Thursday, May 21, 2020

John Wayne and Kim Darby Show Their True Grit

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.
The year 1969 was a remarkable one for the Western genre. The biggest hit of the year was the revisionist Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sam Peckinpah's violent The Wild Bunch earned critical raves in the U.S., while Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West thrilled European audiences. Thus, it's not surprising that True Grit--a conventional Western compared to the other three--slipped under the radar. However, it gradually became the eighth biggest moneymaker of the year and earned John Wayne his only Oscar.

Kim Darby as Mattie Ross.
Kim Darby stars as determined teenager Mattie Ross, who arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to bury her father. She also wants to know why the sheriff isn't pursuing her father's murderer. When he confides that his jurisdiction doesn't extend into the Indian Nation, Mattie seeks out a federal marshal. She sets her sights on Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) because she hears he has "grit." Cogburn isn't interested until Mattie agrees to a $100 reward--that plus the fact the grizzled lawman also admires the girl's spunk. Mattie and Rooster are joined by a Texas Ranger named Le Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who is seeking the same man for the murder of a Texas senator.

Based on Charles Portis' 1968 novel, True Grit benefits from an exceptional screenplay by Marguerite Roberts (Ziegfeld Girl, Ivanhoe). She imbues the dialogue with natural humor and captures the well-drawn characters from the Portis novel. I especially like how she introduces the outlaw Ned Peppers (Robert Duvall) through other characters' descriptions of him. It's not until late in the film that Peppers finally makes an appearance.

Wayne on stunt horse Twinkle Toes.
Marguerite Roberts was blacklisted in Hollywood for nine years, starting in 1951, for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. John Wayne thought her True Grit script was the best he'd read in years. He was also a fan of the novel and told Roger Ebert in 1969: "I loved that book. Charles Portis has a real Mark Twain feeling, the cynicism and the humor. I tried to buy the book myself. I went up to $300,000, and that's pretty good going for an unpublished galley of a Western story. But (producer) Hal Wallis knew about this other book by Portis, Norwood, and he made an offer for both and outbid me. Then he came back to me to play Rooster."

The strength of True Grit, of course, is the relationship between Mattie and Rooster. He affectionately calls her "little sister" and, in a rare moment of insight, Rooster tells the teenager about his failed attempts at marriage and fatherhood. Wayne thought that scene was the best acting he had ever done, though he was surprised when he won the Oscar for Best Actor (he thought Richard Burton would win for Anne of the Thousand Days). Wayne is highly entertaining in True Grit, but some of the credit belongs to his co-star Kim Darby. Her gritty performance as Mattie provides the perfect counterpoint to the larger-than-life Rooster.

Kim Darby was not the first choice to play Mattie Ross. John Wayne promised the part to his daughter Aissa, who had a small role in McLintock, but Hal Wallis nixed her casting.  Mia Farrow turned down the role of Mattie when Robert Mitchum told her that Henry Hathaway was a difficult director. Wallis cast Darby after seeing her play an unwed mother in the Ben Gazzara TV series Run for Your Life. Darby's post-True Grit career was undistinguished, though she appeared in a pair of interesting telefilms: The People (1972) and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).

Glem Campbell as La Boeuf.
Interestingly, Elvis Presley was among the choices to play La Boeuf before negotiations broke down.  Campbell, who had already scored several hit songs, was signed despite lacking any significant acting experience (he did a guest spot on The F.B.I.). His thespian skills are clearly lacking, though he appears to try hard. He also sings the pretty title song composed by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black, which peaked at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Screenwriter Roberts, Darby, and Campbell teamed up again in 1970 in an adaptation of the Portis novel Norwood. It was about a Vietnam veteran who aspires to be a country singer and co-starred New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.

Meanwhile, John Wayne followed up True Grit with the 1975 semi-sequel Rooster Cogburn (aka Rooster Cogburn and The Lady). It paired him with Katherine Hepburn in what has often been described as an unsuccessful mash-up of True Grit and The African Queen. Its screenplay was written by actress Martha Hyer under a pseudonym; she was married to producer Hal Wallis.

Warren Oates as Rooster.
In 1978, Warren Oates played Rooster Cogburn in the made-for-TV movie True Grit: A Further Adventure, with Lisa Pelikan as Mattie. And in 2010, Jeff Bridges played Rooster in True Grit, a memorable adaptation of the Portis novel by Joel and Ethan Cohen. It featured an ending closer to the book.


  1. Great review - thanks!
    I put this one on my sprawling list of "films I got to see in the near future"!

  2. I adore this movie, especially Kim Darby's performance. I saw it upon its initial release and immediately read the novel for the first, but not last time.

    I have gotten used to Glen as LeBeouf. My ideal actor for the role would have been Doug McClure, but nobody asked me.

  3. Darby watched John Wayne at a Paramount photo shoot with Streisand, Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson. She was gawking on the sideline, til Wayne picked her up, put her in the shot.

  4. I haven't seen this movie since it was in release and I wasn't very fond of it (Glen Campbell's acting - ouch). BUT. I am currently going through a John Wayne rediscovery phase and True Grit is on my list to revisit. Coincidentally, I got a birthday gift to nudge me along: a bottle of 2016 True Grit Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Parducci winery). Then I saw this post of yours. I'd better get going...

  5. Kim Darby was an inspired choice as Mattie. She can really hold her own against John Wayne, and she's completely believable as that character.

    The recent remake is closer to the novel, but it cannot compete with this version, in my opinion.

  6. Darby should have won an award for her performance; great aacting she was right up there with John Wayne!