Remaking a beloved movie is fraught with danger. Will it upset fans of the original? Will it appeal to modern audiences? For every success – 1983’s Scarface with Al Pacino or 1991’s Cape Fear with Robert De Niro – there are just as many disasters and potential Razzie award-winners like Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002).
The 2010 remake of classic Western True Grit can be classified as a definite success for acclaimed directors Joel and Ethan Coen. And there’s a case to be made that it’s even better than the 1969 original. Controversial? You don’t have to take our word for it: the Coens’ take is coming to SBS World Movies and John Wayne’s original is waiting at SBS On Demand.
In 1878, smart and headstrong teenager Mattie Ross helps run the family farm in Arkansas with her father Frank. While on a business trip to Fort Smith, Frank is shot dead by his farmhand Tom Chaney, who then flees into Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma).
Days later, Mattie arrives in the town, determined to bring the murderer to justice. She hires a hard-drinking, shoot-first-ask-questions-later U.S. Marshall called Rooster Cogburn – a man she believes has “true grit” – to find Chaney, who has hooked up with an outlaw gang led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper.
Mattie and Rooster are joined by a brash Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who is also after Chaney for another murder. Cogburn and La Boeuf clash repeatedly, but the trio must put aside their differences on their dangerous quest to catch the cowardly killer.
1969’s True Grit is regarded as one of the great Westerns while the remake was a critical and box-office success. But is it better?
On the one hand, 2010’s version has the Coen brothers’ beautiful cinematography by their frequent collaborator Roger Deakins and fine performances from an outstanding cast. On the other hand, the original has John Wayne as the one-eyed, whiskey-swilling Cogburn. It’s a tough call.
Wayne – aka the Duke – stamps his presence on the 1969 version, overshadowing his inexperienced co-stars Kim Darby (who was 21 when she was cast to play 14-year-old Mattie) and popular country singer Glen Campbell (La Boeuf). At times Wayne seems to parody the square-jawed hero he’d perfected playing in cowboy flicks since 1926. But elsewhere the Duke seems larger than life, more myth than man, most notably in the scene where he has a stirring showdown with four members of Pepper’s gang and yells, “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” before charging them on horseback.
Rooster Cogburn was Wayne’s finest role – it earned him an Oscar for Best Actor – and he knew it. In an interview with Roger Ebert after its release, the actor says, “It’s sure as hell my first decent role in 20 years and my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne.”
Another highlight of the original film is Robert Duvall’s performance as Rooster’s nemesis Ned Pepper. Without slighting the acting talents of Barry Pepper in the same role in the remake, he’s no match for the future star of The Godfather.
Putting the Duke aside, the 2010 version outshines the original in nearly every department: acting, directing, script and cinematography. The plots for both movies travel similar paths, depicting the brutality of the Wild West. Neither film flinches from showing public hangings, the after-effects of bullet wounds or the callous way people dealt with death.
However, the Coens’ screenplay is a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel – focusing more on Mattie than Rooster Cogburn – and keeps its low-key, bittersweet conclusion. The directors have hazy memories of seeing the first film as kids, but as Joel tells an interviewer, “People ask about whether the previous movie was a factor at all, whether it was intimidating in any way but, honestly, we weren’t thinking about it much – we were thinking about the novel and really didn’t care that they’d made a movie about it with John Wayne.”
The Coens cast Jeff Bridges to play Rooster Cogburn, who does a great job… although he can’t completely shake free of the Duke’s imposing shadow over the role. But while the 1969 version is held together by Wayne, Bridges is blessed with a better supporting cast, led by Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, Matt Damon as LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin as the pathetic but threatening Chaney. Steinfeld was 14 when she beat out thousands of other young hopefuls to win the role in her feature film debut. Thankfully, her career continued to blossom after the movie came out – unlike her predecessor Kim Darby, who crashed and burned in the 1970s due to drug addiction.
The original True Grit showcases everything that made John Wayne a giant of the silver screen, but the Coens’ remake is a more fully realised and satisfying cinematic experience. It doesn’t have a traditional happy ending, but it’s less about the destination and more about the journey.
Saddle up, take the bit between your teeth and enjoy the ride.
True Grit (2010) screens at 9.30pm on Friday 8 October as part of Westerns Week on SBS World Movies. True Grit (1969) is available until 31 December 2021 at SBS On Demand.