Thirteen years before his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, John Wayne was roaming the great old west as the combative and heroic Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers, a film greatly considered to be one of the best westerns ever.
And while the concept of an ideal American western film like The Searchers (you know, cowboys vs. Indians, women being depicted as weak characters, and so on) died around the time True Grit and the ultra-violent The Wild Bunchwere released in 1969, Wayne’s prolific horseback and cowboy hat image was going nowhere.
Wayne won his first and only Academy Award for his performance as the drunken Cogburn, the meanest, nastiest and grittiest U.S. Marshal around. Cogburn, a man with “true grit,” as both the title and the nagging and stubborn Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) will remind you.
Ross is the contradiction to the weak female character that idealized the American western throughout Wayne’s early days in cinema. But it was nearly 1970, and no longer was such a representation of the female often found. Ross is a strong and equally smart young woman who hardly sheds a tear at the sight of her father dead in a wooden box, not the widely misrepresented bumbling, stupid woman who falls for the handsome blonde cowboy at first sight.
What will strike viewers, aside from the wisely manipulated boyish appearance of our leading female character, is the relationship Ross carries with both Cogburn and Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell). Ross is a headstrong and insisting woman, who bargains with the toughest and knows how to carry her own weight. Her journey with Cogburn and La Boeuf through Indian territory to track down the man who murdered her father is realistic, she isn’t depicted as some super woman, she bends, but doesn’t ever break as she searches the vast land for justice.
But sight of old Rooster Cogburn can’t be lost. It is after all the powerful performance that won the aging legend his only and very deserving Academy Award. Wayne plays the brooding Cogburn with an unrelenting mean edge, complete with a rather dark sense of humor. Cogburn is easily one of Wayne’s most memorable characters he ever played, right up there with his turn as fugitive Ringo Kid in Stagecoach among other performances.
True Grit is set to be remade, but don’t worry, the project is in great hands. The Coen brothers are signed on to direct and write, with Jeff Bridges reviving Wayne’s Cogburn. If a remake of this story has to happen, I can’t think of better hands to put it into. Also set to appear in the Christmas 2010 release are Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.
Directed by Henry Hathaway, True Grit is one of the most important westerns ever. It represents a drastic change in western themes and is one of Wayne’s legendary performances. I wouldn’t say it’s an unknown or even underrated film, but when everyone is giving Clint Eastwood all the western credit in the world (rightfully deserved, that is), it can’t hurt to go back and pay a little more respect to one of the original legendary pioneers.