The Measure of Grit

Spoiler alert: Storm the Culture doesn’t want to ruin your reading or viewing pleasure. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie(s), please do, then come back and tell us what you think.

Christian alert: Although we look at books and their cinematic offspring through the lens of God and country, the majority of the works we cover fall outside the Christian genre. Since seemingly more people have read a bestseller or watched a blockbuster than have read the Bible or understand how a belief in God factored into our nation’s founding and a lack of moral character now contributes to the republic’s downfall, we strive to meet them where they’re at. In other words, we’re just people talking about books and movies in light of bringing God back into art and showing how art is part of war, and how war is an art unto itself, even if conducted without ever firing a shot.

In the case of “True Grit” the book, the main character, Mattie Ross, wields bible verses with conviction but with little empathy and a blind spot to her own failings. The original movie doesn’t venture near the bible-thumping part of her character, but, in fairness, it only covered the adventure from when she was 14 and not as an older woman looking back as the book and movie remake do. The remake makes good use of her biblical justification for pursuing her father’s killer, as well as the tragic irony to her belief that we must pay for everything in this world, one way or the other. There is no mention of “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Romans‬ ‭12:19‬ ‭KJV‬‬ There’s no need. Good art doesn’t bludgeon it’s audience when the story tells itself so well.

1969 Movie: Directed by Henry Hathaway; starring: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall

2010 Movie: Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen; starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper

Cover art of "True Grit" by Charles Portis.

No matter by which form you take it in—book or one of two movies—“True Grit” doesn’t need to explain itself. It’s obvious that the 14-year-old girl looking for a marshal with true grit to help avenge her father’s death, is full of grit herself. Early in the book, Mattie says in reference to a group of criminals being brought into town by Marshal Rooster Cogburn, “You must pay for everything in this world one way and the other. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” She never does recognize the how her own quest for vengeance, when it rightfully belongs to God, is paid for with the loss of her arm. Perhaps in deference to her youth and the fact that she’ll have to face life without her beloved father, it’s her left arm that’s amputated, not her right.

Admirably, Charles Portis refrains from connecting all the dots. He leaves it for the reader to either sit back and enjoy the adventure on the surface or to explore the subtle literary underpinnings that make “True Grit” a classic. Either way, it’s a great ride.

Both movies are true to the book to varying degrees, but it’s the ways they differ from Portis’ work that’s intriguing. Sometimes the changes are more indicative of the era in which the films were made, rather than to any intended agenda. Other times, the changes backfire.

The 1969 movie

The opening credit song is sung by Glen Campbell. You’ll need ear protection and your finger on fast forward. It’s not just bad; it’s embarrassingly bad.

Once you get past Kim Darby’s mod, pre-Dorothy Hamill haircut, you’ll find the scenic photography in this version prettier if less accurate to its remake, and frankly the relationship between Rooster and Mattie, a little sweeter. Apparently John Wayne wasn’t enamored with Darby; he thought her unprofessional on the set. But the truth is, she’d just had a baby; the director was, by all accounts, difficult to work with, yelling at everyone; and Wayne had wanted his own daughter to get the part. That being said, there’s a line in this movie that is not in the book, an assumption as to Rooster’s motives, but it works: “She reminds me…of me.”

Action-wise this movie is truer to the book than the more recent version. The shooting of the rat in Chen Lee’s store, Mattie struggling to keep from falling into a crevasse when she’s in the pit, Rooster commandeering a wagon to get her to medical attention—all true to the book.

In the depiction of the river crossing, Rooster and LaBoeuf collude to have Mattie led off the ferry as a runaway, and she beats the man with her hat and then does the same to Little Blackie, riding him hard into the water in case he hesitates. The remake shows her chunking an apple. Perhaps the Coens felt it would be more realistic if she kept a physical distance, and as changes go, it’s insignificant, except that in storytelling, as the saying goes, if you bring a gun into a story, it better be used to kill someone later. Well, if you bring an apple into a story, now you have to backchain. So the directors had to add the exchange with the stable boy about what horses like to eat—as if Mattie wouldn’t know—and we see her taking apples from the boarding house before setting out, an action out of character for one with strong opinions about stealing. Why? Are we supposed to be reminded of the fall of mankind and see this as foreshadowing? The viewer can decide it works or not.

In a realistic touch, neither the author nor director Henry Hathaway make Mattie out to be some expert cowgirl, which she admittedly is not.

I have never been very fond of horses myself although I believe I was accounted a good enough rider in my youth.

Mattie ross in “true Grit”

Lucky Ned Pepper: “Most girls like to play pretties, but you like guns, don’t you?”

Mattie: “I don care a thing in the world about guns. If I did I would have one that worked.”

She does know bookkeeping, though, and in the book both Rooster and the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper ask for her help, the one with expense accounting, the other with forging signatures. It’s nice that the author applies value to her skills. Since either scene would be a time-waster in the movie, director Hathaway adds a lead-in scene where we see Frank Ross preparing to depart on his ill-fated trip. Mattie asks if he wants her opinion on the cow ponies he’s planning to purchase. His response: “I always do.”

Portis’ creates a character who is neither knowledgeable beyond her years nor helpless. When Mattie has the covers ripped off her at night by the old lady she’s forced to bunk with at the boarding house, she doesn’t lie there shivering as the remake movie implies. She gets up and uses her father’s blanket and slicker to keep warm. In another instance, she tells the smith at the stable that she thinks she can handle Little Blackie herself, but the horse is inexperienced with such a light rider and tries to pitch her, coming down hard repeatedly with stiff forelegs. She receives a jolt to her tailbone and a stiff neck, but she is not deterred. 

I hurried over to Lee’s store, very proud of my horse and full of excitement at the prospect of tomorrow’s adventure. My neck was sore from being snapped but that was a small enough bother, considering the enterprise that was afoot.

Mattie ross in “true Grit”

Mattie is inexperienced, but willing to learn, to try by doing, to persevere when hurt—and anyone who has ridden will understand the continued jarring her body would take on the upcoming ride. Most of all, she’s up for the adventure. 

She’s going to need that enthusiasm and resolve to not only get through the territory but through repeated rejection and dismissal. At the river crossing in the book, she chooses the narrowest point to cross at because the shortest route seemed best, but the narrowest part of a river is where it cuts deepest, with the swiftest current and steepest banks. She and Little Blackie end up farther downriver than planned, and the horse struggles to get up the bank. Still she perseveres and beats Cogburn and LaBoeuf to the other side. The men do not willingly allow Mattie to join up with them, but she will not be put off.

Their game soon became clear. They mounted quickly and rode off at a gallop with the idea of leaving me. What a foolish plan, pitting horses so heavily loaded with men and hardware against a pony so lightly burdened as Blackie.

Mattie ross in “true grit”

LaBoeuf throws a rock at her; they try to lure her into a conversation, one imagines to capture her and forcibly return her; and finally after more riding, they ambush her and LaBoeuf gives her a whopping.

I began to cry. I could not help it, but more from anger and embarrassment than pain.

Mattie ross in “true Grit”

Who doesn’t remember being on that shame- and tear-filled precipice? It’s easy to dismiss Mattie as a grown woman. She’s hard, opinionated, brash, without a hint that there’s something softer inside. Both movies show her crying over her father’s effects—one overacted, the other masterful—but that’s an addition calculated to increase her appeal. It was not in the book, but again, the book is from the perspective of an older Mattie looking back.

She’s a teenager in a time when one jettisoned quickly into adulthood, especially if one’s father was murdered and one’s mother was a child. Mattie’s angry about her father’s death and unwilling to put revenge aside to take care of her mother and younger siblings, and her father’s business. There must be a scared kid in there somewhere, or so we want to think. In the earlier movie, we see the worst of Mattie in the pit—literally and figuratively—beating snakes with a stick and demanding Rooster retrieve her father’s gold piece from Chaney’s corpse, which he rightly refuses to do. Like many driven by anger and frustration, she’s downright hateful in the depths of that pit. 

If Papa had a failing it was his kindly disposition. People would use him. I did not get my mean streak from him. Frank Ross was the gentlest, most honorable man who ever lived. 

Mattie ross in “true grit”

The reader can also see how this adventure is Mattie’s last taste of freedom, the last of her childhood, and frankly, the last chance to spend time, as a child, with a father-like figure. Perhaps, unconsciously, that’s why she fights so hard to go along. The remainder of her life will be spent caring for her mother and siblings and running her father’s business—with one arm, and no husband—forced to grow up in a hurry.

The testing Mattie goes through when the men try to ditch her on the trail and when they finally relent, validates that she truly has “won her spurs,” as LaBoeuf puts it. At one point in the book, she admits to being sore, exhausted, and starving, but won’t say anything because she’s fixed on not causing trouble. Sometimes she fails, but the bravado she uses to catch herself makes her an endearing character. 

I groaned and made a face at the thought of riding another fifteen miles that day, and Rooster turned and caught me. “How do you like this coon hunt?” asked he.
“Do not be looking around for me,” said I. “I will be right here.”

Mattie ross in “true Grit”

The 1969 movie spares Mattie the loss of her arm. Perhaps sensibilities were such in 1969 that the loss of a girl’s arm was just too much. What is also not true to the book is LaBoeuf dying or Rooster returning to see Mattie after she recovers from the snake bite. According to the book, she never saw Rooster again. Kim Darby does appear aged, however, in the final scene, and it lends credence to the book’s end where a middle-aged Mattie discusses her never having married and having Rooster’s remains moved to her property.

Of course there’s no need to shoot Blackie in either the book or the earlier movie, perhaps because more people understood then that a horse could play out in any number of ways—heart or lung failure, internal bleeding, pelvic or spinal fractures. In this case, Blackie was already dead, with no need for a pain-ending bullet to the head.

The 2010 Movie

The Coen brother’s movie, like many of their movies if not all of them, is a dialog extravaganza. However, in this case, credit must be given to author Portis’ sense of humor. The courtroom scene, bargaining with the stable owner, the exchange when Mattie finally does meet up with Chaney, and any number of others were written with a dry wit that any cowboy would appreciate. The Coen’s follow the book’s dialog almost verbatim.

Hailee Steinfeld does a tremendous job with the role of Mattie, and in this movie, true to the book, she loses her arm (off camera). But the opening with Mattie tracking down Rooster in an outhouse is just a Coen brothers’ oddity. The 1969 version and the book match on this: The first time Mattie sees Rooster is when he’s bringing in prisoners.

The Coen’s also contrive to leave Mattie on her own the morning she meets up with her father’s killer. This is inconsistent character development: helpless to keep herself wrapped up in the boarding house, but resourceful enough to handle Chaney by herself? At this point, Rooster has “bowed out” of the hunt, and LaBoeuf has left, heading back to Texas. In all three versions, she meets Chaney at the river the next morning, but the Coen’s up the storytelling ante by making the audience think she’s more on her own than she actually was in the book.

Also, in the book and in the first movie, it’s LaBoeuf who Rooster sends up on the roof to stuff a jacket into the chimney to smoke out the bandits. I understand why the Coen’s allot that to Mattie; today’s message is that girls can do anything boys can do, even if they can’t. You notice they didn’t show how she got up on the roof: ten fingers from Rooster? A rain barrel and then a pullup? The book and the first movie show that just the riding, sleeping out, and tracking was enough of an adventure. Mattie is admirably tough and she does indeed earn both men’s respect. But I think the Coen’s devalue what she is legitimately able to accomplish by putting her on the roof. She tries to kill the man who killed her father—twice; that is grit enough. Does she endanger herself and Rooster in the process? Sure. But sometimes even men make mistakes that endanger the brethren with whom they ride.

In the 2010 movie, it’s Mattie who ends up killing Chaney. In the book, she shoots him at the river and at the outlaw camp, but neither wound is fatal. It’s Rooster who finishes him off. It’s like trying to open a jar by every means possible and having someone try after you, only to loosen it easily on the first try. Did the author’s sensibilities prevent him from making a 14-year-old female a killer? Or did he just want to allow an old man one more adventure, one more chance to rescue a woman? Portis was only 35 in 1968 when “True Grit” was published, but like the truly great writers, he obviously can empathize with much of humanity, from driven teens to tired, drunken marshals.

Secret sweethearts

Although the scene with LaBoeuf introducing himself to Mattie is nearly word for word from the book, the depiction in the Coen brothers’ version has the meeting taking place in Mattie’s room while she’s still in bed, something that is inappropriate for the era and not true to the book. In the book we learn that Mattie has a moment of being self-conscious about her appearance, a budding attraction perhaps that she immediately squelches with hard talk, concluding with a straightforward, “I have no regard for you.”

In the Coen brother’s movie, the scene in which Mattie and LaBoeuf express their mutual respect upon LaBoeuf’s leave-taking, did not happen in the book. But there’s plenty of evidence of the same sentiment in Mattie’s admiration of his shooting ability, and her desire to see him one more time should he read her book, which may have been her motivation for writing it.

What’s also true to the book is Mattie trying to visit Rooster at the traveling Wild West show, missing him, and having his remains replanted on her land. The book takes it further, indicating that her brother continues to tease her into midlife about the crush she has on Rooster, coming to that conclusion because of how much Mattie talked about her time with the Marshall. She, of course, dismisses the idea, but the reader can come to his or her own conclusion. 

It’s hard to articulate appropriately, but there’s probably some truth to her brother’s suspicions. Fourteen is an impressionable and romantic time—even for an accountant who wants to kill the man who murdered her father. As the book makes clear, it was the most adventure Mattie ever had. As soon as she recovered from the lost limb, she returned home to take care of her mother and raise her siblings. She claimed not to have the time nor the inclination to marry, and to the townsfolk, all she cared about was church and her bank account. She admits to the latter, but claims to have had a few suitors, whom she turned down because they only wanted her money.

They undoubtedly could not live up to Rooster. Perhaps, not the man himself, but to the intensity of that time in her life: losing her father, the adventure, being on the trail with two men of action, her youth. Anything less would have paled in comparison. I’m not talking about a May-December romance, or anything that was even remotely consummated. Just admiration, respect, a looking-up-to, a being admired in return… I once read an article about women in the Army that said they all had a crush on their drill sergeants. The English language does not have enough variance of the word “love.” Heck, in the first movie even Robert Duvall plays Lucky Ned Pepper with a touch of mist in his eyes.

Christianity

Both the book and the Coen brothers’ version of the movie make early reference to Proverbs 28:1, as phrased in the Geneva Bible, which is older than the King James by half-a century and would have been one of the bibles the Pilgrims brought on the Mayflower. “The wicked flee when none pursueth.” The other half of that verse is, “but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

Nothing could be more fitting of Mattie. She has righteousness on her side; her father was killed, “some people might say,” for meddling in his hired hand’s affairs when he got drunk and belligerent. “He was his brother’s keeper,” as Mattie puts it, and he took responsibility for his employee and his conduct. Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot Frank Ross in the forehead for his trouble. Mattie, too, seems hell bent on interjecting herself into the affairs of others, offering harsh pronouncements—and the services of her lawyer, of course.

In the book, Mattie references the bible frequently; it’s just part of who she is, and she doesn’t mince her words. Her judgments are sometimes racist, other times the complete opposite. She flings bible verses with little compassion, and her love of the church does not extend to other sects of her own denomination. The reason her character stands the test of time is that she’s not all good, or even always likeable. She’s opinionated with a strong-willed spunk that borders on foolhardy. But, by God, she has grit, and it’s that that earns her the respect of even the hardest of men. 

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2 thoughts on “The Measure of Grit

  1. Never read the book but enjoyed both movies, having watched the 1969 version numerous times, and growing up with John Wayne being larger than life. To me the scenery and actors in the original movie give it more strength but I’m sure I’m biased. Matt Damon being a diehard liberal doesn’t fit too well either. No matter that it wasn’t in the book, the ending scene of the original movie casts Cogburn via Wayne in a perfect ending, both riding off into the sunset of life.

    1. The scenery in the first was indeed beautiful. Matt Damon has ruined many movies for us all, the Bourne series in particular. If you don’t enjoy reading, try the audiobook version of the book. Many classics are free with your subscription, and “True Grit” would be in the young adult category, so it’s an easy and fun listen. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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