True Grit; Monte Walsh

True Grit; Monte Walsh

The Coen brothers’ new movie adaptation of Charles Portis’ Western novel True Grit relies more on its source material than the Academy Award-winning 1969 version, but the older True Grit is a fine film, too, and fascinating for the ways it was out of step with its times. Director Henry Hathaway and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts worked hard to smooth out the kinks in Portis’ novel, retaining some of Portis’ comically elevated language and the basics of the plot—which sees a teenage girl hiring a drunken marshal to track the man who murdered her father—but shooting it in a bright, slick style, accompanied by a rousing Elmer Bernstein score and a kitschy Glen Campbell pop song over the opening credits. Unlike growly Jeff Bridges in the Coens’ True Grit, John Wayne offers a more avuncular, heroic take on Marshal Rooster Cogburn, while Kim Darby looks older and more boyish than Hailee Steinfeld, and Campbell as Texas Ranger La Boeuf is blank and whiny, with none of Matt Damon’s quirky braggadocio. All the actors are a little stymied by Portis’ dialogue, too, even in Roberts’ truncated form; they say the lines clean and loud, which often comes out stiff.

Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar for True Grit, playing a saltier character than he’d played before: a man who’d shoot his target in the back if he had to, after calling him a son of a bitch. But the Wayne win was also a reaction to the encroaching New Hollywood, with its flexible moral values and more impressionistic approach to cinematic storytelling. The year of True Grit was the year Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid won Best Original Screenplay, and The Wild Bunch redefined what was acceptable in terms of screen violence. In that company, True Grit looked gloriously old-fashioned, even with the occasional eccentricities in its story about an outlaw-turned-lawman-turned-wastrel. It isn’t just a movie about the ways of the vanishing West; it’s about the ways of the vanishing Western.

By contrast, the 1970 Western Monte Walsh embraces the changing times, albeit with no small measure of melancholy. It too opens with a kitschy pop song—a dreamy Cass Elliot number called “The Good Times Are Coming”—but it’s used ironically, as a comment on the era in which the movie is set. Lee Marvin stars as the title character, an aging cowboy living through the last days of his profession, as fences and motor vehicles are rendering him and his pal Jack Palance obsolete. While Wayne in True Grit alludes to a man known to “pay attention to a lewd woman,” Monte Walsh shows Marvin actually doing so, keeping company with a prostitute played by Jeanne Moreau. When Palance steps off his horse and marries a woman who runs a hardware store, Marvin follows suit by proposing to Moreau, but he has trouble contemplating what a settled life might mean. So instead, he busies himself with one last round of frontier justice.

Monte Walsh director William Fraker had a long, distinguished career as a cinematographer, and his debut feature looks soft, hazy, and up to date for 1970. It’s based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, who also wrote Shane, and it has some roots in classic Westerns. There are saloon fights, gunfights, and even a little coarse barnyard humor. But there’s a reason Monte Walsh—as good as it often is—isn’t as well-remembered as True Grit. Born in a revisionist era, Monte Walsh strives to be fashionably un-mythical, such that even a last-act effort to revive Western classicism comes out too small in scale and impact. Still, it’s instructive to watch Marvin in the context of Wayne, with the latter trying to stay as likeable as possible while playing a rogue, and the former playing a genuinely likeable guy, but with an entrenched unapproachability. Only one year separates these two movies—a year, and an entire generation.

Key features: A rambling historian commentary and a handful of cheap-looking but informative featurettes on True Grit; nothing on Monte Walsh.

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