Marshals in neighboring Arkansas.
John Wayne was and is this country’s most popular screen legend, still in the top ten in the Harris Poll every year. Yet he was often an unsung actor, though one who could fill the screen and entertain like few of his profession before or after him. It’s not that the 2010 True Grit is a bad film, it’s not, but it’s not a great film either. The Coen Brothers version just make you realize how much more entertaining the Wayne and Henry Hathaway directed True Grit really still is. In their effort to give us a more down and dirty version of the Old West, though the Wayne film is hardly sanitized, they’ve made this new version dull and uninspiring. Co-writer and co-director Ethan Coen said that they wanted to do the film from fourteen year old Mattie’s perspective and make it tougher and more violent. In the process they merely aped the original and duplicated most of the best scenes and dialogue, virtually verbatim.
Jeff Bridges was excellent in last years Crazy Heart, which won him an Academy Award. Unfortunately in True Grit he’s just an off-the-reservation parody with little charm or humor. One you can barely understand at that, since his delivery is often so garbled as to be incomprehensible. The performances of most of the other actor’s are solid, just not memorable. That’s the problem with a real remake, your film will be judged against the strongest points of the original.
In the original True Grit John Wayne stands rock solid like a piece of carved granite. Michael Mann’s stunning 1992 remake of several different versions of Last of the Mohicans reinvented that early frontier adventure with incredible style and verve that brought fresh life to a forgotten tale. There’s nothing fresh in this new version of True Grit, just a little more dirt, blood and debauched alcoholism that proves nothing. There is one new, but very strange scene featuring an odd ball mountain man that almost seems lifted from John Milius’s great script for Jeremiah Johnson, which adds nothing to the film except bewilderment.
The original film not only had John Wayne at his best, a wonderful script (despite the Coen’s claims it was very close to the novel) lush cinematography, great supporting actors and a rousing Elmer Bernstein score. Glenn Campbell’s weak performance as Texas Ranger LeBeouf is the original’s only low point, and frankly the other really good actors make him look at least adequate. In the 1969 film everyone from Strother Martin’s marvelous Colonel Stonehill and Kim Darby, a more than suitable Mattie Ross to Robert Duval’s dangerous Lucky Ned Pepper are memorable with a capital ‘M.” The new True Grit has poor Matt Damon in a silly buckskin coat and goofy looking hat saddled with an affected Texas accent that makes his performance not much better then Glenn Campbell’s.
The Coen film’s outdoors cinematography by Roger Deakins is good, though the indoor scenes are far too darkly lit and sepia toned in a misguided attempt at “realism,” that has become a boring visual stereotype of so many modern Westerns since the 1970s. If the Coen’s wanted realism that satisfies audiences they should have taken another look at the 1994 film Tombstone or the classic 1988 miniseries Lonesome Dove. Yes, the Coen’s Texas and New Mexico locations look more like the real Indian Territory then the Colorado backgrounds in the original film, but so what? The original didn’t look like it was shot in a completely foreign landscape and everything from the fresh and real buildings and interiors (the courtroom scenes were shot in an actual then 80-year-old courthouse) to the colors of the fall aspen trees gives the 1969 film a far more interesting visual look.
Despite the number of credited executive producers including Steven Spielberg, someone should have taken the Coen Brothers aside and told them what a fool’s errand they were on. Remaking True Grit is like remaking Citizen Kane, Casablanca or The Searchers. You can take the storyline and reinvent it with a different locale and altered characters, but you should only remake a film if you have something new to say that will be entertaining and interesting. The new True Grit is neither.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Don’t Mess With Texas!'” We’ll, the Coen Brother’s version of True Grit proves a similar very valid point – don’t fool with John Wayne, either.