A film regarded by many as John Wayne’s greatest (it won him an Oscar for Best Actor) and remade by the Coen brothers, the story of True Grit – originally a novel by Charles Portis – has clearly stood the test of time. But what makes it timeless? At its basic level we are presented with a Western and a revenge tale. A young girl, Mattie Ross, hires an old one-eyed United States Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to track down her father’s killer, and insists on going with him. In the original you have John Wayne, The Duke, and in the remake it is Jeff Bridges, The Dude. I won’t get into who is better (John Wayne) because really that’s not what is important.
In both movies the viewer is presented with something that is constantly missed in not only Hollywood but other entertainment mediums – a strong, interesting female lead. Mattie Ross, whether played by Kim Darby or Hailee Steinfeld, constantly out-talks older characters using the threat of her lawyer and her education. At a time when most people struggled to read, Mattie is well educated and independent. She does not allow her age or her gender to get in the way of her goal. She defies the typical female stereotype of the time, a fact that was probably more surprising in 1969, but well respected by the remake. In fact, it seems to create an even more intimidating and severe Mattie. These two movies don’t really differ that much, but they were released over 40 years apart. This alters how the audience views the movies. The sixties were a time of social change. The only time John Wayne, one of the most famous actors of all time, won an Oscar was for this movie. In it he played opposite a young girl that was willing to stand up to him.
Perhaps the perfect character to play against Mattie is the incorrigible Rooster Cogburn. Mattie chose him because he was the “meanest” Marshal and for his grit. This character is the quintessential renegade lawman. He drinks, has an itchy trigger finger, and will put his life on the line to put the bad guys in jail or an early grave. Now this might be a common trope for Hollywood, but in modern society most people prefer this type of character in fiction only. Everyone is afraid of being sued, or becoming the next infamous Youtube villain.
One interesting difference between the movies is how closely they followed the book. While neither deviated extensively, the modern version keeps a few details closer to the actual novel, an example of which is the winter setting. A more impactful example, however, is that the focus was shifted towards Mattie even more. This again relates back to the idea that in a modern world, the idea of a strong female character is not shocking, but rather desirable. In fact, it was the character of Mattie that drew the Cohen brothers to the story. Although neither film was shot in a location that resembled the setting of Arkansas and Oklahoma closely. The original was filmed in Colorado, and the modern version in New Mexico.