TRUE GRIT - Blu-ray review

...a good movie, just probably not the great one of memory.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man." --Robert Duvall

It's nice to see Paramount release John Wayne's 1969 "True Grit" on high-definition Blu-ray. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that they might not have done it quite so soon had they not also released the Coen Brothers' 2010 version of the story to theaters at about the same time. Whatever, Big John's Rooster Cogburn is bigger, badder, and more amusing than ever in high def.

You remember the story: A no-good scoundrel named Tom Chaney has robbed and murdered the father of young Mattie Ross, and the girl determines to track the culprit down and see him hanged, if she doesn't kill him herself with her father's old gun. But she needs help finding the man, so she looks for the meanest, toughest U.S. Marshal around and lands upon Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, a man with "true grit." Turns out, however, that Cogburn is overweight, one-eyed, and almost perpetually drunk. It doesn't stop Mattie, though, who finally badgers and bribes him into helping her. Along with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, who is also looking for Chaney, the three of them eventually ride out on their adventure, if not quite together.

The story comes with a decent pedigree: Henry Hathaway ("North to Alaska," "The Sons of Katie Elder") directed it; Hal Wallis ("Sergeant York," "Casablanca," "Becket") produced it; Elmer Bernstein ("To Kill a Mockingbird," "Hud," "The Great Escape") composed the music; Charles Portis ("Norwood") wrote the novel; and Marguerette Roberts ("Dragon Seed," "Ivanhoe," "5 Card Stud") adapted the screenplay. That's a lot of talent, even if the director is not exactly in the John Ford category.

Interestingly, Paramount released "True Grit" theatrically just a few months ahead of another, similar Western, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Both films mix traditional Western action with a fair amount of good-natured, lighthearted humor. I'm sure that was simply another of Hollywood's monumental coincidences. Also of interest, despite "True Grit" containing various mild cuss words and depicting over half a dozen killings, three hangings, and assorted other roughness, the industry gave it a "G" rating, suitable for all audiences.

Whatever, it's John Wayne who's the biggest part of the show here as Rooster Cogburn. Although I'm not sure the Academy should have awarded him an Oscar for best actor in the role, he's certainly good in it (the trivia note below stating that the book's author had Wayne in mind when he wrote it). The Duke was always bigger than life in all the roles he played, and it appears that this time he was maybe having a little fun parodying his own image. He appears to enjoy ribbing himself and his traditional screen persona, making his characterization just a little more exaggerated and heroic than real life would dictate. (By contrast, Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers' adaptation of the book is grittier, scroungier, and crustier.) Anyway, it's fun watching Wayne in the part: grumpy, short-tempered, curmudgeonly, yet full of the innate goodness and determined pride that always seemed to make the actor and his role one and the same.

Likewise, Kim Darby is quite good as young Mattie Ross. Maybe she's a tad old for the part (early twenties rather than mid teens), but it hardly shows. Her character is appropriately feisty, headstrong, and brave, the one person in the movie who shows the truest grit of all.

There's also a fine supporting cast of leading character actors of the day. Jeff Corey plays the squirrelly reprobate Tom Chaney: "Everything happens to me, and now I am shot by a child." Robert Duvall plays the outlaw leader Ned Pepper: "Too thin, Rooster, too thin." Dennis Hopper, in an early role, plays another outlaw, "Moon." And, best of all, Strother Martin plays the frustrated livestock auctioneer Col. G. Stonehill, the actor practically stealing the show in his desperate but unavailing attempts to best Mattie at horse-trading.

The one letdown among the cast is singer Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger La Boeuf. Campbell gives it his all, but it's unclear why the filmmakers hired him for the part, except that he was riding high as a popular entertainer at the time. This was his first, major, big-screen role, and while he doesn't completely sink the movie, he doesn't do it any favors with his somewhat amateurish acting style. Still, it's really Wayne and Darby's film, and they so overshadow Campbell, it doesn't much matter that they have to carry him most of the way.

Still, this is not to say there aren't other shortcomings in the film. The title song, sung by Campbell, is wholly unremarkable and dated. The costumes are colorful but dated as well, reminding one not of the Old West but of Western television shows and movies of the Fifties and Sixties. Elmer Bernstein's musical score doesn't do much to evoke the Western era, either, sounding too modern and too much like Jerome Moross's theme for "The Big Country." Finally, you'll no doubt love the beautiful Colorado scenery in the movie, even if it doesn't do much to remind one of Arkansas, where the story supposedly takes place.

In all, "True Grit" is a good movie, just probably not the great one of memory.

Trivia: (Courtesy of John Eastman, "Retakes," Ballantine Books, NY, 1989): "The 'best scene I ever did,' said John Wayne, was the one in which as aging, one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn, he reminisces with Kim Darby about his life. He also believed Marguerite Roberts's screenplay the best he had ever worked from. His silver and leather hatband in this film had belonged to Gary Cooper, who had given it to Henry Hathaway. Wayne used a new eye patch for each day of filming. This was the first appearance of his horse Dollor, who also appeared in five subsequent Wayne Westerns, the last time in 'The Shootist.' At age sixty-two, Wayne had hoped to direct as well as star. (Charles Portis's novel had been written with the Duke in mind.) Producer Hal Wallis had tried to cast Mia Farrow as Mattie Ross; Farrow accepted but changed her mind when Robert Mitchum frightened her with tales about Hathaway's abrasive style of direction; later she said her refusal was the biggest personal and professional mistake of her life. Tuesday Weld also turned down the role. TV actress Darby at age twenty-one had settled into family life and only reluctantly accepted the part after Wallis practically begged her. Hathaway did give her a hard time, but the main conflicts on the set occurred between Hathaway and Robert Duvall (playing the outlaw chief), who hated imperious directors. Several fiery exchanges between them helped clear the air, but Duvall carried away no fond memories. Wayne, who received his only Academy Award as best actor for this film, reprised the role in 'Rooster Cogburn' (1975)."

Paramount present the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 codec. The results are likely as good as one could expect, especially as Paramount appear to have cleaned up the print as well as possible without resorting to any obvious filtering or edge enhancement. The image is quite bright, even a little flashy, in its colors, no doubt as the director intended it to look. The screen is fairly clear of grain and noise, yet not so clean that a fine layer of inherent grain isn't in some small evidence, especially in outdoor shots. Object delineation and detailing are moderately soft, with commendable black levels to set off the hues and definition.

One can watch the film with its original, restored mono track or with a remixed and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The 5.1 is certainly quiet, so my guess is that Paramount used some degree of noise reduction on it; nonetheless, it did leave the sound a bit flat and not quite so round or natural as real life. It's a tad harsh at times, occasionally a little metallic, yet never nasal. Musical high notes can also be a touch thin and edgy. The front-channel stereo spread is somewhat narrow, as we might expect, and rear-channel activity is almost nil, also expected. Even so, there is a pleasant ambient glow to the sound that provides at least a comfortable listening experience.

There is a small but useful set of extras on the disc. The first item is an audio commentary by Jeb Rosebrook, Western film historian; Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of "True West" magazine; and Dr. Stuart Rosebrook, Western historian; together, they provide a wealth of background information on the film and the Old West. After that are four brief featurettes: "True Writing," four minutes on Charles Portis's novel and Marguerite Roberts's screenplay; "Working with the Duke," ten minutes on the actor with comments from Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Jeremy Slate, and others; "Aspen Gold: Locations of True Grit," ten minutes on the location shooting in Colorado; and "The Law and the Lawless," six minutes on the lawmen and outlaws of the West.

The extras wrap with thirteen scene selections; bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high definition; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Looking back at this 1969 version of "True Grit," one can see that critics of the time may have overrated it. The movie has faults that make it look more dated today than it should have been. Be that as it may, there is no taking away from the fine performances by Wayne and Darby in particular, nor the fine cinematography in practically every shot. "True Grit" remains an entertaining blend of gentle humor and dramatic action, even if we have to look beyond the film's shortcomings for all of it to work.

"Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!" --John Wayne


Film Value