TRUE GRIT - DVD review

Is there another American actor that is more iconic than John Wayne?


Is there another American actor that is more iconic than John Wayne? Celebrating the 100th year Anniversary of Wayne's birth, Paramount and other studios are assaulting retail shelves with special edition re-releases of many of John Wayne's films. Born on May 27, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, John Wayne would make his big screen debut in the uncredited 1926 film "Brown of Harvard." Wayne would make a name for himself working with John Ford on many classic westerns during five decades beginning in the late Twenties and ending in the early Sixties. The Western genre was the most defining films for John Wayne, although he is notable for numerous World War II films. Wayne earned two Academy Award nominations before finally winning on this third nomination for the 1969 film "True Grit."

While being one of the more popular American actors in the history of cinema, his first performance as Rooster Cogburn showed the toughness and determination of the legendary actor; as he rode horseback and a great performance with a body ravaged by cancer and the advanced age of sixty two. Wayne had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and had his left lung removed and four ribs. An additional surgery found part of his right lung removed. John Wayne's involvement in the Howard Hughes film "The Conqueror" was the popular public target for Wayne's lung cancer, but the actor claimed a five-pack-a-day smoking habit that was the likely cause of his cancer. Regardless of his poor health, Wayne returned to the saddle for a number of films and earned his Academy Award for Best Actor on "True Grit." The overweight, 6'5" actor stood just as imposing and commanded the screen as dominating as ever as the drunken and surly Cogburn.

In "True Grit," Wayne is the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, a Federal Marshal known for using excessive force and having no problem bringing those to justice in a coffin. When a business man, Frank Ross (John Pickard) is killed by a man working for him, Ross' daughter Mattie (Kim Darby) seeks out the help of Cogburn to seek out the killer, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) and bring him to justice. Mattie and Cogburn are not alone in their pursuit of Chaney. The governor of Texas has sent a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf (Glen Campbell of "Rhinestone Cowboy" fame) to bring Chaney back to Texas alive and collect a handsome $1,500 reward. La Boeuf has not faced nearly as many vicious criminals as Cogburn and is more of a liability in their pursuit of Chaney than perhaps the young girl who refuses to not stay behind.

Chaney has taken a part in a gang of outlaws led by Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and is protected by the sizable force of Pepper's gang. Cogburn does not slow down or change his course of action when he learns that Pepper and Chaney are involved together. Cogburn, La Boeuf and Mattie come across two members of Pepper's band in an abandoned cabin. The two men, Emmett Quincy (Jeremy Slate) and Moon (Dennis Hopper) turn on each other and Moon details the motives of Pepper and his men and confirm that Chaney is riding with the dangerous men. Although Cogburn was initially very hesitant in allowing the tough and smart talking Mattie to ride along, he slowly accepts the girl's involvement and looks over her as a "Baby Sister." He continues to ridicule the Texas ranger with the pretty hair and big gun, but ultimately respects the man who saves his life twice before Pepper and Chaney are brought to justice.

John Wayne earned his Academy Award for his performance in this first Rooster Cogburn movie. As Cogburn, Wayne stepped aside from his more stereotypical cowboy performance. He allowed himself to be upstaged by a young girl and had to overcome his physical ailments in this role. It has been said that John Wayne had difficulty in walking more than a few yards before having difficulty breathing. You would never know that Wayne was missing ribs and a lung in his performance as the drunken and uncouth Cogburn. He spent much of his career wearing spurs and a cowboy hat and dedicated his life to portraying an American hero with strong values and a true notion of honor. Part of the award may have been in honor of his career, but his performance was certainly worth the gold statue. I've never been a tremendous John Wayne fan and have never considered him a great actor; until I saw "True Grit" and realized the condition he was in when he filmed the role.

The rest of the cast doesn't quite match up to the greatness that is the tall Iowan. Glen Campbell looks just a bit too handsome to be a Texas Ranger in the old days of the American frontier. Kim Darby has a tough job in acting opposite of an actor who has always been larger-than-life, but her naïve cuteness does wear thing before the climactic moments when Cogburn must deal with the bad guys and get Mattie to safety. Neither Campbell nor Darby were bad, but when put up against somebody as iconic as John Wayne, they seem miscast. Robert Duvall was very good in the film and Dennis Hopper gave a good early performance. At the time when "True Grit" was released, Wayne's audience was older and Campbell was brought in to appeal to a younger audience, but the veteran Wayne is the true star of the show.

"True Grit" is a classic western that first introduced John Wayne in one of the roles that he is best remembered for; that of Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Wayne is a pure American icon and one tough customer that would live for another ten years and act in films for another seven. Paramount has wisely chosen "True Grit" as one of the first films in the massive John Wayne push for the "John Wayne Collection" and this title joins other seminal John Wayne classics as "Stagecoach," "The Searchers" and "Sands of Iwo Jima." There will never be another actor who can embody the American cowboy and the American war hero as John Wayne did and nobody can ever fill his boots. I look forward to watching more films in the "John Wayne Collection" as they are released and appreciate the large body of work of this great man.

"True Grit" is presented in a very fine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The newly mastered print is incredibly clean, colorful and incredibly detailed. This thirty eight year old film shows little film grain and hardly any noticeable flaws from either the source materials or the digital transfer. John Wayne westerns have typically been plentiful in beautiful vistas and depictions of the Great American Wild West and "True Grit" is no exception. The colorful skies and lush greens of the Wild West come through beautifully in this film. The clothing and red dress worn by Kim Darby are rendered with strong colors as well. The frontier towns, abandoned shack and other locations are nicely done for a 1969 film. Black levels and shadow detail are strong as well. "The Searchers" is one of my benchmark films for visual quality for older catalog titles on the newer high definition formats and "True Grit" is now one of my benchmark titles for these vintage films on the older DVD format. This is a very good looking film and I hope the rest of the "John Wayne Collection" looks even half this good.

A newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 multi-channel surround mix in accompanied by the original mono soundtrack. With a title song composed by Elmer Bernstein and sung by Glen Campbell, the music of the film is your typical western fare, but sounds very good. The sound of "True Grit" sounds good, although the 5.1 transfer is only a slight improvement over the mono track that will certainly please purists. The .1 LFE channel and rear surrounds are ignored through the vast majority of the film's running time and most of the sound takes place during the center channel and possesses some sound bleed to the left and right channels. Some dialogue is contained in left and right channels in addition to the center channel to help create a stereo presentation and music and ambient effects are also pushed to the sides. Vocals are very good and very nicely reproduced by both the surround and mono mixes. "True Grit" succeeds in sounding clean, but its 5.1 remastering is underwhelming. The mono soundtrack is almost equal to the 5.1 mix and under THX Ultra processing, was nearly identical in its soundscape.

Paramount isn't just pushing out a large number of John Wayne films into the general populace. They are taking their time and producing "Special Collector's Edition" releases of many of these films. "True Grit" contains the packaging that matches the film to the rest of the collection, but also comes shipped in a handsome cardboard slipcover that looks far nicer than the actual DVD cover artwork. This is one of the few instances where the "For Distributor Promotional Use Only" sticker makes me sad. The brown and black slipcover with raised metallic lettering is very spiffy. Mine just has a mark where I removed an ugly blue sticker.

The DVD itself contains a number of supplements featuring involvement from numerous historians and enthusiasts of the American Western in art and history. The Commentary by Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell and J. Stuart Rosebrook is a nice listen that discusses the man, the legend, the book and the film. There is a lot of information relating to differences between Charles Portis' original novel and the filmed adaptation. Historical inaccuracies and accuracies are detailed and the three men talk in conversation for the entire length of the film. Jeb Rosebrook is a writer and producer with a strong interest in Westerns. Bell is the Editor of True West magazine and the second Rosebrook is a writer and historian of the American West.

The non commentary featurettes are short, but sweet. True Writing (4:28) finds the Rosebrooks and Bob Boze Bell discussing the film, the novel it was based from and the novel's writer. J. Stuart Rosebrook interestingly states that this film let American's know that everything will be okay. The second vignette, Working with the Duke (10:16) finds Kim Darby, Jeremy Slate, Glen Campbell and others discussing their involvement in "True Grit" and anecdotes of working with "The Duke." I wonder where Robert Duvall was. Aspen Gold: The Locations of True Grit (10:19) looks at the area where the film was shot in Ouray County. This feature wasn't as entertaining as the first two, but did detail some nice making of stories; especially a bit detailing requirements of extras hired for the film. The Law and the Lawless (5:47) was a fun little supplement that discussed outlaws and law in the old west and mentioned some of the infamous names of American Outlaws. The Theatrical Trailer and Previews for additional John Wayne films finalizes the bonus materials. I swear, is there only one guy working in Hollywood to do voiceovers for previews?

Closing Comments:
"True Grit" altered my opinion of John Wayne. I had always considered Wayne to be an American icon and the stereotypical American hero. I looked at him as being a legend, but not necessarily a great or good actor. I love many Wayne films, including non Westerns such as "The Quiet Man," but still did not view Wayne as a thespian. After learning of the physical condition he was in during the filming of "True Grit" and then watching this ailing old man still command the screen, I realized the powerful personal of Wayne was due to his talent and determination. The film itself is one of Wayne's better Westerns and Rooster Cogburn is easily one of Wayne's more memorable characters. I had initially thought this was the sequel to the film titled "Rooster Cogburn," but after watching the film; realized I was in err. This is a classic western featuring one of our greatest actors. The DVD featured a great picture and clean sound with a few nice supplements. With John Wayne nearing the century mark from his birth, many of these old John Wayne films are worth snatching up and "True Grit" should be one of the first to add to any collection.


Film Value