Last night I watched the old John Wayne version of True Grit. Living among people who do not much appreciate John Wayne, westerns, or the sort of culture that does appreciate such things, it was somewhat refreshing. I think westerns can sometimes get tagged as a form of storytelling that doesn’t have much to it, and isn’t worth paying a lot of attention to. I disagree with that point of view, and this movie reminded me why.
True Grit is, partly, a coming of age story. Before diving into the story itself, I want to dwell on that a minute. The basic idea of coming of age stories is that of taking a sheltered individual—a child—and introducing them to the world, and watching them learn to cope with it. As such, coming of age stories are a good way to make a statement about what the world is like and what it takes to get along in it. Harry Potter dealt with good and evil, life and death, love and hate, the structure of power and authority, the nature of celebrity, disillusionment with one’s heroes, self-reflection, and becoming a hero one’s self. A whole worldview. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga deals with many of the same themes, as well as religion and science, reason, childhood, and changing the world. True Grit lacks the range of either, but it’s in the same genre, and it may help to watch the movie in that context.
A second thing to keep in mind while watching True Grit is the theme of dignity. Lately I’ve had several opportunities to discuss the concepts of human dignity and the nature of honor and shame with quite a few people. American culture in general does not tend to set a lot of store by those ideals, but movies like True Grit, and the sort of people that spawn such a culture, cannot be understood without them.
Simply put, the idea is that people should be treated with respect. There is an inherent dignity in being human, something grounded—if you ask a Christian—in the image of God. And when people enter into society, that idea of dignity, of honor, takes on a new depth. A man who keeps his word, who gets the job done, who does not turn away in the face of danger, such a man is honorable. On the other hand, a man who lies, cheats, steals, betrays, and who shows no respect for others is not himself honorable. While simple humanity is worthy of a certain level respect, honor can most definitely be won or lost.
True Grit starts with Mattie Ross’s father going into town to trade horses. He brings with him a man named Tom Chaney, whom Mattie does not trust. Mattie’s father fed Tom Chaney when he was hungry, put a roof over his head, and, it seems, has also given him a job. But while in town, Tom gets drunk, accuses someone of cheating at cards, and when Mr. Ross takes him out into the street, shoots his benefactor. After killing him, Tom Chaney steals his money and his horse and takes off for Indian Territory. A traitor has killed a good man.
At this point in the movie we know that Mattie is a short-haired, outspoken bookkeeper at the family farm, whose opinion her father always valued. She comes into town to retrieve his body, with no visible signs of anguish. She finds that the whole town, including the coroner she came to see, has gathered at the town square to watch a hanging. She goes to watch it with another hired hand, and learns that the judge is up there on the scaffold, watching the hanging out of “a sense of duty.” Mattie comments that we cannot know what is in a man’s heart. The hangman, we also learn, is a Yankee, and will not hang a Union veteran.
Early on, we are introduced to this picture of human justice. The town delights in a hanging. The judge says one thing, but something very different may be in his heart—he may take joy in the macabre event, rather than appear there out of a sense of duty. Even the hangman’s justice is not even, applied to men he fought against, but not those he favors. Society, in short, may get it right from time to time, but is subject to flaws and a certain delight in the pain of others. Do not trust soceity’s justice.
This idea is doubled down on as Mattie goes to the sheriff and sees the nonchalant approach he has taken to finding her father’s killer. Then we are introduced to Rooster Cogburn, a deputy US Marshall known for bringing more outlaws in dead than alive. We meet him in a court of law, and it certainly looks like his quick trigger-finger takes out men with less than just cause. But the judge does not seem to care. As Cogburn comments later, he was a good hanging judge. That is, until the lawyers came in and messed things up for everybody.
But Cogburn is the man Mattie wants. She has heard that he has grit, and she wants a man with grit. This fact does not change when she discovers he is drunk, filthy, malodorous, and perhaps a little prone to gambling.
Into this picture comes the slick-haired, fine-speaking, good-looking Texas Ranger, La Boeuf. Mattie does not think much of him, and we quickly learn that he is after Tom Chaney as well, though by another name and for another offense. La Boeuf tries to hire Cogburn out from under Mattie, but she will not hear it. She wants Tom Chaney hanged in Arkansas for her father’s murder, not in Texas for a dog and a no-name Senator.
Mark that. Mattie wants justice done for her father. He was a good man, and she loved him, so his killer must hang. But she doesn’t just want the killer to die any old place. This isn’t mere angry vengeance. In fact, Mattie seems rather calm about it. No, she wants the murderer taken in and brought before a court of law, and then she wants him hanged, for the crime of killing her father. It’s important that it be clear what he is being hanged for. Again, look at this through the lens of dignity or respect. Her father’s death deserves recognition as an evil act, and deserves justice. So Tom Chaney cannot hang in Texas, for some other crime.
Another big theme playing out in this story is that Mattie is a girl in a man’s world. Her short hair, her outspoken demeanor, and her habit of getting things done, all these mark her out as unfeminine. She is a woman who does not know her place. But she will not be treated with the lack of respect the world gives her. In reacquiring her father’s things, she deals with a horse-trader, gives him more than a little trouble, and ends up getting the better part of the deal. In doing so, she establishes herself, despite her youth and sex, as a force to be reckoned with in this world.
When Cogburn and La Boeuf do team up and go riding towards Indian Country, they are unimpressed by the young girl, and try to leave her behind. But when they convince someone to take her back to town, she punches the man across the face, rides off on her horse, and fords the river upstream of the ferry the two lawmen are using. She meets them on the other side, insists that she is coming, and they race off, presumable to outrun her.
The next part I find interesting. When she catches up with them, La Boeuf ambushes her, pins her on the ground, and begins spanking her with a switch ripped from a nearby bush. Spanking, particularly of women, seems to crop up a lot in these old John Wayne westerns. I have a feeling a nice, juicy essay could be written on that, but it would take more watching and thinking than I’ve done.
But what’s important to note in this context is that spanking is something you do to bad children. La Boeuf is treating Mattie as a misbehaving child. But when he mocks her struggling, she is quick to point out that she is not hurt by the whuppin, only angry, and her actions when he lets her go do line up with this story. But while he has her down and is spanking her, she shouts to Cogburn, asking if he’s going to sit by and watch as this man treats her in this undignified manner. Cogburn says he won’t, and tells La Boeuf to stop. La Boeuf refuses, and Cogburn says La Boeuf enjoying it too much. (Again with enjoying others’ pain.) Anyways, Cogburn points a gun at La Boeuf, and convinces him to let the girl go. So, on they ride, deeper into Indian Territory, away from civilization.
“Civilization.” That’s another thing to factor in. Mattie has proven that she can deal with rough men, that she can maintain her dignity in a world that wants to cheat or spank her. But she is civilized, and these men do not live in civilization. Once they get going, she is quick to ask whether they are going to stop for dinner. Cogburn laughs, and tells her that many a dinner will pass unnoticed before this journey is over. Mattie must adapt, and on they go.
I want to set dignity and civilization side by side for a minute. Americans historically have set a lot of store by hygiene, as well as education, and other marks of civilization. To Mattie, Cogburn’s stench and filthy habitations are undignified, unworthy of a civilized person. On the other hand, a man who forgoes dinner to get the job done, a man who will rough it in a hundred other ways until the mission is complete, such a man is worthy of respect. Civilization has a certain dignity to it, but there are circumstances where it means a lot more to bypass the norms of civilization.
The trio reaches a cabin and smoke out two outlaws hiding inside. One is suffering from a leg wound. Cogburn uses this as leverage to uncover the whereabouts of Lucky Ned Pepper, the man Tom Chaney is riding with. (Lucky Ned Pepper is a young Robert Duvall. I did not know Robert Duvalls could be young.) But the wounded man’s companion takes a knife to his friend, whom Cogburn quickly avenges with a shot of his revolver.
As the informant lies dying, he makes two interesting comments. First, referring to his murderer, he says, “He never played me false til he killed me.” He defends the honor of the man who killed him to two complete strangers. This man was his friend, and rode with him a long time, dealing honestly, and therefore honorably, with him. Second, he tells the trio about his circuit-riding Methodist preacher brother down in Austin. He asks them, after he has died, first to bury him, and then to sell his things and send the money down to his brother. These are both questions of dignity. A human body should not be left to rot in the open, and a man should do right by his kin, even if they did not get along well. Pay close attention to the treatment of bodies in this movie.
Besides these two things, the dying man tells Cogburn that Ned Pepper and his gang will return to this very cabin later on that night. Knowing he is dying, he chooses to do the right thing, and help the lawmen in their pursuit of justice. There is nothing that can be gained from that action, at least not this side of the grave. It’s just what a man ought to do. Of course, the criminal he is helping track down is a man he rode with, so take that however you will. But the theme of a dying man doing what is right with no thought for himself, in his last living moments—that theme will return.
They set a trap for Ned Pepper. As they wait, Cogburn tells Mattie all about his earlier life. He fought for the South in the War, with Quantrill. (Quantrill, and everybody in that area, had a bad reputation during the Civil War. Because the border states did not divide cleanly, it was more like a feud between gangs of outlaws than ordinary warfare, and the men who fought there gained the reputation of outlaws.) He also stole money from a bank, which he insists was not stealing, since he didn’t harm anybody, just a cutthroat corporation. Mattie begs to differ. Again, the definition of stealing is framed as a question of interpersonal relationships and honor, not simply the law. At any rate, after the War, Cogburn married and settled down in southern Illinois, but his wife left him and took his son, who never liked him much anyways. And so Cogburn went and became a lawman.
Pay attention to the way Cogburn talks about his wife. He clearly has a distaste for her, and learns from her a general distrust of women. But he talks about her as a force to be reckoned with, someone with a mind of her own, more than capable of making the decision to leave him, as foolish as he might think her reasons were. The world of the western, and this western in particular, may seem to dwell on “manly” virtues, but there is often found here a degree of agency and respect towards women that I find lacking in less apparently male-oriented genres. But maybe my love for the Mattie Rosses of the genre just blind me to its faults in that department.
Now, this paints Cogburn as a little more aimless and world-weary, a man who has a reason to drink like he does, and not much reason to act like a civilized man. Whatever “grit” he has, he earned it through hard times. And so, as civilized people—like bankers and lawyers—would have it, he’s not a man worthy of much respect. We’ll see whether that’s a good assessment by the end of the movie.
The trap does not go off as planned. Ned Pepper escapes, but Tom Chaney almost does not. One of the other outlaws turns back to save him, but gets wounded. Chaney shoves him off the horse, rides after the other outlaws, and never looks back. When Mattie points out this despicable way of acting, Cogburn comments that, “Looking back is a bad habit.” Doing the right thing is all well and good, he seems to say, but he is aware of the world in a way she is not. This is the sort of place where life can end in the blink of an eye, at the pull of the trigger. If you want to live, you may have to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe this doesn’t excuse Chaney, but it’s something to keep in mind.
The trio rides with all the dead bodies and the newly acquired horses to a little trading post, McAlester’s. They leave the bodies to be buried, with dignity, and Mattie reminds Cogburn to do the right thing by their informant. After a little badgering, the worn-out old man keeps his word, sells the dead man’s things, and has the money sent to that Methodist preacher down in Austin. Then Cogburn tries to convince Mattie to stay behind while he corners Ned Pepper, but again she refuses. So off they ride once more.
This entire time Cogburn and La Boeuf have been bantering back and forth, mocking one another over this and that. Generally, Cogburn has the upper hand on this foppish, big-mouthed Texan riding his tiny horse. But finally Cogburn loses his dignity as he drinks himself to the point of falling off his own horse, and he declares that they will make camp there and attack Pepper the next day. Rebuked by La Boeuf and Mattie, he puts away his flask and sobers up.
The next morning Cogburn is ornery towards his companions, risking a fire La Boeuf would not, and berating Mattie for wanting to wash the sleep off. La Boeuf urges him to cool it, and tells Mattie there is a river downhill, through the trees. She heads that way, trips, and spills down the slope and onto the riverbank, where Tom Chaney is standing, alone, watering the horses.
Here there is a confrontation of wills. Chaney does not take the little “bookkeeper” seriously. Indeed, watching that little girl handle her father’s massive hand-cannon, it’s hard for the audience to, either. But he runs his big mouth too long, acts a little too stubborn, and she plugs him in the short ribs. At the sound of that shot, Cogburn and La Boeuf come running, but not before Ned Pepper and the gang show up and whisk Mattie and their wounded companion away.
Here is the low point of the story, where all seems lost. Ned Pepper shouts out a treaty with Cogburn, agreeing to let Mattie live, and leave her and Chaney behind, if Cogburn and La Boeuf ride off and mislead a band of marshalls that Cogburn claims are heading that way. When it appears Cogburn has agreed, Mattie loses her cool, insulting him and declaring that he has no grit. Over the course of the movie, his dignity before this civilized girl has been continually called into question, but she trusted his abilities on the frontier. And now, when it counted most, he failed her.
It is worth pausing for a moment to note how quickly Ned Pepper comes to respect Mattie. He is a ruthless outlaw, and not too intelligent, but when she speaks to him, he answers. He talks to her like an equal, not like a child. Earlier we saw Cogburn and La Boeuf treat her with this same level of respect, but she had to earn it. Keep in mind, this is the world of the western, the world of John Wayne and the man’s man. But Mattie Ross is worthy of respect, the movie wants us to believe, and this is a world that will treat her with respect, so long as she stands up and acts worthy of it.
Ned Pepper and the gang leave the hideout, which means Mattie is alone with an armed Tom Chaney. He has been left with orders not to harm her, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of following those orders. So once more she pretends to cooperate, then catches her captor off-guard, this time with a ladle full of boiling water. There is a brief scuffle, and it looks like Mattie is going to be overpowered, but La Boeuf returns just in time. He steers Chaney at gunpoint to safer spot, and creeps up with Mattie to the top of a nearby rock to watch Cogburn confront Ned Pepper’s gang in the valley below.
From this point forward, keep the themes of honor and grit in mind. Mattie doubts drunk, old Rooster Cogburn, but he returned to save her. And now he stares down four armed outlaws across a plain with no one at his back. He offers to let two of them go, and to let the other two, whom he does want, come quietly. They refuse, pointing out the odds. He waves off the odds. Then they make a bad mistake. They call Rooster Cogburn a one-eyed fat man.
“FILL YOUR HANDS YOU SONOFABITCH!” he shouts, and the battle is on. Rooster charges across that plain, and the four outlaws draw their guns and rush him. Fire is exchanged, Rooster comes out unscathed, several outlaws attempt to flee, and then Rooster’s horse is shot such that it pins his leg to the ground, trapping him. But just as Ned Pepper creeps up from behind to take him out while he’s still unarmed, La Boeuf take a long shot from the promontory and kills the outlaw. (The new version gave this one-on-four charge much more emphasis, even accentuating Cogburn’s mention of a previous such encounter in an earlier conversation with Mattie.)
Meanwhile, Tom Chaney has picked up a rock. He creeps up behind La Boeuf and cracks him on the head with it, knocking him out cold. Then Mattie shoots Chaney with her father’s hand cannon again, and the recoil sends her flying back into a deep, dark snake pit with bones at the bottom. Mattie finds her arm broken, and within easy reach of a rattlesnake. (This was the most spine-tingingly terrifying part of the movie.) Chaney crawls to the edge of the pit, bearing Mattie’s father’s gun, which she had dropped, and mocks her as she grows more and more terrified. Then a gunshot rings out, and Chaney drops dead. Cogburn has come to the rescue.
He rappels down into the snake pit, but on the way, Mattie provokes a rattlesnake into biting her. (I have no idea why she decided to hit the thing with a branch. There was no surer way to make it angry.) Cogburn blows its head off and prepares to help Mattie climb back out. Mattie makes him take her father’s gun from Tom Chaney’s corpse, which has fallen into the snake pit. After that, she tries to convince him to take back a gold piece that Chaney has, which also belonged to her father, and is filled with both worth and meaning. He has no patience for this. Her life is not worth this gold piece, even if there is some significance attached to it.
Looking up, he comments that it’s a pity La Boeuf was dead. His presence would make this climb a lot easier. La Boeuf pokes his bloody head over the mouth of the cave and announces that he is not dead yet. The wounded Texas Ranger mounts a horse and gives the rope a tug, pulling Mattie and Cogburn to freedom. But when they reach La Boeuf, they find him dead in the saddle. “Texican,” Rooster comments, “Saved my neck twice. Once after he was dead.” Once again, a dying man does the right thing with his last breath. He’s not long for this world, but he’ll do right by the people in it.
This seems to shatter Mattie. Cogburn puts her on her favorite horse, one that she had bought earlier after tormenting that poor horse-trader. She tells him they can’t leave, they need to bury La Boeuf. Cogburn insists that her snakebite is more important. Yes, the dead should be treated with dignity, but the life of the living is worth more. He mounts up behind her, and she says he can’t do that, her horse won’t take it. He replies that this is the only horse they have. Then they ride hard.
Eventually, the horse begins to flag. Mattie tells him to ride slower, he’s killing it. Instead, he rides harder, until the horse dies under them. That horse was not worth Mattie’s life. Then he picks the wounded girl up and carries her. He will exhaust himself to save that girl’s life. He goes until they reach Ned Pepper and his gang down by a riverside. He does not stop to collect them, and the reward that will follow, but holds them at gunpoint until he can steal their carriage and put Mattie in it. Their capture is not worth Mattie’s life. Then he drives off as fast as he can, back to McAlester’s.
Cogburn sees that Mattie is taken care of, then goes back to Arkansas, to the same old filthy back room he has been living in, to drink and play poker with Chen Lee and the cat. While there, Mattie’s lawyer comes to inform him that despite her grave illness, she still managed to conduct her affairs. She sends Cogburn payment for his services, with an additional sum as thanks for saving her life. Displaying her usual business acumen, she insists that he sign a receipt. Cogburn then asks the lawyer if he is a betting man, and bets all his money, and the cat, on Mattie’s recovery.
In the final scene, a restored Mattie and a sober Cogburn walk up a snow-laden hill to her father’s grave. She has done right by him at last. Now she points out to Cogburn the layout of this little family cemetery, where her mother will be buried, where her siblings and their families will buried, and where she will be buried. She tells Cogburn that she wants him to be buried next to her, where her husband and children should go. He does not have family, but over the course of the journey, he has become family to her. He accepts. Then she gives him her father’s gun, a touching gesture, honoring the old lawman. (That’s a lot of what honor/dignity/respect is about—who is in and who is out, who you associate with and who you don’t. And in the end, who’s family.)
Cogburn mounts his horse and prepares to leave, making a comment about how that horse could jump a high fence. Mattie quips that someone his age should not be riding fast, much less jumping fences. He laughs, tells her to visit this “fat old man,” and then spurs the horse downhill and over the fence.
True Grit paints a landscape where honor means something, but where the world is quick to rob you of your dignity and your life. The law is not as trustworthy as could be wished, and every scrap of justice has to be fought for. It’s a world of dark civilization and dangerous wilderness.
But in this world, a little girl is not confined by her age or sex to the margins of society. If she will behave worthy of respect, if she earns respect, then the world is forced to treat her with respect. The horse trader knows she is a force to be reckoned with, La Boeuf knows she has earned her spurs, Ned Pepper speaks to her in a way he does not speak to some of his fellow outlaws, and the grizzled old Rooster Cogburn would be honored to be laid to rest beside her. She starts out keeping the books, and ends keeping justice, and maintaining her own dignity in a world eager to take it from her.
But this is also a movie about grit, about that world that would rob things from you, and the sort of man it takes to confront it. Rooster Cogburn is an old, drunk has-been, quick to the trigger, and in imminent danger of prosecution. He’s fat, smelly, and one-eyed. But when the time comes for action, he’ll ride down four men on his own. He’ll do what’s right, and not what’s easy. He knows his priorities, and he’ll make the sacrifices necessary to get the job done, and to save his friend. In short, a man who endures hardship and indignity to do his duty, that’s a man with grit, and grit covers a multitude of faults.
This is the world painted by True Grit, the world Mattie Ross comes of age in. It’s not the same world, with the same concerns, as in Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. It’s older, rougher, more personal, and depending on where you call home, far more American, far more familiar. It does not display the range, and perhaps not the depth, of such long sagas, but in its short space, it communicates quite a lot. And that’s why I find it a world worth spending time in, a world worthy of study. It could certainly stand a lot more attention than I have given it here, and it’s far from the only western worth watching.