Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 36: True Grit (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where True Grit (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.” One of his examples includes “when John Wayne puts the reins in his teeth and gallops across the mountain meadow.” On page 226 he mentions having spotted John Wayne in costume for the film’s production during a studio lot interview with Lee Marvin. On page 250 he details a separate interview with Wayne himself, who shows off his prop rifle from the film.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “One of the glories of True Grit is that it recognizes Wayne’s special presence. It was not directed by Ford (who in any event probably couldn’t have been objective enough about Wayne), but it was directed by another old Western hand, Hathaway, who has made the movie of his lifetime and given us a masterpiece. This is the sort of film you call a movie, instead of the kind of movie you call a film. It is one of the most delightful, joyous scary movies of all time […] It is not a work of art, but it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were. Instead, it is the Western you should see if you only see one Western every three years (an act of denial I cannot quite comprehend in any case).” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

In his original, gleefully enthusiastic review for the 1969 John Wayne Western True Grit, Ebert explains that the film “is not a work of art, but wouldn’t be nearly as good if it were.” This is just a few sentences after he dares to call it “a masterpiece.” I totally relate to the sentiment of those seemingly self-contradictory ideas, as it very much is at peace with how I watch & review movies myself. Ebert’s legacy as a film critic has always been one of subjectivity & populism, so it makes perfect sense to hear him declare a film to be genre-minded fluff in one breath and a stone-cold masterpiece in the next. Where I diverge with him on the topic at hand is in the specific genre he’s praising: Westerns. I’ve given many trashy horror & sci-fi pictures five-star raves over the three years we’ve been blogging here, but Westerns just really aren’t my genre. In fact, part of the reason the Roger Ebert Film School project has been on hold for the past six months (!!!!) is that I was dreading watching True Grit, which has a reputation for being on the best Westerns ever made. Adapted from a popular novel, inspiring a remake & a sequel, and earning John Wayne his sole Academy Award, it’s the kind of genre exercise that should appeal to even heretics like me, who’d rather watch the worst monster movie over the best cowboy thriller any day. Admittedly, True Grit did win me over despite my personal genre boundaries, but not necessarily by being a great movie first and a great Western second. It did so by side-stepping the roadblock I usually have with these Old West narratives: their traditionally macho POV.

If pressured to declare my favorite Western of all time, my answer would like likely be the recent Australian genre-bender The Dressmaker. Essentially reimagining the Western genre as a tonal mashup of Muriel’s Wedding and a 90s John Waters comedy, The Dressmaker is a classic guns-blazing revenge tale in which Kate Winslet takes out an entire town by sewing pretty dresses instead of firing a six-shooter. The Dressmaker is a genre standout to me because it’s an intoxicatingly feminine take on a traditionally masculine genre. To my surprise, despite ostensibly being a John Wayne picture, True Grit works in a similar way. Written for the screen by (McCarthy witch hunt victim) Marguerite Roberts, the film is largely about a bubbly teenage girl defiantly making her way through an intimidatingly macho world. Our plucky protagonist, Mattie (Kim Darby), has a Book of Henry-type preciousness in her willingness to steamroll adults’ wills and run the show. Her mission in the picture in an act of cold-blooded revenge, hiring two macho hard-asses (the drunkest & meanest of the pair being played by John Wayne, naturally) to kill the man who murdered her own father in an act of petty theft. She insists on accompanying the mission into Native territory herself, of course, and the movie builds a lot of tension out the danger she puts herself in by dangerously navigating “a man’s world.” Her presence isn’t nearly as aggressively femme as the energy of The Dressmaker (I likely would have been much more enthusiastic about the film at large if it were, to be honest), but it did help me adjust to the macho power fantasy of gruff Western lore instead of just mentally checking out completely, which is my usual experience with the genre.

I haven’t had many reasons or opportunities in my life to study the John Wayne Western as an artform, so it’s difficult for me to compare his Oscar-winning performance here with his more typical work. The couple times I’ve dealt with Wayne with any critical intent was in the cop thriller Brannigan (which was great) and the fire-fighting epic Hellfighters (which was terrible). But since Ebert is obviously a giddy fan of The Duke, I suspect that will drastically change soon. True Grit is likely as good of a crash course in John Wayne’s Western work as any I could have hoped for, if not only because the movie doesn’t take his heroics too seriously. A mean old US Marshall roped into a revenge mission while in a drunken stupor, you’d think Wayne’s antihero sidekick character would be all macho posturing & no levity. He’s wonderfully contrasted by Kim Darby’s authentic teenage femininity, though. The two butt heads immediately, him warning “I ought to paddle your rump!” and her spitting back that he’s “a sorry piece of trash.” The heart of True Grit is largely in watching the two partners soften to each other even more so than it is their shared revenge mission. The closing line of the film is Wayne shouting, “Come see a fat old man sometime!” jovially to Mattie, who has come to accept him as the drunk uncle she never had (when you might expect him to be closer to a replacement father figure). The drunk bastard even has a tender friendship onscreen with a house cat named General Sterling Pride, whom he snuggles with when he’s too tipsy to get out of bed. Wayne certainly plays the hardened gunfighter archetype he was famous for embodying in the film, one that’s even dangerously macho, but it somehow comes across as adorable instead of grotesque.

There’s plenty to True Grit I couldn’t identify with because of my arm’s distance relationship with the Western genre. The macho posturing, G-rated gun violence, and racist caricatures of any & all PoC that usually kill the mood for me (and, to be frank, bore me) in Westerns are all present & accounted for here. Although I could be tickled by the antiquated phrasing of “Hurry! I’m in a bad way!” when Mattie falls in a rattlesnake pit, the tension of that moment & other various gunfights never truly hit me, to the point where it’s utterly baffling that Ebert describes the film as “scary” in his review. Here’s what I’ll concede, though: if Westerns were my genre of choice, True Grit would likely be one of my favorites. It has a spark of the feminine subversion I loved so much in The Dressmaker, a glimpse into a less macho parallel universe where I wouldn’t generally find these pictures to be insufferably boring.  I suspect my experience with John Wayne Westerns can only go down from there, as Ebert’s love of the genre will probably lead me to far less hospitable territory for outsiders, but I can admit this one got past my typical defenses.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: Equinox Flower (1958)

-Brandon Ledet

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