Young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), with an ugly, boyish haircut, is wise beyond her years, doing the books for her father’s ranch; she also speaks her mind, is partial to cold buttermilk, and unafraid to face the harsh realities of life, like the sudden murder of his father. He’s gunned down in Fort Smith by his employee, a drunken gambler named Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). Mattie journeys into town to collect the body, but also to find someone capable of rendering justice. The prime candidate is Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne), a deputy marshal that has jurisdiction in the Indian Territory, where Chaney is likely hiding out. “Rooster Cogburn? Lord, I’ve heard some terrible things about him,” comments a civilian. Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), with thick hair and orneriness to match, is also hunting for Cheney, for the ruthless killing of a senator. After negotiating cuts of the reward money from the state, the family, and Mattie herself, the trio head out to speak with a man who may know Chaney’s whereabouts and his likely accomplices Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and Mexican Bob. Neither man wants the inexperienced girl to accompany them, but she won’t take no for an answer. When they stumble upon a duo of crooks, Quincy (Jeremy Slate) and Moon (Dennis Hopper), waiting for Pepper and his gang to show up, they hatch a plan for an ambush.True Grit spends plenty of time developing the three main characters, creating personalities and details that help to make them all believable, personable and interesting. Cogburn gets some time to discuss his past, and Mattie has several opportunities to prove her worth. Even though she’s searching for a man with grit to carry out the job, she steadily reveals herself as a woman of comparable substance. Her feistiness, spitfire attitude and ambition ensures she’s included in the decision-making, along with the fact that she isn’t afraid to threaten everyone with her lawyer. Occasionally she’s naïve and annoying, but bonds with Rooster to become a surrogate daughter – or even the son he never really knew, based on her unusually masculine characteristics. Oddly, due to her intended age (14) and her lack of typical beauty, she doesn’t serve as the standard heroine for a movie dealing with villainous cutthroats and sharpshooting heroes. Adding to the stellar lead characters is an impressive cast of supporting actors, including Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall (who plays a villain with a bit more complexity than usually seen in a western).
It starts with a title tune uncommon for westerns, a melodramatic Don Black song, and it’s a good 13 minutes before we see John Wayne – but he’s unmistakable as the slow-moving, overweight, broad, one-eyed lawman, in a role that earned him his only Academy Award for Best Actor (although largely recognized as a sentimental win, it is easily one of his most memorable). The dialogue is hilarious, full of creative insults, sarcasm, wit and spirit. Of course, Wayne gets the best and most quotable lines.
With gunfights, sharp dialogue, and one of the coolest showdowns in cinema, featuring John Wayne single-handedly charging against a foursome of bandits after taking the mother of all insults (and cocking his rifle like The Terminator), True Grit is an action-packed, comedic, road trip-styled revenge western. The film does drag slightly, with the inclusion of several seemingly unnecessary conflicts, including a broken arm, rattlesnake poison and a tired horse. Many praise Darby’s performance while others feel True Grit is ruined by it – clearly John Wayne is the reason for watching this, and she undoubtedly can’t interfere with the Duke’s enjoyable charisma. It isn’t his best film, but it’s definitely worth a look.- Mike Massie (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com)