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February 25, 2011

"True Grit" vs. "True Grit:" Which Comes Out On Top? (Spoilers)

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Hailee steinfeld

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

With the Oscars a couple of days away, I had the brilliant idea of comparing the classic 1969 John Wayne version of "True Grit" with last year's Oscar nominated version starring Jeff Bridges.  The good, the bad, and the eye patches.  Here's are the results.

***Final warning, I give away some plot points so if you don't want to know them, turn back now***

Cast Overview

Old True Grit

Rooster Cogburn:  John Wayne

Mattie Ross:  Kim Darby

LeBoeuf:  Glen Campbell

Tom Chaney:  Jeff Corey

New True Grit

Rooster Cogburn:  Jeff Bridges

Mattie Ross:  Hailee Steinfeld

LeBoeuf:  Matt Damon

Tom Chaney:  Josh Brolin


Plot Overview

The story is about a young woman of the old west, Mattie Ross, who hires a hard drinking U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to find her father's killer, Tom Chaney.  Mattie's a feisty young woman who's good with numbers and can bargain better than any horse trader you've ever seen.  

After eventually hiring Cogburn to find Chaney, Mattie insists on going along--after all she's paying--and the two are accompanied by Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who's got his own reasons for tracking Chaney down.   

Mirror Mirror, Flora and Fauna

What I found surprising about the scripts of both movies is that they're nearly identical.  I remember reading somewhere the Coen Brothers  talking about how different their version was from the Old TG because they went back to the original novel for the New TG script.  

Well they didn't go back very far.  Most of the scenes are exactly the same.  The dialogue has changes and some scenes have been added, but for the most part, the same.

Visually, the most striking difference between the two movies is that the Old TG looks like a Disney western.  It's all pretty and clean with blue skies and crisp green grass, almost as if someone had gone back in a time machine with a mower to cut it.  

There's no dust, mud or stains of any kind.

Even the deaths are neat and clean.  When Tom Chaney shoots down Frank Ross (John Pickard) in the Old TG, it's got no more impact than if he bent down to tie his shoes.  For a plot point that launches the whole narrative of what is a revenge movie, I was expecting a scene with a bit more drama. 

Oh, and the movie was Rated G.

In the New TG, it's the dead of winter, the sun is never out, it's cold, it's snowy and the mattress Cogburn sleeps on looks like the horses used it as a bathroom before he went to bed. 

The deaths are dirtier enough for a PG-13 rating.

Opening Credits

The opening credits to the Old TG had me laughing until I was nearly falling on the floor.  Part of Glen Campbell's contract to play LeBoeuf must have included that he got to sing the opening theme song.  Remember, Glen was a popular singer back in 1969 and the producers at Paramount must have thought they had pure box office gold by casting him.  

And truth be told, his acting was okay.  What wasn't okay was the awful syrupy ballad he was forced to sing over the opening credits.  It was a dreary little ditty about needing to find a man with "true grit," played over stark white titles and a static long shot of the Ross ranch.   

The opening credits of the New TG were a huge improvement.  We hear the voice of Mattie as an older woman, telling us about how when she was 14-years-old, she went on the hunt "to avenge her father's blood."  Meanwhile, we see white titles over a black background with the strains of a sad piano playing in the background.  As Mattie finishes her narration, the camera pushes in to a lifeless body lying in the street outside a saloon, a light snow falling all around.

Much better.  Much more effective.  And we don't even need a "Tom Chaney shoots Frank Ross" scene. 

John's Rooster Cogburn vs. Jeff's Rooster Cogburn

The Old TG is a John Wayne vehicle from start to finish. He's the star of every scene and he's got pages and pages and pages of dialogue.  As far as I'm concerned Wayne could never hide himself in a role.  He was always John Wayne playing a John Wayne western character who looked and sounded like--John Wayne. 

But I will say his Rooster is fine enough and if you're a John Wayne fan, this is a movie you wouldn't want to miss.  Wayne won his only Oscar for the role.

Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn mumbles a bit more but has just as much dialogue.  The big difference is that his scenes with Mattie are more of a duet than a monologue.

Bridges' Rooster is also more believable when it comes to his feelings for Mattie.  In the Old TG, I knew Rooster cared about Mattie because he did things to show that he cared about Mattie.  In the New TG I didn't only know he cared about her, I felt it.

And with the devil being in the details, John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn had his eye patch on his left eye, while Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn had his patch on the right eye.

Kim's Mattie Ross vs. Hailee's Mattie Ross

The biggest problem with Kim Darby is that she was 21-years-old when she played Mattie, who was supposed to be fourteen.  Now if they'd tried to pass her off as seventeen, that would have worked just fine.  But fourteen?  No.

When it came to emotional range, though Darby got the fiestiness down, she never mastered the depth of emotions that makes Steinfeld's Mattie so moving and memorable.

In the New TG some of the best scenes are where we see glimpses of Mattie as a young girl who realizes she may be in over her head.  Like when she comes face to face with Chaney for the first time by herself.  Or the agony she feels when her horse dies. 

Who Lived, Who Died

To be honest, once I saw Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the cast of the Old TG, I thought, following through on the whole Disney western theme, the two of them would ride off into the sunset and get married in the end.  Well, no. LeBoeuf gets killed.  

That's right, poor Glen bites it.  But not before he helps save Mattie and Rooster from a pit full of rattle snakes.  

But like every other death in the movie, it's emotionless.  Mattie's like, "Is he dead?"  Rooster's like, "Yep."

In the New TG, surprisingly LeBoeuf lives.  He still saves Mattie and Rooster from a pit full of rattle snakes, but he's just left standing around as Rooster hustles off to get a rattle snake bitten Mattie to a doctor.

The Final Word

Let's talk endings shall we?  In the Old TG, in classic Disney western fashion, we get Mattie and Rooster saying goodbye before she has to hustle on back home to Momma.  Yeah she's got that pesky rattle snake bite on her arm, but she's got it trussed up in a sling and she'll be fine.

In the New TG?  Rooster gets Mattie help for the snake bite and then we immediately flash forward many years later.  There's Mattie, looking like a surly spinster, and she's gotten a letter from Rooster for the first time since they parted.  

Oh, and she's got one arm.  That's right, because of the snake bite, her arm had to be amputated.

Now, these last scenes of the older Mattie?  Total waste of time.  First of all, I was angry because I didn't want to think of Mattie as having turned into that hard, one armed woman.  I wanted to maintain the memory of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie and whatever the filmmakers needed to do to accomplish that, they should have done. 

Finally, both movies could have done with a little less talking and a little more action.  The New TG is by far the better movie, but the Old TG was good for its time.


Related Links

"True Grit" Memories from Kim Darby and Glen Campbell

A Review of "True Grit" by Gabriella at The Hathor Legacy

This Scene Alone Should Win "True Grit" Cinematographer Roger Deakins an Oscar

Mari G Talks "True Grit" at Cast A Bold Eye

Megan Smith is the BlogHer Contributing Editor covering Television/Online Video. Her other blogs are Megan's Minute, quirky commentary around the clock and Meg's Rad Reviews.


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