I just got back from seeing the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I had prepared by watching the classic 1969 John Wayne film. The similarities and contrasts have some interesting messages about how audience tastes and filmmaking styles have changed in the last 40 years.
First, some obvious wins for the new movie. It’s far more period-accurate than the ’69 original; the details of language, costume, and manners are immaculately authentic for the end of the 1870s, with none of the Tinseltown-backlot feel that you get from a lot of “classic” Westerns. The violence is less theatrical, uglier, more immediate. And it’s nice that the negro family retainer is actually black, rather than looking like a white guy dipped in walnut stain. Audiences’ standards for verismilitude have risen, and filmmakers’ aspirations towards it as well.
But the one place where the Coen brothers most clearly score better than the ’69 original is in the portrayal of LaBoeuf. In the ’69 film Glen Campbell was a pretty-boy lightweight who could not really be taken very seriously in the role of a Texas Ranger by the audience and certainly wasn’t by John Wayne. Matt Damon’s version is far more credible, less a foil for the leads and more a character in his own right.
Wayne vs. Bridges is very a nearly a draw; I think Wayne wins on points, but wouldn’t argue very strenuously with someone making the opposite judgement. The latter-day Cogburn is older, more grim, more dissipated, and never develops the easy chemistry with Mattie Ross that was at the core of the original fim (more remarkably so in that Wayne, who had hoped to cast his own daughter in the part, disliked Kim Darby and barely spoke to her off the set). Also, Wayne handled his action scenes with a flair Bridges cannot quite match. The main thing that can be said for the Bridges version is that he achieves an admirable kind of flinty psychological realism that Wayne’s didn’t – but he gains this at the cost of much of the character’s likeability.
As for Mattie Ross, I regret to say that newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is not an improvement on 1969′s Kim Darby. She lacks the fire and much of the attractiveness that Darby brought to the character; her performance is creditable, but no more. I’m inclined to think this is mostly not her fault; she had the disadvantage of actually being 14 (rather than a much more poised 21-year-old playing a 14-year-old), and the nature of her performance makes me think she was neither well-coached nor well-directed.
The minor characters are pretty much a wash between the two films. Tom Cheney, the villain of the piece, neatly encapsulates their differences in style. The 1969 Cheney was a loser, a clown, an almost comic figure who wallowed in self-pity between crimes. The 2010 version is a mean, hot-eyed near-psychopath who fits the character’s back-story as a hardened outlaw much better.
In general the 2010 film is both visually and emotionally darker than the 1969 original; the Coen Brothers’ West is a sepia-toned and seedy place. As with the Bridges version of Cogburn, it convinces more thoroughly at the cost of losing much of the exuberance and sheer fun of the original.
There’s been a lot of buzz that the remake is a better film than the original and that the Jeff Bridges take on Rooster Cogburn is enough to make you forget John Wayne. Is it a better film? Not clearly, not to me; the gains and losses seem about equal. And no, the Dude’s Cogburn won’t make you forget the Duke’s and doesn’t even seem to be intended by Bridges to achieve that effect; the deprecation of Wayne is, I think, more a reflection of current fashion by people who never liked Wayne’s old-Hollywood style to begin with.
I will say this: if you see one film, you should see them both. Their flaws and virtues are almost exactly complementary and the 2010 version comments on the 1969 version in interesting ways. But, if inadvertently, the 1969 version also holds a light up to the 2010 remake that is not entirely flattering to our time. The Duke’s genial charisma may, in the end, endure better than the Dude’s intense method acting.