Reviews

Henry Hathaway

USA, 1969

Credits

Review by Adam Balz

Posted on 11 August 2009

Source Paramount DVD

Categories Women of the West

I was weaned on stories about gunfighters and their doings, and I know all the lingo, too. My grandfather came West as far as Colorado by covered wagon. He was a sheriff in the state’s wildest days.

— Marguerite “Maggie” Roberts

Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, the gruff and eye-patched†anti-hero first created by author Charles Portis and embodied twice on film†by John Wayne, was†translated to the screen both times by female screenwriters — an occurrence not without its predecessors and one that is both incongruous and ironic considering the harsh treatment of women in Western films. For decades they were departmentalized like stock characters, reduced to nothing more than saloon singers and bar maids, prairie wives and homemakers, madams and prostitutes, never mind that their historical predecessors were often just as equally iron-willed as their male counterparts, lawmen and outlaws alike. Consider, for instance, Belle Starr and Pearl Hart, or Margaret Borland and Elizabeth Bradshaw, or even Annie Oakley. It’s this contrast — between fiction and reality, between writer and product — that does much to lend credence to the character of Mattie Ross in True Grit, a film written by Marguerite Roberts.

Ross, as portrayed by Kim Darby, is a brash and androgynous young woman who seems more at home in the untamed American West than many of the men around her. As the film opens, we see her acting as the family’s accountant and financial advisor, giving her father money for horses and discussing which breeds would serve them best before he leaves for town with Tom Chaney at his side. Chaney is a grizzled man the Ross family has taken in, and after a barroom scuffle he murders the patriarch before absconding with his money; only later do we learn that Chaney is a wanted man, sought to stand trial for the murder of a Texas senator. Mattie, unaware of this at first, travels to claim her father’s body and belongings, then seeks out Rooster Cogburn, a maligned yet feared man known for his boozing and cutthroat ways, to track down Chaney. Cogburn ignores her at first, becoming receptive to her offer only when money is introduced. A man without a family, he lives in the back room of a local store, shut off from the world; his only true acquaintances are the store’s manager, a Chinese immigrant named Chen Lee, and Lee’s cat, which is often seen curled up beside the lawman’s arm as he and Lee play cards. Ross is able to collect enough money through the reselling of her father’s horses to a wily dealer named Stonehill, whom she alternately undercuts with her own cunning and threatens with litigation. When the time comes to begin their hunt for Chaney, Cogburn announces that he has joined forces with La Boeuf, a fresh-faced Texas ranger who is also on the hunt for Chaney and has promised to split the reward money with Cogburn.

At first, Cogburn and La Boeuf conspire to leave Ross behind, going so far as to convince a ferryman that she’s a runaway in need of an escort back to town. In each instance, though, she proves her might, equaling the men in speed and distance on horseback, even using the ferryman’s preconceptions about dainty women to escape his clutches and cross the river, leaving Cogburn to remark that she “reminds me of me.” Eventually, both men acquiesce to her presence, and she becomes an unlikely source of harmony, utilizing her homespun patience and folksy optimism to quell tensions between Cogburn and La Boeuf as their trek brings all three closer to Chaney.

As the search intensifies, the relationship between Cogburn and Ross becomes something akin to father and daughter, with La Boeuf, who begins the film as Ross’ assumed future suitor, ebbing into a sort of fool: Cogburn criticizes him for his unusual habits, which he attributes to the young man’s Texas upbringing, while Ross notes that his gun is mismatched for gathering food — in this case, a wild turkey — and leaves nothing on the dead bird worth eating; his inattentive and trigger-happy temperament even leads to an impromptu exchange with a gang of outlaws led by an old nemesis of Cogburn’s named Ned Pepper. (Chaney, Cogburn knows, is now a part of Pepper’s gang.) Later, Ross attempts to get Cogburn to give up his drinking, which becomes so much of a dependency that at one point he falls off his horse and cannot stand; they are forced to set up camp where he lies, situating them only yards from Pepper and his gang and leading to the bloody climax.

Throughout everything, Mattie Ross remains a tough, outspoken, and self-reliant individual, often acting in spite of the wishes of the two men and always acting against their expectations. In the final scene of True Grit, after the gunfights have taken place and lives have been lost, we find Cogburn escorting Ross to her father’s final resting place. His tombstone stands alone in a small, fenced-off width of field, and his grave is coated by a thin layer of snow. As she kneels, dusting off his plot, she asks Cogburn in an uncharacteristically timid way if he would be buried alongside her, suggesting that she believes his old, worn soul will outlive hers. Cogburn turns her down, commenting that the span of dirt beside her future grave should be kept for her husband and children — a direct rebuttal of her bleak prediction. They exchange smiles before he rides off into the distance, an old gunslinger returning unchanged — at least on the outside — to the West in which he thrives.

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