Paramount // 1969 // 127 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // December 31st, 2010
Three unlikely companions. One shot at justice.
Just in time for Joel and Ethan Coen's remake of True Grit, John Wayne's original classic rides onto high definition courtesy of Paramount.
When the father of young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby, Better Off Dead) is killed, she sets out to get justice from his murderer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney. To do so, she enlists the help of a drunken, one-eyed, irascible U.S. marshal by the name of Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and a pompous Texas Ranger named La Beouf (Glen Campbell). Together, the three set off into Indian territory in search of Chaney and the band of outlaws he's taken up with.
I don't know if I can be fair to True Grit. Not the 1969 original, anyway. It was unseen by me until watching it on Blu-ray for the purposes of this review -- but, unfortunately, even that viewing came after seeing the 2010 remake of the film from Joel and Ethan Coen. That movie is a masterpiece, and makes going back to the original somewhat difficult. It's a bit like viewing The Dark Knight with all its complexities and brilliant performances and filmmaking skill and then watching the Adam West Batman series. It's difficult to go back to the way things were.
That's not to compare True Grit to the Batman TV series. It's better than that (well, not exactly "better," because Batman was a lot of fun; let's just say its pleasures are different). It's just a much simpler telling of the story originally written by Charles Portis (maybe a better comparison would be with the original The Fly and David Cronenberg's superior 1986 remake). It's colorful and upbeat, filled with spectacular landscapes and a protagonist with lots of -- I hate to say it -- pluck. It's unfortunate, then, that she's played by Kim "It's Got Raisins In It, You Like Raisins" Darby, who is plucky but hardly anything else. I would say she's out of her depth acting opposite John Wayne (more on him in a minute), but she's also acting against Glen Campbell. That makes her look better than she is. Campbell is a musician attempting to act; as La Boeuf, he comes across as a musician attempting to act. He never drags the movie down (though he and Darby do come close at times), but it's only on a few occasions that True Grit really rises above being pretty standard genre stuff. Not to keep invoking the Brothers Coen, but once you've seen their take on Portis' book, the 1969 version seems pitched at kids by comparison.
Of course, the real reason to go back and see True Grit is for John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance as marshall Rooster Cogburn. It's one of those rare instances in films where an iconic character was finally -- and correctly -- married with an iconic actor. It's not The Duke's best work, but it is one of the best representations of why he was such a star in the first place. Wayne was essentially awarded the Oscar not for giving a performance that was particularly different or better than in the past; rather, it was the culmination of years' worth of movie star parts. He won the Oscar for doing the best John Wayne. And he does very good John Wayne in True Grit: he's towering and intimidating, but warm and likable. He appears to be having a lot of fun playing Cogburn, and it's that sense of fun that is what's best about True Grit. It's not really a great movie, but it is a fun one.
The movie makes its HD debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount, who have put together a decent little package for the classic western. The 1.78:1 widescreen image is bold and vibrant, with good detail evident in the film's breathtaking vistas and very few signs of age or wear; for a movie that's over 40 years old, True Grit looks very good in HD. Several audio options have been presented, including a lossless DTS-HD track for those that want to get the full use of the format's potential and a mono track for purists looking to replicate the original theatrical experience more closely. Either track works for those reasons, though I have to admit I prefer the 5.1 option in this case, as it provides a more immersive presence without ever being bombastic or overselling things. It may not be entirely faithful to the original experience, but it's tastefully done and works better than the mono option.
Genre historians Bob Boze Bell, J. Stuart Rosebook and Jeb Rosebrook sit down for a commentary track over True Grit, providing a lot of background on the film's production and comparing and contrasting the film and the novel. Some listeners may find the track a bit on the dry side, but any fan of True Grit (or westerns in general, really) will find a lot of good information here. Also included are a few short featurettes: "Working with The Duke," which focuses on John Wayne and his performance in the movie; "True Writing," again discussing both the film and the original novel; "The Law and the Lawless," a generic 'history' piece on life in the old west, and "Aspen Gold," a featurette on the film's locations. The original trailer rounds out the supplemental section.
It's not really fair to continue comparing the John Wayne True Grit with the Coen Brothers' remake, so I'll let that go. Taken on its own, True Grit is fun and entertaining, but fairly standard stuff for a western. If not for the novelty of its young protagonist (however shaky Kim "Fraunch Bread/Fraunch Dressing/And to Drink Peru!" Darby's performance may be) and the huge shadow cast by John Wayne, I don't know that we'd still be talking about the movie today. The Blu-ray does right by the film, though, and both John Wayne fans and western enthusiasts ought to be pleased.
The original is Not Guilty, but I'd still go with the remake.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated G