Better Late than Never blog series…goes west: A tale of two Westerns – comparing the 1969 and 2010 versions of ‘True Grit’

I’m pretty sure that I’ve already confessed on my blog at some point that I’m not the biggest fan of John Wayne. I don’t have anything against him personally; it’s just that many of the classic Westerns I’ve seen him in aren’t really my personal style.

I tend to gravitate more towards revisionist Westerns, and I wasn’t initially planning to cover many John Wayne films in this blog series. But when I decided to watch the new version of “True Grit” (2010), starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon, my husband encouraged me to watch the classic 1969 version of “True Grit” as well, which stars John Wayne.

Since this Western blog series is supposed to be all about expanding my cinematic horizons and re-examining some old opinions (until I watched “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I thought I didn’t like Westerns!), I decided to give both versions of the film a try.

Both films tell the same basic story, based on a novel by Charles Portis. The main character is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who is determined to seek justice after the murder of her father by the outlaw Tom Chaney. Even though she has a hard time finding someone who’s willing to help her, she doesn’t take no for an answer, and eventually persuades two reluctant allies to help her: the crotchety U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn and a Texas Ranger known simply by his last name “LaBoeuf.”

Before watching these two versions, I had heard that they were quite different from each other. And while it’s true that they each have their own unique tone and style, I found they actually had more in common than I was expecting. The 2010 version — which was my favorite of the two — is a grittier, bleaker film, but I was also impressed by how the 1969 version didn’t just gloss over some of the darker aspects of the story.

A fresh voice

When I had watched older Westerns in the past, something that always bothered me was the portrayal of female characters. They were either A) absent altogether or B) treated as damsels in distress who were always swooning over the hero. Needless to say, teenage/college-age me had a hard time with these stories, especially when there were characters in other franchises — like Princess Leia or Elizabeth Swann from the Pirates of the Caribbean series — who felt much more complex and were more empowering to watch on screen.

As an adult, this is something that still bothers me when watching older films. I’ve found what works best for me is to view a film as a product of its time, celebrating the good parts while also bringing to light and discussing the sections that are problematic.

Anyhow, this is a very long anecdote that will hopefully provide some context for the part of “True Grit” that excited me most: the character of Mattie Ross. I loved both the 1969 and 2010 versions of this character, played by Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld, respectively.

Mattie Ross is an incredibly strong young woman who conquers every single obstacle in her path. I loved seeing a young woman defy some of the norms of her time, discussing matters of business with adults much older than her and also going on a dangerous mission to chase down an outlaw. She didn’t balk at venturing into the wilderness, and she refused to let Cogburn or LaBoeuf bully her into staying behind. I really liked the scene where Cogburn and LaBoeuf board a ferry without her, and so she and her horse simply swim across the river and meet them on the other side.

Mattie is not without flaws, but that just makes her a richer character. It was great to see how Rooster Cogburn came to respect her, and how they eventually viewed each other as friends.

An unlikely hero

Even though I’m not the biggest John Wayne fan, I actually enjoyed both versions of Rooster Cogburn as well, and I don’t know that I had a favorite portrayal. Each worked well within their own version of the story.

Cogburn is a pretty crusty, world-weary character, and as I watched the movie, I found myself wondering more about his backstory. He’s not without compassion, judging by the personal risks he eventually takes to help Mattie, but life hasn’t necessarily been easy on him. I know prequels are way overdone in Hollywood, but I’d be interested in seeing more about the early years of this character.

As LaBoeuf, I did prefer Matt Damon to Glen Campbell, as I think Damon is a stronger actor. LaBoeuf provides an interesting contrast to Cogburn, because on the surface, LaBoeuf does seem more like a hero-type character. Yet it’s Cogburn who truly believes in Mattie and her mission, though LaBoeuf does come back to help her in the end.

There are a few places where the 1969 “True Grit” feels dated, which is probably why I ended up preferring the newer version. But as I said before, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the original version as well. I would definitely recommend watching both to someone who hasn’t seen “True Grit” before.

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