Why didn’t you people tell me how awesome this movie was? I mean, I’m becoming more and more a fan of John Wayne, but TRUE GRIT was one I hadn’t gotten to and DAMN, is it ever terrific. My favorite Wayne performance is still THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (though my favorite Wayne movie – not the best, but the one I love most – may be MCLINTOCK). TRUE GRIT, though, is just flat-out fantastic, in part because it’s so very much not what you think of when you think of a John Wayne picture. The modern view of John Wayne is that he’s two-dimensional, a throwback, badly-acted machismo. And none of it is really true. Wayne plays strongly masculine characters, but his films have surprising sensitivity, and while he stuck closely to his established screen persona, he acted his parts very well indeed.
First off: TRUE GRIT is not a John Wayne movie. Really. He’s the headlining star, and he won the Oscar for his part, but he really plays the supporting role. It’s a Kim Darby picture. Darby gives the picture its name when she says she’s looking to hire a man with true grit, but you realize pretty quickly that the title refers to Darby’s character, and not Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, because oh man has she ever got it. Darby plays Mattie Ross, a 16-year-old girl who works as the bookkeeper for her father, a rancher. When her father goes off on a buying trip with their hired hand, the hand, a ne’er-do-well lout, gets drunk and fights with Mr. Ross, killing him. Mattie’s brother is a small boy, and her mother is stuck at home with a new baby. So it falls to Mattie to find justice for her father.
It’s not going to be easy. The bad guy has gotten away into the Indian territory, which is mostly miles and miles of absolutely nothing. Pursuit of fugitives there is a federal matter, and there aren’t a lot of resources to go around.
Mattie Ross is cool-headed, smart, and a brutally fierce negotiator who’s possessed of a tremendous business acumen and a tendency to pinch pennies until they squeal. What she’s not, is an action heroine. Mattie is smart enough to know that. So she goes out and hires the toughest, nastiest, meanest US Marshal she can find, and hires him. That would be John Wayne. Glen Campbell, playing a Texas Ranger who’s seeking the bad guy on behalf of another client – for an unrelated fee – tags along, and the three of them ride off into the middle of nowhere to find the man who killed Mattie’s father.
The movie has considerable charm on its own merits, but it’s especially interesting with regard to how it portrays the heroine. If you start thinking in terms of the portrayal of women, which thinking my flist tends to stimulate, you see a remarkably feminist movie that happens to star John Wayne. Except I’m not sure feminist is the right word. Mattie is treated as a real person by Wayne’s Cogburn and Campbell’s Le Beouf – when they try to brush her off at the beginning, keep her from going to the territory, it’s not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s a kid whose history of sleeping out consists of the time her pa took her on a raccoon hunt, and they're convinced of her capability and hardiness pretty quick – and her talents and determination are certainly recognized by them. At the same time, Mattie has limitations, and the film and the other characters recognize those, too. In one scene, Campbell and Wayne discuss an assault they’re contemplating on some fellows with guns, during which they note, “There’s only two of us.” This is said right in front of Mattie, as if she isn’t there, and it’s jarring – but it’s also true. Mattie totes her father’s immense revolver about in a flour sack, but she’s never fired it and isn’t a combatant by any stretch of the imagination. She doesn’t have to be, because while she defers to Cogburn’s expertise for handling situations with which she’s unfamiliar, it’s clear at all times that *Mattie is the one in charge.* She’s the money. She’s the boss. And dammit, she’s going side by side with them every step of the way to make sure she gets her money’s worth.
TRUE GRIT is thus an amazingly feminist flick, except for the times when it isn’t at all. It’s an unusual approach; I don’t think you’d see it in a film today, because people have realized that kick-ass women with guns are cool. But it’s quite effective in a Western picture, given the mores of the setting. It feels strange to look back at the movie with modern preconceptions and watch John Wayne in a subordinate role to a strong young woman: once he gets a measure of her capabilities, he doesn’t treat her as inferior, but he does treat her as *different,* and that dynamic is part of what makes the movie interesting to watch.