'True Grit,' Then And Now

Remakes rarely outshine the original, but the Coen Brothers' newest movie, True Grit, eclipses the 1969 version starring John Wayne. Critic Bob Mondello compares and contrasts the two movies — and the way Westerns were made then and now.

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Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen ride their new Western, "True Grit," into theaters today. It stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon reprising roles made famous by John Wayne and Glen Campbell in the original 1969 film.

But the Coen brothers say they adapted their movie from the original Charles Portis novel. They did not re-watch the John Wayne version.

Well, critic Bob Mondello did, and he has some thoughts as to how the two compare.

BOB MONDELLO: The new "True Grit" opens with a bit of grit, body lying in the snow and the voice of Mattie Ross telling us how her father died at the hand of a man named Chaney. As she remembers it when she was 14, her Protestant upbringing said that that man needed to pay for his crime.

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Ms. HAILEE STEINFELD (Actress): (as Mattie Ross) No doubt Chaney fancies himself scot-free. But he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.

MONDELLO: The old "True Grit" opened more brightly. In 1969, a couple of flicks that sounded like Westerns but weren't Westerns - "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy" - were signaling a revolution in moviemaking. But the "True Grit" that John Wayne starred in was a last gasp of old Hollywood - gigantic title superimposed over a lush, green valley, Glen Campbell crooning lyric that lets you know this G-rated film would have a happy ending.

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Mr. GLEN CAMPBELL (Actor): (as La Boeuf) (Singing) One day, little girl, the sadness will leave your face.

MONDELLO: In the odd logic of Hollywood, Glen Campbell's hit songs - "Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and the soon-to-be-released "Galveston" - gave him geographical credentials to sing in a Western. Alas, the producers went further and gave him an actual part as Texas ranger La Boeuf.

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Mr. CAMPBELL: (as La Boeuf) The French is La Bourf. I call it La Beef.

MONDELLO: As an actor, Campbell was, let's just say, handsome and leave it at that. John Wayne, playing U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, was in his 60s, a bit past his prime, and had put on a few pounds possibly because the screenwriters kept shoving food his way, whether he was in town...

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Mr. JOHN WAYNE (Actor): (as Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn) And if you're hungry, I'll take you home and give you supper.

MONDELLO: ...chowing down at a trading post...

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Mr. WAYNE: (as Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn) Stew?

MONDELLO: ...or pitching camp out on the trail.

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (as Character) What did you bring for us to eat?

Mr. WAYNE (as Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn): Corn dodgers.

Unidentified Woman: (as Character) (Unintelligible). How many have you got in there?

Mr. WAYNE (as Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn): Oh, must be 175.

MONDELLO: This being Big Sky Country, in between meals, the camera would pull back so he could ride his horse down a hillside and they could cut away before the poor beast had to drag him up the next one. Director Henry Hathaway was such an old hand at Westerns that he didn't seem to be trying very hard with this one, mostly just setting up his cameras and letting the stars entertain -Kim Darby, perky as Mattie; Wayne, gruff and folksy, an old hand behind his eye patch; Campbell trying gamely not to trip.

Truth be told, there wasn't much actual acting going on until Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper showed up around midpoint as bad guys.

The Coen brothers' "True Grit" is grittier, as you'll expect if you saw their serial killer Western, "No Country for Old Men." It's also splendidly acted and takes full advantage of every breathtaking vista it comes across, a grand epic made quirky and intimate by the dialogue, some of which is lifted almost verbatim from the Charles Portis novel. Jeff Bridges wears the eye patch this time, gargling Rooster's lines...

(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (as Rooster Cogburn) How long you boys been mounted on sheep down there?

MONDELLO: ...while Matt Damon's Texas ranger is a peacock fluffing feathers at every taunt.

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as La Boeuf) My white Andalusian will still be galloping when that big American stud of yours is winded and collapsed. Now make another joke about it. You're only trying to put on a show for this girl Mattie with what you must think is a keen tongue.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) This is like women talking.

Mr. DAMON: (as La Boeuf) Yes, that is the way. Make me out foolish in this girl's eyes.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) I think she has you pretty well figured.

MONDELLO: Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie finds humor in her character's humorlessness and keeps her cool when things get weird - strange characters showing up at the end of a rope or under a bare skin. The weirdness lets you know that this "True Grit" takes its cues from that filmmaking revolution, left the old "True Grit" in the dust.

But happily, the brothers Coen don't skimp on epic sweep and sturdy narrative. In fact, I'd almost be tempted to call their approach old-fashioned if John Wayne and company hadn't just given me a refresher course in old-fashioned. Instead, let's just call it terrific filmmaking.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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