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True Grit: Special Edition

Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969) arrived at a curious crossroads in American film history. The New Hollywood had already established itself with films ranging from the anarchic The Dirty Dozen, blood-soaked Bonnie and Clyde, and kaleidoscopic Easy Rider, while one of the industry's standard genres, the western, was being re-invented by the likes of Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, many directors and stars of Hollywood's classic era had died or gone into retirement. John Wayne, on the other hand, still had a viable movie career, barely cheating death in 1964 after losing a lung to cancer. Known as one of Hollywood's staunchest conservatives, Wayne made no secret of his disdain for the racy, morally ambiguous movies of the late '60s. And yet True Grit was written by a blacklisted screenwriter, featured a headstrong, proto-feminist character, and included two supporting actors who would eventually become New Hollywood vanguards. Wayne stars in True Grit as U.S. Dept. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who's made a living collaring outlaws in the southwest Indian Territory and bringing them in to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to stand trial. However, Cogburn doesn't know what to make of Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) when he first meets her — he's just unloaded a wagonload of two-bit criminals, but she's determined to ride with him back into no-man's-land to search for Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), a former employee of her father who recently shot him during a robbery. Cogburn has no time for little girls with vendettas, but he finds Mattie hard to ignore, particularly after she offers him a $50 reward for bringing in her man. However, a recent arrival at the local boarding house, La Beouf (Glen Campbell), soon reveals that he's a Texas Ranger, and he's also looking for Tom Chaney, who's worth far more than $50 in Texas, where he's wanted for a politician's murder. Cogburn agrees to partner up with La Beouf, particularly since Chaney is known to ride with 'Lucky' Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), one of the territory's most notorious outlaws. But Mattie refuses to stay behind in Fort Smith, and after she secures her own horse for the journey, the two men have no choice but to bring her along on the manhunt.

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It's unusual for a western to be heard as much as it's seen, but Marguerite Roberts' adaptation of Charles Portis's novel True Grit remains true to the source material, including not just the high-flown, at times Shakespearean cadences of the dialogue, but also the enormously rich slang of the region and era, most of which hasn't been heard for generations (when was the last time someone called you a "brushpopper"?). Unfortunately, some may regard True Grit as Exhibit A of the "John Wayne Was a Bad Actor" school of thought, since no character sounds particularly natural with the words as written — the script is rich and a bit arty, but not particularly naturalistic, and Wayne's readings lack the subtler tones heard in such films as Rio Bravo, They Were Expendable, and numerous others. Wayne was in fact a very good actor, but it's clear that he was drawn to the odd formalism of True Grit because of its theatrical and allegorical qualities. It's also the closest that Wayne would ever get to the New Hollywood aesthetic, since Rooster Cogburn is a cross himself between a lawman and an outlaw (an admitted former outlaw, in fact), and a man who is not above bending the law at certain points as long as he believes that the spirit of justice is being upheld — a theme William Fredkin's The French Connection played out on the streets of New York City a few years later. Could True Grit have been a notable western two or three decades earlier? Undoubtedly, yes — but it's hard to think that Cogburn's boozy antihero image would have been emphasized as much (in court, he admits to killing 23 men in just four years), and the role of Mattie Ross would have been a boy, not a girl (Shane seems to be the best Old Hollywood analog to draw upon). It's also doubtful that a singer and TV star like Glen Campbell would have earned second billing to The Duke, but then again, John Wayne had an odd habit of taking on young singers as co-stars — Ricky Nelson, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon among them. Dream-casting trivia nuts point out that Elvis Presley was considered for Glen Campbell's role at one point, which would have instantly ranked True Grit as one of John Wayne's most watchable movies, period. Instead, we can enjoy watching Duke beat up on Dennis Hopper as a lowlife hoodlum, knowing that Hopper had just completed Easy Rider (after his daughter had attended a profane anti-war rally, Duke reportedly stormed the set one day looking for the counterculture icon), or getting into a gunfight with a very young, pre-Godfather Robert Duvall. At 62 and down a lung, John Wayne could still bark out insults, ride a horse over tough country, and take a pretty good fall, and if True Grit doesn't quite rank among his very finest westerns, it's nonetheless one of the final classics of the western genre, of which Wayne was a founding member.

Paramount's second DVD release of True Grit, now a "Special Collector's Edition," offers a splendid anamorphic transfer (1.85) from a source-print that looks absolutely pristine, with rich color and no hint of the collateral wear that has marred earlier editions on home video, while the original monaural audio is supplemented by a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Film historians and authors Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Bozebell, and J. Stuart Rosebrook offer a quick-paced, informative group commentary, while featurettes include "True Writing" (4 min.) and "Working with The Duke" (10 min.). Keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
—JJB



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