Charles Portis, the author of the original incarnation of the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires a one-eyed U.S. Marshal to avenge her father’s death, started his writing career as a journalist in Arkansas after serving as a sergeant in the Korean War. The novel, entitled True Grit, was his second, but it wasn’t until after a fruitful career with the New York Herald Tribune at their London desk that Portis returned to his home state and started to write fiction. Despite leaving his foreign correspondent’s post, Portis retained his beat reporter’s precise attention to detail, as the book is filled with accurate period parlance, historical allusion, and “research” done by the narrator, Ross. In fact, True Grit saw its first publication in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968, which is fitting considering the heroine’s own penchant for journalism and the field of reporting.
Mattie’s attention to detail and use of newspaper clippings to back up her tale is pleasurable, even as she tells the tale from a quarter century down the road. We are introduced to her avenging Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, through a partial transcript of a court hearing, which she managed to dig up from old newspaper archives. The adult Mattie concedes that she did this while researching an article she wrote, entitled, rather verbosely, “You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.”
Not surprisingly, the piece that Mattie writes might have had a better chance at publication in The New Yorker Profiles section, many years later, than when she wrote it. Mattie notes, “[The] magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and ’discursive.’” Though her article remains unpublished, what we as readers get out of this digression in the novel is an incredible characterization of a gumshoe heroine, an early hard-boiled female detective, whose discursive style of storytelling echoes the tropes of modern noir, as well as the transcript, reprinted word for word, of the Wharton case in which Mr. Cogburn is a witness, having killed two men while apprehending the criminal. Among other choice one-liners, Rooster has this to say, in response to Mr. Goudy, the lawyers, cross:
Goudy: You were backing away?
Rooster: Yes sir. He had an ax raised.
Goudy: Which direction were you going?
Rooster: I always go backwards when I am backing up.
When I saw the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit, based on the aforementioned novel, I was pleased to see that the brother duo had done their own reportage and stayed true, mostly, to the grit of the story. The courtroom scene mentioned above is well rendered, almost word for word, from the transcript that Ms. Ross provides in the book, but we get to see it, played out in dusty filtered sunlight, with the booming gravelly voices of the participants, heard echoing in the wood hallways of the chambers of the courtroom. More importantly was the Coens holding true to the novel’s reliance on Mattie’s point of view. When all is said and done, this is Mattie Ross’s tale, and though Rooster plays a pivotal role in it (Jeff Bridges nails the part), he’s still in the young girl’s employ, a fact she’s loath to let him forget, though he’s quick to try and do so. The Coen brothers paint a picture of Ross that belies her grit and inner strength—a feat the first film version of True Grit, released in 1969, failed at miserably.
That movie, starring John Wayne as Rooster and Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBoef, as well as a very young Robert Duvall and an even younger Dennis Hopper, casts Mattie as a convicted, yet ultimately whiny young girl, instead of a young woman who acts like a middle-aged man. Wayne’s True Grit was a vehicle for a well-established stock character, the Duke, and little more than that. Wayne actually won his only Academy Award for this role. Rooster’s final ride in the film, during which the famous line “Fill your hand, you son of bitch!” is uttered (a line taken verbatim from the novel and repeated in the Coen brothers’ film), is clearly a metaphor for a waning western hero’s last hurrah and a prelude to his final years on the screen. Filming the 1969 version of True Grit as a stereotypical western was not the proper way to do it at all.
Portis’s novel, as it stands today, is not a western by any conventional sense of the word. Yes, it borrows some of the tropes and conventions that have become synonymous with modern spaghetti westerns over the years, but it’s a grittier tale, reflecting the unforgiving cold of an Arkansas winter in Yell County, and not the sunny pastures and shirt sleeves shot in John Wayne’s version. Rooster is a U.S. Marshal, or more specifically, a mercenary bounty hunter for hire, not a cowboy at the O.K. Corral, fighting for pride. These northern men are rougher, more calculated, less showy than they are cold-blooded killers; and as Mattie notes while trading insults with LaBoef (pronounced “La Beef”), “I notice the people of that state also gouge their horse with great brutal spurs.” A man with true grit needs only to let his horse look into his eyes for the horse to know who’s in charge.
And this is only one of the many problems I had with the John Wayne’s version of events, that it was shot as a western, low-angle close-ups and stagecoach music to boot, when in fact, Portis’s novel is a thrilling cat-and-mouse crime story set in the northwest more than anything else. Thankfully, the Coens get it, and shoot it more like No Country for Old Men than Stagecoach. They stick to the script, as it were, and seem to truly understand the thrust of this tale; True Grit is not a legend of heroes and great deeds, but an everyday tale of men and women who are forced to do whatever is necessary to uphold what is right. And as Mattie might say, in her almost biblical sense of wisdom, an eye for an eye, no pun intended.