TRUE GRIT: A Comparison

I recently watched the remake, or to be more precise the alternate adaptation of the book True Grit is based on directed by The Coen Brothers. I thought the film was well made but at the same time I had my problems with it. Since I’m a longtime fan of the original and also a big fan of The Coens, I thought I’d take an honest, straight forward look at the two films and point out what I did/didn’t like.

Rooster Cogburn

U.S. Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn

John Wayne’s U.S. Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn was one of his finest roles. The character was a cantankerous ol rebel of the Wild West that was deadly with a pistol, enjoyed playing a post-meal game of cards with his friend, the shopkeeper Chin Lee and drinking his whiskey. He also owned an orange tabby cat he called General Sterling Price. This is a small detail but it showed that Rooster wasn’t just about bounty hunting and boozing. Wayne had been in so many Westerns from the 1930s on and True Grit was one of his last and best performances. He had developed his western persona so much by this time he didn’t even have to act. He was basically playing himself which just made the film easier to get into and enjoy. One of the most important parts of the film was his special relationship with young Mattie who he affectionately called “baby sister” and how it progresses.

Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn is interesting simply because he’s always a master craftsman that brings alot of charisma and ideas to whatever role he’s in. I can’t not mention his now legendary character “The Dude” in The Coens’ cult classic The Big Lebowski. He’s perfect in it. The main problem I had with his characterization in True Grit was his speech. Rooster is such a complete marble mouth his dialogue becomes really tough to understand. This may have been a deliberate choice on his part or one The Coens made to give him that eccentric touch they like to have in their movies but it actually doesn’t help it. Another negative detail is Rooster and Mattie never really connect like they do in the 1969 film. There is no familial bond that we see form between them.


Mattie Ross

Mattie Ross

The main character Mattie Ross is a vengeful, serious, stubborn young girl who is out to get a criminal on the run named Tom Chaney the killer of her father and numerous other men. Hailee Steinfeld shines in her role as the snappy, no nonsense Mattie. Her take on the character is relatively close to that of Kim Darby who was excellent in the 1969 film. Throughout the film Steinfeld proves to be a formidable actress who can hold her own against all the male actors. It’s a standout performance.

LeBeouf

Texas Ranger LeBeouf

Glenn Campbell a popular country singer (you might know his song “Rhinestone Cowboy”) was cast in the role of Texas Ranger LeBeouf in the earlier film and he does a good job although it’s nothing special. Matt Damon’s LeBeouf has a bit more character depth, better dialogue and is one of the most interesting people in the film.

Tom Chaney

Tom Chaney

Jeff Corey’s Tom Chaney was much more of a deranged scoundrel whereas Josh Brolin who had previously appeared in The Coens’ modern western/crime film No Country For Old Men is really not quite as convincing. His dialogue readings also came off very dull and one note which I didn’t like. Brolin is a good actor but his cameo as Chaney wasn’t a very memorable performance.

Lucky Ned Pepper

Lucky Ned Pepper

These dual performances are the closest for me between both films mainly because Barry Pepper has alot of the same dialogue as Robert Duvall did. One thing I liked alot was Pepper’s look. At first I wasnt even sure if it was him, then I recognized his face. They did a great job turning him into a dirty outlaw with crooked teeth and a weathered face. Like Duvall, his Ned Pepper doesn’t come across as a total villain but someone who lives by his own code and he’s actually one of the more likeable people in the story. Pepper is always a solid actor who makes a project better. From his work in Saving Private Ryan to The 25th Hour to this film.

DIRECTION & SOUND

One thing that is a main difference between the two films is the stylistic visual approaches and how their respective moods and overall technical aspects come across to viewers.

Henry Hathaway who was one of the legendary old school directors in Hollywood went for a more traditional set up with his shots. The earlier film was much brighter and more naturalistic and didn’t rely on alot of tricks or flourishes (which is often used with today’s easy access to technology). This made it easy to understand and had a broad appeal to audiences.

The Coen Brothers are known for their inventive, offbeat direction and cinematography and in True Grit they don’t dissapoint by using a variety of photographic effects and interesting color schemes giving the film a washed out, gothic look. Their aesthetic in this film really has more in common with something like a Tim Burton movie than a classic Hollywood western. It was interesting to look at and I appreciate their darker spin on the tale but at the same time it didn’t fill in any meaningful spaces in the story for me.

The music between both films is another big difference. In 1969, the score by Elmer Bernstein reflected the times and was more upbeat. It featured the main song by Glenn Campbell which was a pop folksy ballad. The Coens’ film score by their collaborator Carter Burwell is of course more somber in tone. It’s actually closer to a thriller than a Western.

THE ENDING (Spoilers)

The original films finale is certainly happier and just more enjoyable to me. The Coens version is downbeat, cold and unsentimental. As opposed to the 1969 film which ends on a positive note, in The Coens’ film Mattie Ross never sees Rooster again after their adventure and years later when she returns to visit him at a Wild West Show she finds he has died. We also learn that Mattie is a frigid old maid who seems to look down on everyone and for me this change actually ruined the entire film because of who I had hoped she would be in the end.

Overall, I found the Coens’ adaptation of True Grit to be close to the original film in the plot but the various changes that were made to be more in line with the story the films are based on didn’t improve on it much at all. While the first film reminds me of a coming of age adventure, bonding and happiness, the remake is very unemotional and negative and I wasn’t touched by the characters in any way.

My personal choice between the two still is the first, lighter version of True Grit. I grew up with it and I’ve really come to enjoy it more and more over the years. There’s a saying that goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and in this case that definitely applies.

What did you think? Let us know in the comment section below!

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Peter

Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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16 Responses

  1. Steevew says:

    i can’t watch it,why do they re-make films that are so good to start with?

  2. GT Regan says:

    It was the first review I saw (Nov. 7, 2011) that even mentioned
    General Sterling Price. My 2G grandfather helped chase Price
    out of Missouri in 1861, so I took it personally that the cat was
    ignored by the Coens.

  3. I personally prefer the Coens’ version. I feel the exact opposite as you: to me, the colorful, cheerful atmosphere of the original film kind of ruined the revenge and violence in the story. I always thought the movie should be darker, but maybe that had to do with Hollywood at the time Hathaway’s True Grit was made. That’s why I was pleased to see the Coen Brothers finally “corrected” the flaws I saw in the original.
    I loved the Duke’s acting, though – to me, his best performance was in The Searchers.

    • Peter Roberts says:

      First, thanks for your reply!

      I really dont think the overall quality/lasting effect of The Coens’ version matches the Hathaway film either, thats why I did this comparison and made my diff points. I love dark cinema but that aesthetical choice alone couldn’t make me enjoy the remake more. Besides that, I dont consider this to be one of The Coens better works.

      • Ducktail76 says:

        Both versions are excellent however all the hype about the Coens version being closer to the book is false.Charles Portis novel is almost exactly like the John Wayne/Henry Hathaway version the only exception being that the 2010 film does stick closer to the Victorian era language of the novel.While the original film does keep many of the unusual words that we almost never hear today they were smart enought to realize that modern audiences would get into a better flow with lines like them hogs instead of those hogs.Also everything original about the new film such as the bizarre bear man and the indian who barters with Rooster for the dead body were made up and werent even in the book.I believe that the Coens were banking on the fact that the younger generation doesnt read books anymore than they have to and that they just dont like films that are older than 10 or 15 years so they can foist a remake and its something totally new to most younger people.They even had the book reissued in a special edition that coincides with the release of the 2010 version but if anybody cares enough to pick it up and read it it is still much closer to the 1969 film.

        • mm Peter says:

          i just prefer the traditional style of the 1969 film over the coens darker offbeat version. ive seen all their movies so i knew they’d add those weird touches but it just didnt work for me. its a well made film but it doesn’t give me the satisfaction i get from the earlier one.

  4. John McCormick says:

    I thought the Wayne version was a bit of fluff and the Coen Brothers version was a more realistic portrayal of the times. I have read much about the past and its not fluffy and positive like most people crave it to be. The comment that the Coen brothers are banking on the younger generation and not liking movies older than 10-15 years old. The Coen brothers did not “foist” this movie on anyone. Just made it more realistic and thus MUCH more entertaining. The old hee haw type cowboy experience in the original might have passed as great cinema then but not now. This younger generation and any generation for that matter demands a more realistic story. I love the site

    • mm Peter says:

      The remake IS closer to the source material but that doesn’t make it a better film or a better Western. Thats what this post was about.

  5. David Mincey says:

    They are both good in their own separate ways. The 1969 is more fun. The 2010 is more real. After growing up loving the 1969, I as ready to see how this story would play if it was ‘nonfiction’. There is very little to knock for either.

  6. David Stewart Wells, Hollywood High, 1950 says:

    John Wayne’s “Best” was in “Red River”. John Ford told Hathaway he didn’t know The Duke could “Act”! Except for Glenn Campbell’s insignificant contribution – the supporting actors in both films are truly outstanding with both Matties in memorable performances. For us raised on Wayne movies from “Stagecoach” to “The Shootist” – we marveled at his “Rooster Cogburn” and no one can fault Jeff Bridges on his “True Grit” in any role Hollywood has handed him! So… declare a tie – because different “strokes” for the folks of “different times”!

  7. Perry says:

    I grew up near Ridgway, CO where a big part of the movie was filmed. My dad and I hunted elk where the final battle took place. I worked at a drug store in nearby Telluride and took my dad to see the original True Grit. We used to go to Montrose and see the town of Ridgway being prepared for the movie. They built wooden sidewalks, painted store fronts, etc. We saw the gallows being built and got to watch part of the filming. Having said that, I have a strong emotional tie to the first movie and got to meet John Wayne and Glen Campbell when they came to the drug store. My first thought on the ‘remake’ was – How could they do that? Watching both movies and after reading the book, I think Coen’s version is better. The music is better, and the scenes match the book better. True Grit by the Coens gets my vote for the better job. Both are very watchable.

  8. mm Peter says:

    Ive come to like The Coens version more than I did when I wrote this. I think both are really good.

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