"Who knows what's in a man's heart?" This plain rhetorical question from a fourteen-year-old girl, though not directed at aging cowboy Rooster Cogburn, certainly applies to him. Once Cogburn has met young Mattie Ross, he witnesses her indomitability and wonders, "By God, she reminds me of me!" As spoken by legendary masculine icon John Wayne, the line is shockingly subversive: could John Wayne have something in common with a little girl?
The 1969 film True Grit—based on Charles Portis' 1968 novel—doesn't overtly dwell on this note of gender transgressiveness, and yet it's there in every scene: the girl with the strength of a man, and the man with a sensitive heart (albeit under layers of crust). The calculated softening of Wayne's macho persona at long last won him the Oscar. After years of playing stolid, mostly cookie-cutter "manly men," Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn gave Wayne an eccentric character part with an intriguing arc. A divorced cat fancier with an eye patch, Cogburn may be a "fat old man," but he's still the toughest, hardest drinking U.S. Marshal around, known for shooting first and asking questions later. His reputation as "a man with true grit" draws the enthusiastic attention of Mattie (Kim Darby), whose unwavering focus is to track, capture and bring to justice (preferably before a "hanging judge") the killer of her father.
Cogburn agrees to bring in Tom Chaney (Actors Lab great Jeff Corey) and, with the greatest of reluctance, to allow Mattie to accompany him. With his eye on the same reward money, touchy Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) wrests his way into the strange little posse. Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts hews closely to Portis' plot, with its sure-fire twists and rolling climax (though she sheds the wistful latter-day framing device). Workmanlike director Henry Hathaway (The Sons of Katie Elder) makes his best impression with crack staging of the inevitable showdown, leaving us the indelible image of Wayne—then in his early sixties and short a lung—galloping into a gunfight with a six-shooter in one hand and a rifle in the other.
Much of the pleasure of the story is in the electricity between the characters, particularly the unusual dynamic between Mattie and Rooster, who takes to calling her "baby sister" and ultimately affords her the loving loyalty of a family member. Like any good Western, True Grit has a stock of intriguing characters, including Chaney's uneasy confederates Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) and Moon (Dennis Hopper); the lawyer whose reputation precedes him, J. Noble Daggett (beloved character actor John Fiedler); and even Rooster's cat, General Sterling Price.
Set in Arkansas, but shot in Colorado, True Grit gets plenty of color from high-country scenery, nicely shot by Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch). Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven) provides solid scoring, though he's also partly responsible for the unfortunate, Oscar-nominated theme tune with lyrics by Don Black and vocals by Campbell (to see Campbell's uninspired acting, one might suggest he stick to his day job). As a generally faithful adaptation of Portis' classic Western novel and as the film to give Wayne his twilight triumph, True Grit endures.
Paramount ports its 2007 Special Collector's Edition DVD of True Grit onto Blu-ray with a glorious hi-def transfer and a complete batch of bonus features. This is a clear and bright film, mostly shot outdoors, and the natural sunlight becomes Blu-ray. Gorgeous color and surprisingly sharp detail distinguish this transfer of a forty-two year-old picture, which retains its filmic look with unobtrusive grain and eye-catching textures. Aside from a very few stray signs of age, this is one beaut of a transfer. The film gets two appealing audio options: a Dolby Digital Mono track for purists and a new, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that subtly separates the elements for a touch of discrete ambience, while also giving a greater fullness to Elmer Bernstein's score.
The film comes with a highly enjoyable audio commentary with Western historians Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell, and J. Stuart Rosebrook. Their shared love of Westerns spells a unique camaraderie for a commentary track, and though they don't always have the definitive information at hand, the trio shares plenty of interesting trivia and speaks to differences between the film and its source novel.
The disc also includes four engaging featurettes, with interviewees including Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, the late Jeremy Slate, costumer Luster Bayless, Jeb Rosebrook, Bell and J. Stuart Rosebrook.
"True Writing" (4:27, SD) discusses Marguerite Roberts' adaptation of Charles Portis' novel; "Working With the Duke" (10:14, SD) focuses on Wayne; "Aspen Gold: The Locations of True Grit" (10:18, SD) checks in with locals and tours the original filming sites; and "The Law and the Lawless" (5:45, SD) gives a taste of Western history. Rounding out the disc is the "Theatrical Trailer" (3:40, HD).
It's always a pleasure to see classic catalog titles make their way to Blu-ray, especially when they're handled with true care; hopefully Paramount will keep digging into the treasure troves.
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