The release of the 1969 John Wayne classic True Grit on Blu-ray has less to do with the public’s clamoring for this particular product and more to do with the current Coen Brothers remake. There has literally never been more interest in the original than there will be over the next few weeks, so if you loved the remake, you now have the opportunity to see The Duke in the original in glorious HD.
John Wayne won his only Academy Award for his portrayal of Deputy Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit. After watching the movie on Blu-ray, I can think this means one of two things: 1) The award was more of a lifetime achievement recognition by the voters, or 2) The competition for the 1969 Best Actor award was pretty shitty. That’s not to say Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn isn’t good. It just that isn’t that good. It’s not the type of role that makes you go “Holy crap, this guy can act the hell out of a part, by golly.” Wayne’s Cogburn is pretty much just an older, fatter, and slightly drunker version of many of his other tough, big Western characters. He’s a little funnier and falls off his horse once, but mostly he says if you give him that sass mouth one more time he’ll shut it up for you for good.
Cogburn is hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby, easily in her early 20s when this was filmed) to hunt down the killer of her father so he can be brought back to justice in late 1800s Arkansas. That means he’s gonna be hung. Ross chooses Cogburn because she is told he has “true grit.” He shows this by kicking a handcuffed prisoner in the butt to get him to move. What more do you need? Darby joins Wayne in a good performance that helps make this a fairly enjoyable if somewhat pedestrian Western. She has the burden of carrying the first 40 or so minutes of the film where Wayne is more of supporting character and does it well. The two of them seem even better than they are, though, when compared with the real problem in the film, Glen Campbell.
There is a scene in The Office where Pam, upset that Dwight has been named branch manager by Michael, says “I have an old broken vacuum, if Dwight doesn’t work out, maybe that could be manager.” Well, that vacuum could have also easily replaced Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger La Boeuf in True Grit without any drop-off in acting ability. Campbell could not be more wooden and obvious in his line reading if he was ordered to act as though he were the worst actor possible. Next to him, Wayne and Darby are like Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh doing “King Lear.”
So, two good performances and one horrible one, combined with beautiful vistas, a pretty good script, and some decent Western action add up to a serviceable film that delivers what it promises, but not much more. John Wayne being John Wayne and shooting some no-good sumbitches who deserve shooting. The villains, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) and Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), don’t feature much in the first two-thirds of the movie, meaning their ultimate showdown with Rooster, Mattie, and La Boeuf isn’t filled with as much emotion as it might have if more effort had been made at showing why Rooster and Ned were at odds or what led Tom to shoot Mattie’s father in the first place.
This is a bread-and-butter Western. It is somewhat in the same mold as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was also released in 1969. It injects more than a little humor into the proceedings, but that film trumps this one in almost every regard other than the presence of John Wayne. He is good at being hard-nosed and shooting first, probably as good as anyone has been or will be, but it’s not enough to make this film a classic of the genre. It’s another one for the pile, well made, but nothing special in the end.
While it’s hard to tell for sure, it looks like the True Grit Blu-ray is using recycled special features. Everything looks a little older and there isn’t anything that discusses the movie being put on Blu-ray or the technical aspects. The features were probably completed for a previous DVD release, and while they don’t suck, they certainly scream “mediocre.”
The commentary track ignores the possibility of having anyone actually associated with the movie participating. I mean, obviously many of them are dead, but a few are alive and could certainly have been talked into providing their thoughts. Instead, a trio of Western and film historians join forces to give some good information about the West but not many concrete comments about the film. They often seem to be guessing or supposing when it comes to actual film facts. There are a few nice insights, but for the most part, this commentary falls short.
The remaining featurettes include “True Writing” which is about five minutes and supposedly about the book by Charles Portis and the screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. Again, though, there isn’t much first-hand discussion of either, or even a cohesive idea of what to portray. It’s more just, “Well, Charles Portis wrote the book and it was a great book and he did a great job and he was great.” It does include comments by people actually involved in the movie, such as Kim Darby and Jeremy Slate, who plays a fairly minor part.
Another featurette is “Working with the Duke.” It’s 10 minutes and about what you’d expect. People talk about John Wayne. It’s fine enough, with general comments about Wayne’s personality and some clichés about what he means to the Western and other things you’ve heard a million times. Also, oddly, a costumer on the movie talks about how his eye-patch was see-through. That was probably the most interesting thing in any of the extras.
There are two other extras which bring the whole “filler” idea with them. “Aspen Gold: Locations of True Grit” shows the real towns and locations in Colorado that filled in for Arkansas, and compares the real-life buildings with their movie counterparts. It has the production quality of a small-town Chamber of Commerce video. They might have found someone from the original movie to talk about what was done where, but nope. The final extra, “The Law and the Lawless,” interviews a Western historian about real-life outlaws and lawmen. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie.
The real benefit of this disc is getting the movie in a beautiful HD print. There are a lot of wonderful shots of the mountains and vistas in Colorado, and this disc presents them sharp and clear. Also, you get the Duke in HD. If you’re a true Wayne fan, a fan of '60s Westerns, or you just want to see how close the remake stuck to the original, it’s worth checking out.