John Wayne is so embedded in American lore as a gunslinging Western hero, that anyone can imitate his wide drawl and bowlegged stance without ever having seen one of his movies. Before sitting down and watching The Duke’s Oscar-winning performance in True Grit, I admit I had only seen him years ago in Stagecoach. I found myself surprised how even then, when he was just a pup, he had such movie-star magnetism. So it really came as no surprise that his charisma alone carries True Grit, making it an enjoyable old-school Western, full of humor, action, and surprisingly touching moments.
The film opens with a patriarch kissing his wife, his baby, and his older kids goodbye as he goes into town to buy some ponies. I announced to the TV, “This guy is DEAD!”… and yes, soon enough, a scene or two later he is shot in the chest by a man after a night at the saloon, and is left to die in the middle of the street. Cut to his eldest child, a spitfire of a young woman named Mattie (Kim Darby). Mattie Ross is a bit of a tomboy: She can ride a horse, she is sensible enough to be the one sent to town to claim her father’s body, and she is savvy enough to wrangle herself verbally through any situation. She decides that it is up to her to catch her father’s killer, so she hires U.S. Deputy Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne), because word is that he has “true grit” and can get the job done.
Now, I just have to say that Wayne’s entrance doesn’t come for a full 15 or 20 minutes into the film, but getting to kick an arrested outlaw in the butt is sure a great way to make a first impression. Rooster Cogburn is a bit overweight, swills whiskey, has an eyepatch (specially made so that Wayne could see through it while he was filming), and is more than a little bit over the hill. But in his four years as a marshal he has killed 23 men—and that is just the sort of justice that Mattie is looking for.
By the time they get in the saddle, the odd couple of the grizzly old Western star and the fresh-faced young woman are joined by a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) who wants to find the shooter for his own reasons. As they make their way through the stunningly gorgeous mountain scenery of Colorado, they come across various bad guys including Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, all leading them to their target, and a great showdown involving John Wayne biting his horse’s reigns between his teeth and thundering across a field shooting a pistol in one hand and a rifle in another. Remember, he was 61 when he made True Grit! What a movie star!
The extras on the Special Collector’s Edition of True Grit are exactly what you’d want to for a classic film. There is a feature commentary by Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell, and J. Stuart Rosebrook, all of whom are experts and fans of Western films and books. They are obviously having loads of fun commenting on one of their favorite movies, and don’t hold back criticizing historical inaccuracies, plus mocking pretty-boy Glen Campbell for his dated late-60s hairstyle and poor horseback riding skills. Some of the other featurettes include modern interview snippets from Campbell and Kim Darby, as well as some of the other character actors. Another called Aspen Gold: Locations of True Grit is just the thing that obsessed fans would enjoy, as it highlights locations where the film was shot, including a town map of Ridgway, Colorado showing where to find the buildings used in the film. Interesting tidbit: When the filmmakers used locals in the film, the extras were required to be at least 5’10” so that they wouldn’t look like midgets next to the towering John Wayne (6’4″). That, my friend, is just the sort of thing that movie fans love to learn!
NOTE: The original trailer, which is included on the DVD, states that True Grit was originally rated “M” for mature audiences. The film contains lots of gun violence, as well as the death of a major character. But there’s no swearing! That, I guess, is why the movie is now rated “G” for general audiences. Now that Jack Valenti is dead, I’d love to see the ratings system re-evaluated so that violence is considered worse than sex and bad language!