Two Grit


Richard Lutz watches both versions of a classic western

Disregarding the appalling breaking news stories in both Libya and Christchurch, let’s move on to more trivial matters.

I spent yesterday watching both True Grit films: the new Coen Brothers one with Jeff Bridges and the old fashioned shoot ‘em up with John Wayne from 1968 that landed him an Oscar for being John Wayne.

Both are good for different reasons. The new one is beautifully shot and, as one reviewer said, the Coen boys do cold weather very well. It is sullen, washed out, everyone needs a haircut and a shave and some of the faces are so beaten up it is hard to tell the living from the dead. The ending is truer to the original novel which leaps forward a quarter of a century to show teenage girl Maddie Ross as a stern spinster tying up the tale of the western chase.

In an interview, one of the interchangeable Coen brothers said they paid no credence to the John Wayne vehicle. But, there must have been something missing in translation. Because, as we put our feet up on the coffee table and turned on the dvd, there were direct lifts from the 1968 film. I anticipated at least half a dozen lines as I had heard in the new True Grit less than 24 hours before.

As for the original, it is the difference between night and day. It is an old fashioned movie. It is a John Wayne number and his name is written on the cowboy wind. Everyone is just out of make up and the hairdressers, bad guys are clean shaven, The Duke is clean shaven, even the horses are clean shaven.

When a villain gets shot, he goes: ‘Arrrrgh’ and clutches his chest (just like we all did when we were kids and playing in the streets) as a little trickle of ketchup trinkles down his cowboy costumed outfit.

In the Coen Brothers film, fingers get chopped off, heads blown asunder and necks wrung by hanging. It is pretty graphic, pretty grim.

What does stand out are the bad guys in the original. Robert Duvall has that hawklike face, though unlined 40 odd years ago, and Dennis Hopper plays the young lad slowly dying in the log cabin- hey, he even has a hipster ponytail way back then to remind you he was in Easy Rider a year later.

Glen Campbell is Le Beouf and isn’t a patch on his successor Matt Damon. And the girl who plays the original Mattie Ross (Kim Darby who quickly fell to oblivion) is simply a bad actress. The new Mattie Ross wipes her off the screen.

And now on Wayne. He’s OK actually seeing how he lost his will to act somewhere in the late fifties a clear decade before his Rooster Cogburn role. But he does have cinematic presence… though you may not like it. It is different to Jeff Bridges whose clothes and persona feel as if it held together by snot and blood.

But both men make the role their own. Bridges is hornery and you can smell him, he looks so bedraggled. Wayne  has a slight twinkle in his eyes as if he knows he is in the winter of a long career playing John Wayne.

The two Grits sum up the difference between ‘old’ film making and ‘new ‘ film making. The new film is tougher, the dialogue sterner and the storyline harder. It is less a Disney travelogue than a hardcore story about how unrelenting and dirty the west was. But both are beautiful to look upon. The old one is Technicolour perfect, the latter darker, more dreamlike, more threatening.

Both have true grit. And both for different reasons.