The Coen Brothers' True Grit was a success both critically and commercially but was nevertheless made in the shadow of the previous film from 1969. Though the second was not strictly a remake as it returned to Charles Portis' novel for inspiration, does it hold up to a comparison with the original?
The 2010 film follows the exploits of 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who seeks the capture and subsequent execution of Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. In order to do this, she hires the skills of drunken U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) with a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon) along for the ride. The 1969 version features an equally impressive cast with Kim Derby's heroine joining forces with John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn and Glen Campbell's Labeouf with Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall appearing in supporting roles.
Over the course of her treacherous journey, Mattie learns what it means to have true grit.
The first, immediate difference between the two films is the cinematography. Whereas the first is filmed in glorious Technicolour, the Coens' choose to drain their landscapes to all but the palest hues, fitting in well with the more sombre tone of the source material. It's the first of many aspects of the films that differ and work more in favour of the Coens' film. Remaining closer to the novel, the film sets the narrative in winter, presenting a very bleak and hostile setting. The decision to present a more realistic, historically speaking, rendering of the Oklahoma country adds to the central theme of 'true grit'; Mattie seems all the more tough precisely because she survives her journey across the land. The colour-saturated scenes of the first film, on the other hand takes away from the dangerous aspect of the landscape and therefore from the journey itself.
Speaking of Mattie, this is where the re-imagining truly excels itself in the central performance of Hailee Steinfeld. From this, you wouldn't know that she had been plucked from obscurity and thrown into a cast of Oscar winners for her first major film role. Steely and confident, this Mattie is capable of displaying true grit from the start, taking on everyone from a horse trader to Cogburn himself within the first thirty minutes. Again like the novel, the film is focalised through Mattie's experiences with narration from her older self looking back on her time with LaBeouf and Cogburn. Holding her own against Bridges and Damon is no mean feat but Steinfeld is outstanding and the relationship between Mattie and Cogburn is brilliantly realised.
No review of True Grit could avoid talking about its most famous role and getting Rooster Cogburn the right side of bullish yet loveable is essential to both films. John Wayne famously won his only Oscar for his role as the one-eyed U.S. Marshall and it is a great performance, capturing the belligerent essence of the character with a dose of the usual Duke in for good measure. Jeff Bridges though brings a comic timing to the role that Wayne sadly lacked and the one liners taken from the book work better with Bridges' delivery, despite his insistence on making half of it unintelligible. Then again, this doesn't work in his favour for the whole film as the Duke still delivers the best version of the infamous line, "fill your hands, you son of a bitch".
No Coen brothers' film would be complete without the rich dialogue that only they seem capable of creating and though they do lift some of Portis' words direct from the page, the actors' delivery is pure Coen. This helps to make this version richer because it is, surprisingly, a very funny film. Although the first film has its comic moments, they never quite work beyond the odd bit of slapstick drunkenness from Wayne whereas in the later version, comedy is present throughout. Matt Damon's LaBeouf provides much of this and is consistently shown to be inept at his job, all posturing and jangling spurs. Damon, always capable of playing the fool, gives us an endearing figure just trying to do his job, despite not being very good at it. The bickering between Bridges and Damon is a great touch and shows a deep respect for each other, both in character and as actors.
The story of Mattie's search for revenge and justice is all about the journey and not so much about the destination, something which both films demonstrate, focusing on the scenes between the three travellers and not favouring the action set pieces which so often drive narratives. In the Coens' film, they also choose to show the consequences that such a journey have upon her body by sticking to the novel's original ending. Unlike the first film, in which Mattie is bitten by a snake but survives with only a broken arm, the second shows Cogburn's urgent race across country to save her culminating with the loss of her arm. Seen on both the young and old Mattie, her amputated arm provides a lasting symbol of the sacrifices she makes to bring her father's killer to justice and it is a poignant moment with which to end the film.
Although I do think that Henry Hathaway's film is fantastic in its own right, the Coen brothers' film is the better interpretation of the Charles Portis' novel. It provides a comic and yet sombre exploration of what it means to have 'true grit' and is well-deserving of its status as a modern classic.