Duke vs Dude

2011-02-12 00:00

FIRST up, let’s get one thing straight about the film True Grit that opens in cinemas on Friday: it’s not a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne for which “The Duke” was awarded the Oscar he should have won years before for films like Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers.

So if True Grit is not a remake, what is it? It’s a film by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, of Charles Portis’s acclaimed­ novel previously adapted as a vehicle for John Wayne. In the beginning was the book and it was the book that attracted the Coen brothers.

So what’s so great about this book written in the late sixties by somebody most people have never heard of? According to the late, celebrated Roald Dahl, “True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time … marvellous it is.”

True Grit was Portis’s first novel and he subsequently published four more — Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis and Gringos­ — all of them, according to Carlo Rotella in the New York Times, “cherished by a small but devoted following”.

But what attracted the Coens to Portis’s book? In an interview Ethan Coen said that when he read it aloud to his son some years back he thought it might be an interesting project. His brother Joel agreed. Neither had seen the 1969 version since its initial release and couldn’t remember much about it anyway. Once committed to adapting the book they decided not to watch it again. “We just had this enthusiasm for the novel,” says Ethan.

Most agree the Wayne version missed the book by miles. The location was changed from Arkansas to Colorado, a state radically different in the nature of its landscape and, more importantly, in terms of local dialect.

Portis has lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, for around 50 years and his book catches an authentically regional voice — one with colourful and declamatory dialogue that probably hooked the Coen brothers.

True Grit, the book (and the Coen brothers’ adaption) is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played in the film by Hailee Steinfeld) whose father is murdered by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She sets out to avenge her father’s death with the help of alcoholic U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) who is after Chaney for another crime.

Substitute in the same roles in the same order, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Wayne and the singer Glen Campbell and you have True Grit version 1969.

Let’s get another thing straight. You’ll also probably hear that the 1969 True Grit was a classic. These days “classic” is a label casually attached to any film over 20 years old and beyond the ken of today’s youthful moviegoing demographic. Having watched the film when it first came out and more recently on DVD, I can confidently assure you it’s not a classic. A film buff, the late Leslie Halliwell, gets it just right: “Disappointingly slow-moving and uninventive semi-spoof Western with a roistering performance from a veteran star, who won an Oscar for daring to look fat and old.”

The Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit has proved an unexpected box-office hit in the U.S. and has since garnered 10 Oscar nominations. One of them is for Bridges, star of the Coen’s cult classic The Big Lebowski, who himself won a career-recognition Oscar last year for his performance in the amiable but underpowered Crazy Heart. The Dude abides but can he ace the Duke? Unlikely, this year the odds are on a king.

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