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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 23: Hellfighters (1968)

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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 Hellfighters (1968) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gloats about how great being a professional critic was in his glory days. He writes, “It was a honey of a job to have at that age. I had no office hours; it was understood that I would see the movies and meet the deadlines. I loved getting up from my desk and announcing, ‘I’m going to the movies.’ A lot of my writing was done at night and on the weekends. I saw about half of the movies in theaters with paying audiences, sinking into the gloom to watch John Wayne fighting flaming oil wells in Hellfighters at the Roosevelt, or Pam Grier inventing blaxploitation at the Chicago.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Out in front of the Roosevelt Theater there’s a big photo of John Wayne and this quote, attributed to him: ‘I’ve made a lot of action pictures but never one as exciting as this.’ I doubt that Wayne volunteered this information; it sounds more like a studio publicity idea. The fact is, Wayne has made a lot of action pictures, and over the years he has gotten to be about as good at it as anybody. He must have been miserable during the filming of Hellfighters, which is a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.” – from his 1968 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

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When praising the young, energetic talent that reignited American art cinema in the late 60s’ so called New Hollywood movement, it’s all too easy to overlook the undeniable virtues of the system those films were bucking against. The John Wayne action epic Hellfighters is a perfect snapshot of Big Studio glut when compared to its more forward-thinking contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. While these smaller New Hollywood upstarts were pulling influence from still-exciting sources like the French New Wave, the lumbering, old-fashioned Hellfighters more closely resembles instantly outdated modes of entertainment like Earthquake, Airport, and The Towering Inferno. Ebert was right to praise those smaller, more experimental works in his reviews while labeling Hellfighters “a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.” I can’t disagree with a word of that. The dirty secret, though, is that although formally & thematically outdated in the face of smaller, more passionate films being made around them, Old Hollywood ghosts like Hellfighters effortlessly pulled off mesmerizing visual spectacles that were never truly touched by the likes of a Bogdanovich or a Friedkin or a De Palma. Even if its superiority was simply a question of budget, there’s an immense beauty to the costume designs, sets, framing, and rich colors of Hellfighters that could’ve been transcendent if were applied passionately instead of with workmanlike competence.

As with all John Wayne movies, whether or not they’re set in the dusty West, Hellfighters is often classified as a Western. This makes even less sense here than it does with the London-set cop drama Brannigan, since Wayne’s tuxedo’d firefighter lead doesn’t even carry a gun. Loosely based off the real world personality Red Adair, Wayne plays infamous oil field firefighter Chance Buckman (man, I love that stupid name) as he travels across the globe putting out dangerous oil well fires with barrels full of dynamite. Real manly stuff. Based on that description, you might think that the art film version of Hellfighters might be Sorcerer or its predecessor Wages of Fear, but it actually more closely resembles a film from the late 90s. Much like Bruce Willis’s tough guy hero in Armageddon, Chance Buckman is an oil industry legend who bullheadedly infantilizes his adult daughter by attempting to protect her from a twofold danger: the physical danger of his industry & the emotional danger of the womanizing men who work within it. It’s not at all difficult to imagine Michael Bay growing up fond of Hellfighters, thanks to its hyper-masculine self-delusion & over-indulgence in practical effects explosions. The John Wayne film often mirrors Armageddon‘s bullshit romanticization of the hard working men who risk their lives for oil & the worried women who love them, despite the constant danger of loss. Where Armageddon employs this ludicrous narrative & attention to visual craft for a punishingly kinetic live action fantasy, however, Hellfighters is content to lie still & talk its audience to death. It’s an entire movie built around the idea that large spouts of fire look cool. It’s not exactly wrong, just too long to justify that thin of a premise and too lethargic to fully command its audience’s attention, even as beautifully decorated it’s production design can be. If Hellfighters could’ve operated with Michael Bay’s punishing sense of immediacy it might’ve been an all-time classic. At the very least, it could’ve shot John Wayne into space to fist fight an asteroid the size of Texas. There’s pretty much no one who wouldn’t pay to see that.

A large part of what makes Hellfighters feel desperately old-fashioned is its constant glorification of traditionalist masculinity. So many bare knuckle punches are thrown without any real consequence in bar rooms, brothels, gambling holes, and hospitals that they start to register more like a handshake between bros than an act of violence. News reporters are whiny little wimps who can only get in the way while Real Men do the Important Work, the kind that requires muscles & explosives. The women of Hellfighters are wives, daughters, and secretaries, completely extraneous to the plot outside a fresh-from-The Graduate Katherine Ross, whose virtue & emotional well-being Chance Buckman is tasked to protect. The closest the movie comes to passing the Bechdel Test is a single scene where Buckman’s wife & daughter are golfing alone together, but their entire conversation centers on whether or not it’s worth the worry to love an oil field firefighter. Buckman himself is a stoic emotional void, only budging in his rock solid confidence to express annoyed frustration & mild worry with the women in his life who needlessly complicate his profession. Otherwise he just does what he does best: exploding fires into oblivion & unconvincingly delivering oil-themed one-liners like “If you’re coming to me for advice, I’m a dry hole” with a distinct lack of passion.

In the years since the New Hollywood takeover, directors have learned (and have been better funded) to apply Hellfighters‘s workman sense of extravagant spectacle to the energetic narratives that deserve it. Instead of overtalking its virtues between this piece, my initial review, and a subsequent podcast episode, I do believe Michael Bay’s Armageddon is a perfect example o how well that visual craft could be utilized with just a little creative gusto, even while holding onto its idolization of toxic masculinity. Hellfighters was an overlabored, undercooked movie industry dinosaur when compared to the more exciting, artier New Hollywood films that upended its place in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film without value. When gazing into the rich color, impeccable costuming, gorgeous sets, and mesmerizing explosions that Hellfighters wastes on a going-through-the-motions John Wayne action epic, there’s an undeniable sense of missed opportunity. The film could’ve been something truly memorable if its better aspects weren’t helmed by a sleepwalking studio system that misread what its audience was interested in seeing. I can’t recommend Hellfighters as an entertaining work to anyone other than the most diligent John Wayne completist imaginable. However, I do think it works as a valuable reminder that there was a lot of untold merit in the bloated studio system that the late 60s broke apart with its scruffy batch of babyface auteurs.

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Roger’s Rating (1.5/4, 38%)

onehalfstar

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

twohalfstar

Next Lesson: Camelot (1967)

-Brandon Ledet

Brannigan (1975)

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fourstar

When you bring up John Wayne, it’s inevitable that his name will conjure images of old-fashioned Westerns. He’s synonymous with the genre, an in-the-flesh embodiment of cowboy cinema. That’s why I was surprised when I sat down at a Christmas party with my grandfather to watch one of his favorite John Wayne pictures to find that it wasn’t a Western at all. It’s not even set in America, let alone the Old West. Brannigan is a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a hard-boiled Chicago detective brandishing pistols in a stuffy, crime-ridden 1970s London. Of course, John Wayne plays the titular police detective with the same worlds-away-from-Chicago cowboy swagger he’s most closely associated with, but the setting is still jarring. In some ways, though, it makes you appreciate Wayne’s screen presence even  more to watching him operate outside of his element.

Besides casting a Western cinema legend in a non-Western role, Brannigan hosts several other glaring self-contradictions. Tonally, its mix of severed-finger, bullethole-ridden, sexual assault-threatening violence pairs ridiculously with its sarcastic, seen-it-all-before humor. This contrast can be best observed in an over-the-top pub brawl when Brannigan punches a goon so hard that he slides across the entire length of a bartop in a surprise tangent into Looney Tunes physics. Genre-wise, the film can’t decide if it wants to be a suspenseful heist film or an outright comedy. It can’t even decide which storyline is its main concern: the plot that has Brannigan chasing after a notorious crime boss being held for ransom or the plot that has Brannigan being chased himself by an assassin prone to using bomb & shotgun booby traps like an especially vicious Kevin McCallister. Or are both of these stories merely a backdrop for a blood-soaked comedy about Old World stuffiness vs. New World cavalier?

My favorite aspect of Brannigan‘s self-contradicting nature is where it sits on exploitation cinema’s temporal landscape. Although it’s a major studio film, it feels like it’s caught somewhere between the welcome-to-the-real-world harshness of New Hollywood, the righteously funky world of blaxploitaion (except with a white man as the lead, of course), and the as-yet-created humorously violent world of 80s action cinema. John Wayne establishes himself here as an early action star. His super-sarcastic, know-it-all one-liners play like a precursor to characters that would later be played by folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger & Sly Stallone. Brannigan doesn’t just burst into a room; he bursts into a room & dryly intones “Knock, knock” while brandishing a pistol. Then there’s the fact that every criminal in the world apparently knows legendary supercop Jim Brannigan by name, even though he works for Chicago’s municipal police department. That detail would be later repeated in every Commando, Cobra, and Hard to Kill to follow. He’s even provided a cute, tiny, foreign sidekick, another staple of the 80s action genre, although this time she’s never threatened to become a love interest despite all of Brannigan’s incessant leering. She does, however, spontaneously reward him with a kiss on the cheek over a dinner for two. Why? She explains, “You’re just so damn solid.” Indeed.

John Wayne badassery aside, Brannigan is a well put together action flick. Its lush shots of drive-bys, gun holsters, and sexy workers showing leg – all the leg – are all surprisingly intricate enough for a film that didn’t have to try too hard to succeed. John Wayne is entertaining enough on his own to carry the film, but a lot of effort still goes into detailing the organized crime end of London’s underbelly. Pubs, saunas, brothels, and late night stakeouts provide a nicely detailed background for Wayne to perform against and the car chases & counterfeit money production play like a precursor to Friedkin’s masterful To Live & Die in L.A.. Even without Wayne, Brannigan would still be a decent, humorous action flick with a great villain & hero, and a satisfying (albeit slow-moving) plot. Wayne’s hard-drinking, gun-toting supercop who calls everyone within earshot “Partner” is 1000% more cowboy than he is Chicago detective, but his performance is still what makes the movie special instead of merely decent. I’m far from a Western fanatic, so this oddly humorous & wildly violent action pic ended up being my favorite performance I’ve ever seen from Wayne. It’s easy to see why my grandfather holds it in such high regard despite it being far outside headlining star’s wheelhouse & being generally regarded as trash.

-Brandon Ledet