Remakes are an easy barometer of how affectionately a film is held in the general consciousness of the film-viewing public, which is unfortunately why so many original classics have been butchered in the hands of unworthy modern directors keen to make a name for themselves. Thankfully, the Coen Brothers don't need the boost of association with one of those remakes, so their agenda remains faithfully set on making a new take on the original story, while retaining a certain essence of the first adaptation starring the legendary John Wayne, which is now available on blu-ray. (and after you've read the review, remember we have five copies to give away!!)
While the film may immediately conjure up images of the Wild West, True Grit isn't the prototypical Western it may initially appear to be. There may be hats and horses, and some of the characters might appear to be nothing more than generic archetypes, but there is a lot more to the film than just a dust-bowl shoot-em-up set between saloons and the open plains. For unlike most Westerns of its era, True Grit is a character-lead journey, with the dynamics between the characters, rather than the bluster of gun-fire and set-piece horse chases taking the lead.
And those characters are brought perfectly to screen across the board, including two excellent early performances by Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper as two of the villains. John Wayne has rarely been better, especially in his later roles, playing as ironic a character as your likely to see in a Western of the period: he is a cantankerous, unsympathetic, wise-cracking booze-hound content to waste his money on cards and liquor. But twinkling in his one good eye are the memories of so many victories on the open ranges- almost the perfect comment on Wayne's own fading career and past glories. While the Coens' version has returned to the source to focus more closely on Mattie Ross, Henry Hathaway's was always going to be dominated by Wayne, whose powerhouse performance stands astride all else and draws the majority of focus. His chemistry with Mattie, played by an excellent Kim Darby is the real heart of the film, and thanks to Darby's ability to match Wayne for focus when they are on screen together, the relationship is irresistible. With that much focus taken, it is easy to forget Glen Campbell, in his first real role as the straight man Texas Ranger La Boeuf, but he offers brilliant balance to Wayne's Rooster, even if he is patently only included for that reason, and in posterity will never be able to challenge Matt Damon's performance in the same role.
Of course I love this film- it is effectively a commentary on John Wayne's career. His Rooster Cogburn is both of parody of and loving reference to every character he had played in his Western heyday, and in that grizzled, cynical and broken bodied man is the natural extrapolation of what every movie cowboy must become. In comparison to the bombastic splendour of the early Westerns, True Grit has a far more pessimistic view, it invests itself in offering a glorified portrait of that great 60s icon- the rebellious anti-hero. The lines might be throw-away in certain cases, but hidden in the comedy and tragedy of Rooster Cogburn's situation is a timeless message of what happens to the old heroes when advancements render them useless. Rooster in that respect is a character of universal appeal- his situation, being the product of an old way that has become outdated and unacceptable whose agents despise his methods, is as appropriate now as it was when the film came out.
Where did all the old cowboys go? True Grit has the answer. It offers a touching story of redemption under all of its bravado, and above all it is a tale of relationships and strength of unity.
Considering this is 41 years old, I am truly astounded. The transfer is astonishingly good, with colours in particular looking great throughout; the technicolor palette is as accurate as it is ever likely to be in a film this age, even if the colours always have that slightly hyperreal feel about them thanks to the filming process. Equally, black levels are excellent and surprisngly deep, and skin tone avoids the usually over-orange hue of films of the period. Detail is just as good, with the transfer picking up an unbelievable amount of detail in textures- especially cloth- while retaining the perfect amount of filmic grain. Some might point out the various spots and scratches that occasionally blight the perfection, but for me they worked as a reminder of the film's age, and offered an authenticity to the transfer.
The sound transfer is very much a case of doing justice to the source material only- it is the best the film has sounded by a country mile, with added clarity in both music and dialogue,but the action sequences are still left slightly hollow, thanks to them lacking a bit of necessary punch. But overall, it sounds as good as humanly possible, given the source.
Just the same as the older region one Collectors Edition DVD releases, though now transferred across to high-definition, which isn't a huge sale for fans of the film who already own it on DVD. But then, it's 41 years old, not 50 so it's neither likely nor particularly easy to go and make new extra material.
Audio Commentary by Western Film Historian Jeb Rosebrook, Executive Editor of True West Magazine Bob Boze Bell and American West Historian J. Stuart Rosebrook True Writing (4:27mins)- interviews with historians of the American West and the Western genre of film. Working with the Duke (10:14mins) Aspen Gold: Locations of True Grit (10:18mins) The Law and Lawless (5:45mins) Theatrical Trailer (3:40mins) True Grit is available on Blu-ray now. We have five copies to give away. Enter here.