I realize that I am probably in the minority but I prefer Henry Hathaway’s version of True Grit (1969) to the Coen Brothers’ version. What is especially odd is that I am a big fan of the Coen Brothers and I have never really been that impressed by Hathaway.
The key factor is undoubtedly John Wayne’s performance. Wayne had done Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), which were basically two versions of the same story, with Howard Hawks, and the best role in each movie was the drunk. Despite Wayne’s lobbying for that role in each movie, Hawks had decided to play it safe and go with renowned drunkards Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum, leaving Wayne to be the straight man. After reading Charles Portis’ novel, Wayne jumped at the chance to star in True Grit and show off his acting range. Wayne has a well-deserved reputation for playing John Wayne, rather than actually acting, and many of his movies towards the end of his career were meant to please his fans, not challenge his acting ability. However, Wayne could act when he wanted to, and he is a delight in True Grit, drunkenly shooting rats and falling off his horse. Unfortunately, he quickly went back to two-dimensional lame mediocrity like The Undefeated (1970) until ending his career with an excellent performance in The Shootist (1976).
Since Wayne was a heavy drinker, it is not so surprising that he gave a good portrayal of a drunk. Having played the Dude in the Big Lebowski, the drunkard side of Cogburn’s character was less of a challenge for Jeff Bridges, but the hard-ass part was a bit of a stretch, although his roles as Obadiah Stane in Iron Man (2008) and Wild Bill Hickok in Wild Bill (1995) had been good preparation. Wayne was trying to be a humorous, almost clownish, drunk but Bridges captures the harsh mixture of sadness and menace of real drunks.
It is probably not common knowledge that Judge Isaac Parker was a real judge and was known as the Hanging Judge. Aside from his appearance in the two versions of True Grit, he was also the model for Pat Hingle’s character in Hang’em High.
The atmosphere in the 2010 version is grimmer due to the cinematography and the choice of character actors. The decision to set film in in Oklahoma during the early winter definitely increased the grimness factor. Given the harsh landscape, I can see why Hathaway chose Colorado.
Hailee Steinfield gives an astonishing performance as Mattie Ross. Admittedly, Kim Darby was 21 years-old but she looked younger and a real 14-year-old would have been impossible in 1969. More important, she is likeable, if astonishingly persistent. The negotiation between Ross and the stable owner is pretty much the same for both movies but the 1969 version is much more humorous. The look of frustration on the horse dealer’s face as he is repeatedly out-bargained by Mattie Ross is brilliant. Apparently, Wayne was not especially fond of Darby, but the bond between them is much more believable than that between Bridges and Steinfield.
In the end, each version fits its time. Hathaway’s True Grit was impressive for its period, and the changes in the story were necessary, since the novel was too grim for 1969. The Coen Brothers were more faithful to the novel and made a better but bleaker film.
No disrespect to the Coens, but few westerns are made today (roughly one a year) so audiences are more easily impressed. As part of my research for the site, I watch quite a few westerns, so I am harder to please. However, I am happy that the Coen Brothers are getting the attention that they deserve. Hopefully, the success of True Grit will spark more interest in movies with a grimmer, more realistic portrayal of the west.