THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

TRUE GRIT (Paramount, 1969)


Judge Parker's courthouse as it looks today

DIRECTOR: Henry Hathaway;  PRODUCER: Hal B. Wallis;  WRITERS: screenplay by Marguerite Roberts based on Charles Portis novel of same title; CINEMATOGRAPHY: Lucien Ballard

CAST: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Jeremy Slate, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Alfred Ryder, Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, Ron Soble, John Fiedler, James Westerfield, John Doucette, Donald Woods, Edith Atwater, John Pickard, Myron Healey, H.W. Gim, Boyd Morgan, Stuart Randall, Guy Wilkerson, Hank Worden

You probably already know the plot, don’t you?  Well, just in case you don’t, here is how the story begins.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), from near Dardanelle, Arkansas in Yell County, travels to Fort Smith to settle her dead father’s affairs.  Her father was murdered in that town by a man who worked for him, a man who called himself Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey).  After killing her father, Chaney robbed him of his horse and his money.  Apparently, the fugitive has fled to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and there are reports that he has joined up with the “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) gang.
21-year-old Kim Darby as 14-year-old Mattie Ross
Mattie is not content to just settle her father’s affairs (outwitting a horse trader portrayed by Strother Martin in some delightful scenes), but also plans to go after Chaney and bring him back to Fort Smith for trial.  The federal judge in Fort Smith is Judge Isaac Parker (James Westerfield) and his court for the Western District of Arkansas has jurisdiction over not only western Arkansas, but also the Indian Territory in any case involving a white person.
Since Mattie knows she can’t travel alone into that treacherous territory and achieve her goal of capturing Chaney and since the territory comes under federal jurisdiction, she decides to recruit a U.S. deputy marshal to assist her, one who possesses “true grit.”

MATTIE (Kim Darby): “Who’s the best marshal they have?”

SHERIFF (John Doucette): “Bill Waters is the best tracker.  The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn, a pitliless man, double tough, fear don’t enter into his thinking.  I’d have to say L.T. Quinn is the straightest, he brings prisoners in alive.”

MATTIE: “Where would I find this Rooster?”

After Mattie meets Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne), she isn’t sure that he is the kind of man that she is seeking, a man who has “true grit,” a quality that she recognizes because she personally possesses it in full measure.  He is a one-eyed, hard-drinking, ruthless, overweight man who for his part isn’t sure that he wants to work for any woman, especially Mattie.  However, greed overcomes his reluctance when Mattie offers to pay him a hundred dollars, his asking price for the job.  It is more than Mattie wants to pay, but she is able to force a compromise by paying him fifty now and promising the other fifty after the mission is accomplished.

Who knew aspens grew in Oklahoma?
Matters become even more complicated when a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) by the name of LaBouef (pronounced La-Beef) arrives in Fort Smith.  He is also on Chaney’s trail.  It seems that Chaney killed a state senator in Texas and that state and the senator’s family have placed a bounty on the fugitive’s head. The marshal and the ranger, although they have taken a strong disliking to each other, decide to join forces and split the proceeds  -- assuming they are able to capture – or kill – Chaney.

Neither of the lawmen wants a fourteen-year-old girl to tag along and they attempt to leave her behind, but they don’t know Mattie.  She will not be denied.  The three, at odds with each other and with differing goals, ride into the territory in search of Tom Chaney.

The role of Rooster Cogburn, as everyone knows, is the role for which John Wayne finally won a long overdue Best Actor Oscar.  His only other nomination had occurred exactly twenty years earlier when he was nominated for his role as Sgt. Stryker in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic, 1949).  He could have been nominated, but wasn’t, for his roles as Tom Dunson or Nathan Brittles or Tom Doniphon.  The biggest oversight, however, came when he was overlooked for what was his greatest performance, that of Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (WB, 1956).  Even harder to explain is the fact that the film did not receive a single nomination for anything.

ROOSTER COGBURN (John Wayne): “Boots, I got Hayes and some youngster outside with Moon and Qunicy. I want you to bury ‘em for me. I’m in a hurry.”
CAPTAIN BOOTS FINCH (Ron Soble): “They’re dead?”

ROOSTER COGBURN: “Well, I wouldn’t want you to bury ‘em if they wasn’t.”

Variety praised Wayne’s performance: “…it’s mostly Wayne all the way.  He towers over everything in the film….He rides tall in the saddle in this character role of ‘the fat old man.’”

Roger Ebert wrote: “Hathaway…has made the movie of his lifetime and given us a masterpiece….Wayne towers over this special movie.”

Wayne’s performance as Rooster Cogburn was not his greatest, but it was very good.  There is, however, some irony in the fact that he won the award for what in effect is a self-parody.  It is generally conceded that he didn’t win for that film anyway, that he was rewarded for his body of work.  If so, it isn’t the only time that such a thing has occurred.  And there is little doubt that TRUE GRIT represented his last chance for a bite of the academy apple – with one exception, albeit a slim one.  He might have been considered for his role as J.B. Books in his very last film, THE SHOOTIST (Paramount, 1976), had he not won earlier.  But maybe not, since he did not receive a nomination for that role.

Glen Campbell, originally from near Delight, Arkansas, made his film debut in TRUE GRIT.  When I first viewed the film right after it was released, I couldn’t help but think how much better it would have been if a more talented actor had been chosen to play LaBeouf, the Texas Ranger.  I still felt that way each time I watched it over the years.  But I also felt that it wasn’t fair to Campbell, a hugely talented singer and musician (later inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame), that he was put in such a position, forced to try to hold his own with so many seasoned professionals.  The director, Henry Hathaway, had not wanted him and reportedly gave the novice actor a hard time.  That led to some conflict during the production because Duvall objected strenuously to Hathaway’s badgering of Campbell, which led Wayne to take Hathaway’s side.  Wayne probably remembered how as a young actor he had been tormented by John Ford and may have thought that it was how veteran directors had to operate in order to elicit good performances from young actors.

Glen Campbell, Texas Ranger

Campbell had no illusions about his acting.  He once said, “I’d never acted in a movie before, and every time I see TRUE GRIT I think my record is still clean.”  But when I watched the film recently, I reconsidered his performance.  It wasn’t exactly great, but it wasn’t that bad either.  I now think that had he continued to work at it he could have become a competent actor. 

The following year he starred in one last film.  It was NORWOOD (Paramount, 1970).  Like TRUE GRIT, it was based on an excellent Charles Portis novel with a screenplay written by Marguerite Roberts, was produced by Hal Wallis, and co-starred Kim Darby.  Instead of John Wayne, however, the third lead role went to football star Joe Namath. 

The film was not a success and though Campbell would later make a few cameo film appearances, he chose to concentrate on his music.

Kim Darby had appeared in three feature films prior to TRUE GRIT, but the film’s success and popularity didn’t do much to advance her career either.  Like Campbell, she gave a good performance, but the role of Mattie Ross called for a stronger – and younger – actress.  If it is true that Darby didn’t look as old as her age at the time, twenty-one, it is also true that she looked much older than Mattie’s fourteen.

Wayne was also older than his character was in the book.  He was 61 at the time while his character in the book was about forty.  It didn’t really matter, but I’m certain there were no deputy marshals that age hunting down desperadoes in the Indian Territory. 

Added to the other conflicts already mentioned, it seems that Wayne had no liking for Darby.  He had wanted another actress to be cast in the role and was extremely critical of Darby’s acting.  He was also critical of her work ethic, later stating that he found her to be unprofessional.  But if so, it is impossible to detect any evidence of conflict between the two on the screen.

After starring with Campbell in NORWOOD, Darby was thereafter mostly limited to acting in TV productions.

Robert Duvall began his acting career on the stage in the late ‘50’s and then became an extremely busy TV actor in the 60’s.  He made his feature film debut in 1962 in a small but effective role as Boo Radley in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (UI, 1962).  Afterwards he returned to TV and the stage for most of the rest of the decade.  Then in the late ‘60’s he began to appear in a number of feature films.  He had appeared in a ton of TV Westerns but his role as “Lucky” Ned Pepper served as his first in a Western feature film.

The following year he gained good notices as Frank Burns in M*A*S*H (Fox, 1970).  But it was because of his role as Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER (Paramount, 1972) that his career really took off.  For his performance, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  That was only the beginning.  He has since been nominated on five other occasions and has won one award.  He received the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in TENDER MERCIES (EMI, 1983).  He is one who pulled off the rare feat of graduating from the ranks of supporting players to become a star.

He gave a strong performance in TRUE GRIT and he appeared in several other Western films, but his greatest performance in a Western was as Gus MaCrae in the TV mini-series LONESOME DOVE (Motown, 1989).  Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I think it was, at least to this point, his greatest performance ever.

Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call

The film includes a number of familiar and welcome faces, actors such as Strother Martin (such a good actor), Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Jeremy Slate, Hank Worden, Stuart Randall (his final film), John Doucette, Guy Wilkerson, and John Fiedler (as the lawyer J. Noble Dagget).  It was also nice to see Myron Healey, who played badmen in a countless number of TV and movie Westerns, get to portray a lawman for a change.

Henry Hathaway, seventy-one-years-old, had been directing films since 1932. His first was a Zane Grey story, HERITAGE OF THE DESERT (Paramount).  The director’s next seven films were also Westerns based on Zane Grey stories.  Randolph Scott, in his first starring roles, starred in six of the eight.  All had been filmed as silent films and Hathaway’s films relied extensively on stock footage from the silent productions.  They were all entertaining and well-made B+ programmers that were enjoyed by Western movie fans.

In a directing career that lasted four decades, he directed sixty-five films, including twenty Westerns.  

His first film with John Wayne had been THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (Paramount, 1941), followed by NORTH TO ALASKA (Fox, 1960), CIRCUS WORLD (Paramount, 1964), THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (Paramount, 1965) and TRUE GRIT.

The Director

Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts and her husband, also a writer, were blacklisted during the ‘50’s communist witch-hunt days.  As a result, beginning in the early years of that decade and extending into the early ‘60’s, there is a ten-year gap in her filmography.  What makes this ironic is the fact that John Wayne, who never made a secret of his right wing political views or his support of the blacklist, found himself starring in a film whose screenwriter had been victimized by that same blacklist.  Roberts wasn’t the only individual associated with the film to have experienced such a fate during that era.  Jeff Corey, who portrayed Tom Chaney, had also been blacklisted.  Surely, Wayne was aware of the blacklisting of Roberts and Corey, but if so, he never referred to it and evidently, it was never the source of any conflict during the production.

Roberts did not depart much from Charles Portis’ novel in her adaptation.  Her major change was in the ending.  As one critic noted, the ending was changed in order to allow John Wayne to ride into the sunset.

Earlier I reviewed Portis’ novel and you can read that review here.

Lucien Ballard’s career as a cinematographer extended all the way back to the mid-30s, when he began working on what were primarily B-movies, including some of the Charles Starrett Westerns at Columbia.  In the ‘50’s, he began to work on more prestigious films

Among his Western credits are RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1962), THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (Paramount, 1965, starring John Wayne and directed by Henry Hathaway), WILL PENNY (Paramount, 1968), THE WILD BUNCH (WB, 1969), as well as Audie Murphy’s final film, A TIME FOR DYING (1969).

Ballard was a native of Oklahoma and must have been amused by the locations that were chosen for TRUE GRIT.  It is true that there are hills in eastern Oklahoma, but no snow-capped peaks!  Nevertheless, there they are in the film – along with golden aspens shimmering in the breeze, which are also not found in Oklahoma.  It is true that the Colorado locations that were filmed are much more spectacular than anything found in Oklahoma and that Ballard’s expert photography made beautiful use of them, but it is disconcerting for any viewer who has any knowledge of the geography of the area in which the story is set.

But if it is true that nobody should go to a movie to learn history, then I guess it would be fair to say the same thing about geography.

In addition to TRUE GRIT (1969), the Rooster Cogburn character has been the subject of two feature films and one TV movie.

Two other feature films:

ROOSTER COGBURN (Universal, 1975)

DIRECTOR: Stuart Miller;  PRODUCER: Hal B. Wallis;  WRITERS: screenplay by Martha Hyer (as Martin Julien) suggested by Charles Portis novel, True Grit; Cinematographer: Harry Stradling, Jr.

STARRING: John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn

TRUE GRIT (Paramount 2010)

DIRECTORS: Joel and Ethan Coen;  PRODUCERS:  Joel and Ethan Coen;  WRITERS: screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen based on Charles Portis novel of same title;  CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins

STARRING: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Stanfield

You can read my review of this film here.

TV movie (filmed as pilot for possible series that never developed):

TRUE GRIT (Paramount TV, 1978)

DIRECTOR: Richard T. Heffron;  PRODUCER: Sandor Stern;  WRITERS: screenplay by Sandor Stern based on characters created by Charles Portis in novel of same title;  CINEMATOGRAPHY: Stevan Larner

STARRING: Warren Oates, Lisa Pelikan 

 LUCKY” NED PEPPER (Robert Duvall):  “What’s your intention?  Do you think one on four is a dogfall?”

ROOSTER COGBURN (John Wayne):  I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned.  Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience.  Which’ll it be?”

NED PEPPER: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”

ROOSTER COGBURN: “Fill your hands, you sonvabitch!”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

So begins Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit.  Mattie Ross, now a forty-year-old spinster, narrates the events that surrounded her quest to find and punish her father’s killer.  The opening passage demonstrates the deadpan quality of her narration as well as the detail in which she recounts her single-minded determination to achieve her goal no matter the obstacles that she will have to fight to overcome.

Chaney, after killing her father, fled to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and joined up with the “Lucky” Ned Pepper gang.  Mattie realizes that she can’t travel alone into that treacherous territory and achieve her goal of bringing Chaney back to Fort Smith to stand trial in Judge Isaac Parker’s federal court for the Western District of Arkansas.  That court also has jurisdiction over any case in the territory that involves a white person who is either a victim or perpetrator.  Therefore, because the territory comes under federal jurisdiction, she sets out to hire the district’s meanest, toughest, orneriest U.S. deputy marshal to assist her.

She seeks advice on this matter from the local sheriff:

Who is the best marshal they have?”

The sheriff thought on it for a minute.  He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition.  There is near about two hundred of them.  I reckon William Waters is the best tracker.  He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cast for sign.  The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn.  He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.  He loves to pull a cork.  Now L.T. Quinn, he brings prisoners in alive.  He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.  Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men.  Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot.  He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner.  He is straight as a string.  Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’”

I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?’”

Mattie isn’t looking for a good tracker, or a fair man, she is looking for a man with “true grit,” a characteristic that she admires and that which she personally possesses in full measure.  It turns out that Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn is a one-eyed, hard-drinking, ruthless, fat man of about forty who isn’t sure that he wants to work for Mattie, or, as he makes plain, any woman.  But after much verbal sparring between the two, Rooster’s reticence is overcome by Mattie’s agreement to pay him the hundred dollars he demands for taking on the job.  It is more than she wants to pay, but she compromises by promising to pay him fifty now and the other fifty after the mission is accomplished.

Matters become even more complicated when a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (pronounced La-Beef) arrives in Fort Smith.  He is also on Chaney’s trail.  It seems that Chaney killed a state senator in Texas and that there is a sizable bounty on his head.  The marshal and the ranger decide to join forces and split the proceeds if they are able to capture – or kill – the fugitive.

Anyhow, it sounds queer.  Five hundred dollars is mighty little for a man that killed a senator.”

Bibbs was a little senator,” said LaBoeuf.  “They would not have put up anything except it would look bad.” 

Neither of the lawmen wants a fourteen-year-old girl to tag along and they attempt to leave her behind, but they don’t know Mattie.  She will not be denied.  The three, at odds with each other, and with differing goals, ride into the territory in search of Tom Chaney.

Even if you have watched one or both of the movies based on the book, both of which are good adaptations, the book is still an enjoyable read.  It is unfortunate that the two successful movies have had the effect of shoving the book below the reading public’s radar screen.  However, the publisher did re-issue the book as a tie-in with the recent movie and therefore it is back in print and is no longer hard to locate.

Novelist Donna Tartt, writing in the introduction to the new edition, calls the book a masterpiece.  She writes that four generations of her family, beginning with her great grandmother, deeply admired the novel.  Her great grandmother was in her eighties when she first read it and introduced it to the other females in the family: her middle-aged grandmother; her twenty-something mother; and to her, who was ten when she first read it. 

She does not mention any male members of her family being enamored with the book, and it is easy to see how this independent, bold, courageous, and yes, self-righteous and unaware young heroine would resonate with her and her female relatives.  Mattie is the star of the story, but she is ably assisted by Rooster and LaBeouf and there are enough thrills and adventures to appeal to readers regardless of gender or age.

One of the book’s many qualities is that it can be read on more than one level.  It can be approached as a coming-of-age story, or an adventure story, or a satire, or a story of redemption and loss of innocence, for it contains all these elements.  As Michael Cleary wrote in Twentieth Century Western Writers, “True Grit is … a curious amalgam of parody, formula, and myth.”  Cleary points out that Rooster, motivated by greed rather than justice, violates almost all perceptions of a Western hero.  “Portis overlays realism on the romantic world of the West.  [Therefore,] Rooster is not burdened by the moral introspection of a Virginian or Shane.”  Yet, in the end, his actions do rise to heroic proportions.

But Rooster meets his match when he tries to get the best of Mattie Ross.  Here we have two people who are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals.  But more times than not, it is Mattie who prevails.

Mattie is not only smart and stubborn, she believes that others should carry out her wishes.  Why?  Well, because her self-assurance tells her without reservation that it is the right thing to do.

Part of the appeal of the novel is that Mattie’s narration contains much deadpan humor.  However, she doesn’t know that.  She is unaware of how she sounds and, anyway, she wouldn’t care even if she did.

Here are a couple examples of her unintentional humor:

v On his deathbed he asked for a priest and became a Catholic.  That was his wife’s religion.  It was his own business and none of mine.  If you had sentenced one hundred and sixty men to death and seen around eighty of them swing, then maybe at the last minute you would feel the need for some stronger medicine than the Methodists could make.”

v You can expect that out of Federal people and to make it worse this was a Republican gang that cared nothing for the opinion of the good people of Arkansas who are Democrats.”

Portis was born and raised in southern Arkansas, was educated at the University of Arkansas, and has lived most of his life in the state.  That background allows him in True Grit to demonstrate his deep understanding of the people, place, and language of the time.  In a profile of Portis In the New York Times, Charles McGrath writes, Portis “doesn’t use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests … and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program.”  Maybe that reluctance stems from the many years he spent as a reporter prior to becoming a full-time novelist and is aware of how interviewers sometimes misquote or misconstrue or otherwise distort the interviewee’s remarks. 

Portis is the author of five novels. True Grit was his second.  The first was Norwood (1966), filmed after True Grit, it flopped at the box office.  The other three are The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1989), and Gringos (1991).