(WARNING: Contains spoilers.) My wife and I are Netflix subscribers. We almost never watch broadcast TV, preferring reruns of old shows, and the occasional movie. We had heard good things about the 2010 remake of True Grit, the 1969 Western classic that won John Wayne his only Oscar. The remake starred Jeff Bridges, reprising the Duke’s role as Deputy U. S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn. We had enjoyed the original some years ago; when we found that Netflix had made the remake available for streaming, we decided to give it a try.
We were both disappointed. Not that the movie wasn’t “good” in terms of its artistic merits. In the key role of Mattie Ross, the headstrong young girl who hires Rooster to bring her father’s killer to justice, relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld outperformed the original’s Kim Darby, and Matt Damon was simply more believable as a Texas Ranger than Glen Campbell (I kept expecting him to whip out a guitar instead of a rifle). Jeff Bridges, who himself had won Best Actor the year before for Crazy Heart, did a more than credible job in the lead role, though we both found his somewhat mumbled accent hard to understand in places.
Neither the acting, nor the cinematography, nor any technical aspect was at fault. The story was simply darker than we remembered–darker and more violent than we liked.
In both movies, Mattie and Rooster gradually become friends: she, admiring his “grit,” and he, developing a gruff protectiveness toward her. But the endings diverge wildly. In 1969, the movie ended on a tender and upbeat note. Mattie is wearing a sling, recovering from a broken arm and snakebite suffered in the film’s climactic scene. She shows Rooster where she has laid her father to rest, and since he has no next-of-kin, she offers him a place in the family burial plot next to hers. When Rooster leaves, he shows that he’s not done living yet; he makes his horse jump a rail fence, and waves his hat in a triumphant farewell.
In the remake, Mattie is alone, her injured arm having been amputated above the elbow. We see her 25 years later, a resolute but seemingly bitter woman who has never married. She is looking for Rooster at a Wild West show. Instead, she finds Cole Younger and Frank James, who served together with Rooster long ago in a notorious unit of the Confederate Army. They tell her that Rooster died just a few days before. The final image of the movie is of a stone-faced Mattie standing over Rooster’s grave, then walking away, her amputated stump prominently silhouetted against the fading light.
Why such a drastic narrative change? At first, I suspected that it must have been the creative decision of Joel and Ethan Coen, who together directed the film and wrote the screenplay. It would not have been unusual for them to impose their own unique signature on the story in that way.
But I decided to read the Charles Portis novel on which the film was based–and discovered that it was the Coen brothers’ version, including the ending, that was truer to its source.
The book itself is somewhat more humorous. The entire story is narrated by Mattie, who peppers her account with Scripture references and tart criticisms from her no-nonsense, black-and-white, Calvinist-inflected vision of the world. Everything and everybody comes under her judgment, from dirty windows to Methodists and Republicans. For example, having already done some early morning business with a livestock trader, Mattie drops in on Rooster to find him still in bed. Standing in silent disapproval of his unkempt condition, she narrates, “Men will live like billy goats if let alone.” But by hewing closer to the novel while losing Mattie’s narrative voice (save for brief voiceovers), the Coens also lose much of Portis’ humor, leaving a tale that is more of revenge than justice.
I had not read the book before seeing the original movie. It seems to me now that Marguerite Roberts, who wrote the 1969 screenplay, didn’t just adapt Portis’ novel for the screen–she adapted it to John Wayne. Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is an irascible drunkard but a sympathetic and likeable character, whose violent and questionable past is but a vague backstory. Portis’ and the Coens’ character is more ambiguous, more mercenary, and less…well, less like the Duke. Darby’s Mattie has pluck; Steinfeld’s portrayal, which seems closer to the book, gives us a shade more arrogance.
As suggested in earlier posts on Romans 12 (e.g. “Overcoming evil with good” and “Payback!”), I want my heroes to stand tall, to ride off into the sunset–not fade and die ambiguously as part of some sideshow. The older movie gave me more recognizable good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains–the kind of satisfying movie experience I usually expect. The remake slaps me rudely in the face with a discomfiting question: So, given Rooster’s history, a life of violence and a reputation for trigger-happy mayhem, what kind of ending did you really expect?
In 1969, the studios took a darkly humorous novel and turned it into a John Wayne movie. In 2010, the Coen brothers restored the darker elements. In watching both, I’m confronted with the fact that something in my gut understanding of good and evil has more of the Duke about it, and less of Jesus and Paul.
Perhaps even Mattie Ross, staunch Presbyterian that she was, would have thought so as well.