By John H. Foote
He rides into the meadow, blocking the escape route of the four cutthroat outlaws he seeks. High above on a ridge, the Texas Ranger has got the young girl, she is safe. The outlaws ride into the meadow and see the lone man on a horse in their escape route, they size him up, he sizes them up. Outnumbered, outgunned, overweight, wearing a black eye patch, he does not back down, instead, spinning and cocking his rifle and marching forward like an old knight come to do battle.
They trade insults, Lucky Ned (Robert Duvall) mocking Rooster (John Wayne), eventually saying to him, “I call that bold talk for a one eyed fatman”. Looking stricken, wounded by the words, Rooster roars back, “Fill your hand you son of a bitch” and he thrusts his reins in his teeth, draws another weapon in his free hand and charges, two guns blazing directly at the startled four men.
On the ridge above, the girl, who had doubted the old man’s courage, says aloud, “No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!” she explodes in awe of what the Marshall has done.
When the battle is over, only Rooster is alive, helped by the Ranger’s long shot at Pepper, hovering over a prone Rooster, preparing to kill him.
If a dictionary was using movie scenes to describe courage, this would be the scene to do so. The sequence elevated the myth of John Wayne, shooting him looking slightly up at him so he appeared larger than life.
When the book was published, written by an unknown writer Charles Portis, Wayne tried at once to buy the rights, which had already been snapped up by Paramount Pictures. Wayne went after the role and of course, got it over other actors interested: George C. Scott and Burt Lancaster. Paramount offered the directing job to old veteran Henry Hathaway who accepted smelling a hit. For box office help they cast popular country singer Glen Campbell who would also sing the title song and newcomer Kim Darby beat out Mia Farrow for the plum role of Mattie Ross.
When her father is murdered by ranch hand Tom Chaney, 14 year-old Mattie comes to the bustling town to hire someone to find the killer. She wants the bravest, not necessarily the best, but rather he is most fearless. This leads her to US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne), a hard drinking, tough old bird who is thrilled to be hired but not so happy when he learns her plans to come with him. Then Mattie learns with much displeasure that a pompous, preening Texas Ranger, LaBouef (Campbell), is also looking for Chaney and will accompany them.
Into the territories they go, all leading to the battle between Rooster and the outlaws. But there is more as Mattie proves to be every bit as tough as Rooster. When the bandit, mortally wounds LaBouef with a rock, Mattie fires her gun, the kick back sending her plunging into a pit teeming with rattlesnakes. Rooster will figure out a way to get her out but not before she is bitten. LaBouef dies of his wounds, Rooster grabs a horse, throws Mattie on it and rides hellbent to get help as the poison from the snake seeps through her system. Rooster rides the horse until it dies, then picks the girl up and walks to help.
The final image of mythmaking.
Healed, Mattie is escorted home and asks Rooster to rest beside her when he dies. Touched, he agrees as long as she does not expect him to move in too soon. As he shows off, jumping a four rail fence, the image freezes as he waves his hat at his friend, who has come to love him as a father.
Released the year after the brutal reaction to Wayne’s film about Viet Nam, The Green Berets (1968), it would restore his credibility as an actor, movie star and American. He learned how unpopular his views on Viet Nam were with the vicious reaction and reviews to his terrible movie about that ugly war. Wayne was very fortunate to find Rooster and True Grit.
Though Campbell is dreary, OK, awful as the Texas Ranger, his terrible performance and Darby’s annoying Mattie do not impact the film. We have fine performances from Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper to help flesh out the story.
Towering over the film is Wayne as Rooster, a tough as nails, drunken, fearless man with a heart. Critics raved about his work, hailing it as his best performance since The Searchers (1956). Wayne had fun with the role, playing his age for once, knowing the time had come for him to stop playing younger. As rugged as Mount Rushmore, he is exceptional in the film, going slightly over the top in comic moments, but always aware he was portraying a hero, always aware what his audiences expected from him. His two missteps had been The Conqueror (1955) and The Green Berets (1968), both films crucified by the critics.
True Grit (1969) was nominated for just two Academy Awards, Best Actor and Best Song. It was certainly deserving of more, its autumnal cinematography crisp and pristine, the score a sweeping majesty few films possessed, and yes Best Picture. Heading into the awards Wayne was the favourite to win and sure enough he won his only Oscar for Best Actor. He shed a tear accepting the award from Barbra Streisand, looking like a Mountain next to her.
A sequel was made to the film six years later, Rooster Cogburn (1975), which matched Wayne with Katherine Hepburn. Sadly, though their chemistry was incredible, the script and direction was terrible and though they were a delight together, the film was a failure.
Wayne gave one more great performance before he died, in The Shootist (1976) for which he should have again be nominated for Best Actor. Academics and critics now celebrate him as a great actor, but while he was alive he was only a movie star. How short sighted, he was a fine actor.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.