Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“True Grit” is a Western—that old reliable genre that promises excitement, danger, and a likable hero trailing through the great outdoors. “True Grit” features all three of those elements and stretches them out to their strongest.
And what classic Western would be complete without the Duke himself, John Wayne? Yes, John Wayne—the good ol’ cowboy who stands up for himself and for others in the most entertaining way, usually leading to a shootout. He’s an iconic legend. And let’s call him the lead actor in “True Grit,” because despite the protagonist position being filled by a young actress named Kim Darby, John Wayne can never be considered a “supporting character.”
In “True Grit,” based on a novel by Charles Portis, John Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn—a one-eyed, overweight, constantly drunk U.S. Marshal. He’s approached by the movie’s heroine—a young woman named Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) whose father has recently been killed by a drunken coward—to lead a manhunt into the Indian Territory to hunt down the rogue that killed her father and see him to justice. He agrees, but only after a bargain, and they set off on their journey. Accompanying them on the hunt is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who seeks the same scoundrel for a reward.
There are a lot of neat ideas thrown into the story of “True Grit.” The long setup is at its appropriate length to introduce the characters, build up the tension, and explain things in great detail—including a fresh conversation between Mattie and a local horse-trader. When the journey finally starts midway through the film, you feel like something is at stake here. The journey itself is well paced and put together. There’s a sense of terror and excitement, and the outdoor cinematography is lovely. And I also love how the murderer the three heroes are going after—Tom Chaney is his name—is not a menacing mastermind. He’s just a dumb drunk with a gun. When we finally see him, it’s refreshing to see how truly pathetic he is. More interesting is Chaney’s new leader Ned Pepper, well-played by Robert Duvall. Duvall plays it like an annoyed criminal who should be in a different movie, but is caught up in some mess that one of his gang got him into.
Mattie is able to overcome her fears and learn new things along the way, much like young Huckleberry Finn in his trip across the Mississippi.
What can you say about John Wayne? He’s a distinctive personality—so distinctive that even he can’t shake it. He plays Cogburn the way John Wayne would play it. But let’s face it—you don’t see a movie starring John Wayne to see John Wayne disappear into different roles. You see him to play John Wayne. Putting an eye patch on him doesn’t make the slightest difference in character. But this is not a criticism. John Wayne is always likable in his roles; nobody can play John Wayne like John Wayne.
The casting of Glen Campbell as the cowboy La Boeuf and Kim Darby as the heroine Mattie has garnered criticism from people. They call Campbell a bad actor who struggles with his lines, and John Wayne himself has expressed a certain hatred for his young female co-star Darby, which is strange considering the chemistry that is shown between the characters. I actually had no problem with Campbell or Darby. Campbell is a likable cowboy and seems perfect for the role—grin, personality, etc.
Kim Darby is very convincing as Mattie Ross and plays her character realistically. Mattie is seen as a no-nonsense young gal who’s brave enough to attempt a dangerous trek, but, as most women were in that era, not ready to go on a manhunt. This makes her reactions to many grey scenarios on this trek pretty legit. I liked the character’s dedication and the actress’ freshness. Let’s face it—Kim Darby is the real star of this movie.
Everything leads to a big-bang climax that of course features a shootout, but the odds couldn’t be any less in Wayne’s favor. We’re talking five against one here in an unlikely confrontational situation.
“True Grit” is a fun Western with it all—excitement, atmosphere, danger, and John Wayne! It’s entertaining, thrilling, unpretentious, and a joy to watch.