True Grit

I spent a very pleasant evening the other day watching the 1969 Cowboy film, True Grit. I love the film, and especially the script. For those who think John Wayne was all 'Lyndon Johnson without the charm', I'd just point to the prose poetry that Marguerite Roberts slipped into the mouths of Kim Darby, Wayne, and others. Where else, for instance, have you heard a line like this;
"Mr. Rat. I have a writ here that says you're to stop eating Chen Lee's cornmeal forthwith. Now it's a rat writ, writ for a rat and this is lawful service of same."

The line is meant to illustrate to Wayne's foil, the young Mattie Ross, that some things don't fit with legal behaviours and that writs are useless in those circumstances. It made me think of how political criminal law can be, and of the Chinese who flooded into the west (though, I noticed, Chen Lee was played by a man from LA with a Korean surname), and also of the way the young Abraham Lincoln navigated his way through writ-pleading on the plains.

Most American courts didn't require formally written writs as in England, but did require references to them. The 1850s were when this practice came in in New York and California and then elsewhere, and by the time of True Grit--1880 or so--it was the very thing in the west, which was generally very progressive and practical.

The change was from 'form pleading', in which writs were meant to be, well, writ, exactly right, to code pleading, where reference was just meant to be made to a substantial cause of action. Lincoln started off being good at one and then better, because of his eloquence, at the other. That's why he went on to be a very well paid corporate hack for the railroads (remember that the next time you hear him called an evangelical redeemer).

The language and cultural associations of law took far longer to change. People only superficially adapt; odd that you can think that when watching a fictional rat being shot.

Despite the superb ear for late nineteenth century mannerism and dialogue, True Grit is also of its moment in the liberal twilight of 1969. Wayne, in the film, ran with Quantrill's confederate raiders when young, but then seems to have switched to the US government; Glenn Campbell, is a proud Texan too. Both, however, could conceivably have belonged to the liberal Democrat coalition that had splintered the year before (though I know Wayne didn't), since the ease of their characters in the film--more Wayne than Campbell--with women, and with moral failing, with Whiskey, and with other races would suggest it.

I write 'suggest it', of course, knowing that in real life, bereft of scriptwriters, Wayne was prone to white supremacism and daft digressions on black educational disability of the sort that manage to offend just about anyone, including any decent person, all at once.

In the film, the jarring thing to my ears was Darby's comment on the version of Presbyterianism she practised, whilst Wayne remained silent and Campbell's LaBoeuf claimed to be an 'Episcopalian'--'I figured you for some sort of kneeler'. All this after shooting a Methodist; it occurred to me that people in 1969 might have been expected to pick up the distinctions, and also not be offended by them, in ways which a more secular age would not tolerate.

True Grit is a wonderful film. I think that, if I had three John Wayne films to choose from, it would be there with The Shootist--which is heartbreaking--and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance. It's an interesting thing to me that none have perfect endings, that they are a little sad, and that they do that thing that graduate radicals want to see everywhere. They 'subvert' an often grandiloquent and unthinking genre, and remind us how flawed and complex lives are, and how stereotypes never quite measure up to real life.

This blog used to proclaim how much of a timewasting effort it was. If you really do fancy wasting some time, watching True Grit is to my mind as good a way as any....


DBC Reed said…
The book by Charles Portis is also very good - possibly the best Western novel of all time .(There are n't that many of any quality are there?)
There is talk that the Coen bros are going to remake the film going back to the original Matty-centred narrative.Interesting prospect.
Martin Meenagh said…
I'm ashamed to say that I've never read through the book--I promise to soon. You're right--it will be interesting to see a Coen brothers version of the film, especially if LaBoeuf lives in it!
DBC Reed said…
As far as I can remember the book has an unfilmably gruesome ending-though Matty lives.
Published in 1968,the book ( or Matty at least )is a startling contrast to Sixties live-and-let-live liberalism.
Martin Meenagh said…
I'm going to order it from the Library today.

Popular Posts