Ready? Got your burning torches lit? Rounded up a posse? Tar and feathers to hand? Rail on order to run me out of town on?
Okay, here goes: I’m not keen on John Wayne.
There: I said it.
I’m not keen on him because of his swaggering self-satisfaction, I’m not keen on him because of his right wing agenda (this is, after all, the guy who starred in and co-directed a pro-Vietnam movie), and I’m not keen on him because, frankly, the guy couldn’t act. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that there are plenty of John Wayne performances which are downright embarrassing.
In Henry Hathaway’s ‘True Grit’, the sight of The Duke as Rooster Cogburn riding full pelt into a gunfight, reins clamped between his teeth, pistols in both hands, is so obviously a striving for macho iconography that it’s almost laughable. In the Coen Brothers’ spot-on remake, the sight of Jeff Bridges doing exactly the same thing is a thrilling piece of cinema: from the world-weariness with which he lifts the reins and bites down on them, to the blink-and-you-miss-it hint of desperation, to the audacity of his Light Brigade-style charge against superior numbers, this moment alone would probably be enough to make me dance on the saloon roof declaring the film the best western since ‘Unforgiven’.
Shout it loud, then, that the rest of ‘True Grit’ is just as good. Going back to the morality (and almost comedic absurdity) of Charles Portis’s novel, the Coens get it intuitively right in every aspect that Hathaway got it wrong. Gone the wooden characterisation of LaBoeuf by Glen Campbell; in its place, a fine and entertainingly self-deprecating supporting performance courtesy of Matt Damon. Gone the missing-the-point casting of then 22-year old Kim Darby as the 14-year old narrator and all-too-young heroine Mattie Ross; in its place a simply remarkable turn from Hailee Steinfeld, authentically 14 at the time of shooting, and yet inhabiting the skin of her character with a depth of nuance and a genuine screen presence that many seasoned performers three times her age would weep to achieve.
Roger Deakins, back in the fold after scheduling conflicts didn’t allow him to lens ‘Burn After Reading’, conjures a vision of the old west that is at once classically elegant, grubbily unromantic and tinged with the melancholy of reminiscence – this latter particularly appropriate as it is Mattie in middle age who recounts the story, a device that culminates in a poignant final scene.
In opting not to remake Hathaway’s film, but strip things back to the original novel, the Coen Brothers have finally given Charles Portis’s ‘True Grit’ the big screen incarnation it deserves.