Paramount // 1969 // 127 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // April 7th, 2000
"I'm looking for a man with grit."
Based on the novel by Charles Portis is the film version of True Grit. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film's reputation rests on John Wayne's Oscar winning performance.
The story is about a young girl, Mattie Hayes (Kim Darby), whose father is murdered by a ranch hand. She goes to town in search of a man with true grit who will help her find the man who murdered her father. Who she finds is US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne), the meanest Marshall around with 24 kills to his name in the four years he has been with the government. Along the way she also finds a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), who is on the trail of the same man. After much bickering, the unlikely trio ride in search of the killer. The ride is not a grouping made in heaven. The Ranger has too much ego, Hayes is too headstrong and Cogburn drinks too much. Naturally by film's end everyone has the respect of the other. Seems the murderer has hooked up with a gang lead by Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). Cogburn has a history with Pepper, so the hunt takes on a personal tone. Mattie finds the killer and gets her wish of shooting him dead but not without paying a price of her own. Cogburn gets his man as well, not to mention a hefty reward. While "the Duke" does not ride off into the sunset, he does get one of the great final images of the American western.
First off, one of the main things that struck me is how long this film really takes to get started. I noticed the movie was at the forty-five minute mark before the trio rode off in search of Pepper and his gang. Also, one glaring defect of the film is that Glen Campbell is a truly awful actor. Everything sounds forced and rehearsed; there is not a drop of sincerity anywhere in his performance. So needless to say the time the film takes to get going is dragged out even further whenever Campbell is onscreen. That being said there is some good work from other members of the cast. Kim Darby is quite effective as Mattie Hayes. She has strength and determination but also a great sense of youthful naïveté. Robert Duvall is very good as the gang leader in an early performance. Also in support are Dennis Hopper and Strother Martin.
True Grit belongs however, to John Wayne. The movie rests squarely on his large shoulders. He knows what he is doing in this kind of movie and he carries it off with all the character of "the Duke." Sitting there watching the movie I kept asking myself, is this an Oscar performance? Nope, I don't think so. The Searchers, The Man who Shot Liberty Valence and The Quiet Man, those were Oscar caliber performances. This was one of those "body of work" trophies the Academy likes to give out to make everyone feel better about themselves. This is not to say that Wayne is not good. He is. He was just much better in several other films.
But ultimately the film is torpedoed by Campbell's incompetence. When his character dies saving the life of Mattie, it should be an important moment when you feel something for his sacrifice. All I felt was relief that I would not have to hear him again.
This disc is part of Paramount's finally dipping into its vaults and releasing older catalogue titles. The film is given a brand new anamorphic transfer and for the most part, it looks quite good. Colors seem to be a bit faded, especially in the beginning of the movie but that goes away once everyone hits the trail. Also in the first third of the film I noticed more than a little dirt on the print and a fair share of nicks and scratches, but this as well went away as the movie hit its second act. Still it looks quite good for a film that is 31 years old. All of the western scenery is rendered quite well. Detail is very impressive with a great deal of depth. Considering the age of the source material, not a bad job.
When I watched El Dorado earlier in the week, one of my main problems with that disc was the thinness of the mono soundtrack. True Grit is also mono, but I found it a much richer listening experience. Dialogue is easy to understand and I could detect very little hiss.
As with El Dorado, the only special feature included with True Grit is the original theatrical trailer. I suppose I was a little more forgiving with El Dorado simply because I was so happy to see it looking so fine. With True Grit that honeymoon is over.
With the above problems on the table I think it is time Paramount started coming up with more extra material for the DVD crowd. Look at what Fox (!) did with their release of Patton: A two-disc set with a wonderful documentary on the film's director and an isolated music track for Jerry Goldsmith. I mean, a person cannot watch True Grit and not get swept away by Elmer Bernstein's rousing score. He deserves the same red carpet treatment as Goldsmith. If a studio as stingy as Fox can do something that special, well, why can't Paramount?
Great sound and picture are great and one of the most important aspects of a release. Special features however are the icing on the cake. It is a big reason a lot of us made the jump to DVD to begin with. Come on Paramount. It's time.
True Grit is a Western in the classic mold. True Grit was, in many ways, the closing of a door to a certain style of filmmaking. True Grit is worth seeing for a look back. Just be aware of its shortcomings. If you are a fan of the genre or a fan of John Wayne you are celebrating this release. If you are that fan, buy this disc with confidence. Paramount has treated the film well. As for the fan of the movie, well as I stated earlier, Paramount could have done much more.
Of the two films, El Dorado and this one, well El Dorado is the one worth keeping. True Grit does not hold up nearly as well. This is one for the weekend rental.
John Wayne is released to ride off into the sunset. Paramount is to remain in leg irons until they put more work into material for the consumers. That is it. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Theatrical Trailer