Does the ’69 Version of ‘True Grit’ Even Compare to the Coens’?

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Only a few days ago someone was telling me the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’s “True Grit” was pretty much the same as Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 adaptation. I laughed.

I laughed because there isn’t even a comparison to be made other than the fact they share some of the same lines of dialogue and a similar narrative. The Coen brothers’ adaptation is far superior in all quadrants from screenplay, production design, costumes, direction and in the acting department by leaps and bounds.

I’m sure there are John Wayne loyalists out there that will tell me Wayne’s version is iconic and to read Owen Gleiberman write about Wayne at Entertainment Weekly you’d think Wayne actually deserved his Oscar for the film. He didn’t and still doesn’t. How Gleiberman can come to the conclusion that “John Wayne’s performance is a marvel” is beyond me. Before that he writes, “If you love movie-star acting, however, do yourself a favor: Get a hold of the original True Grit and watch it.” I expected him to say something closer to Rio Bravo, The Searchers, Stagecoach or even The Shootist, Wayne’s final film and a performance that outshines anything he did in ’69’s True Grit.

When I talk about the ’69 original with others I mention how everyone in the cast is basically reading their lines and not even trying to act. Many tell me, “That’s what John Wayne does!” Yes, true, but such a “performance” doesn’t fit the role of Rooster Cogburn. Yet, Glieberman again says, “Wayne’s performance has aged beautifully, because it’s easier to see now how much acting there really is in it.” Sorry Owen, there isn’t a “performance” to be found.

But forget John Wayne for a second. How about everyone else? Hailee Steinfeld runs circles around Kim Darby. Glen Campbell wishes he could pull off Matt Damon’s performance. Other than the fact both films basically ripped the dialogue right out of Portis’s novel, the one aspect of the two films that almost mirror one another are the performances of Robert Duvall and Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper. Barry Pepper plays the character a lot meaner, dirtier and nastier, but the two performances closely resemble one another.

As for the screenplay, the Coens’ adaptation is actually truer to Portis’s original novel than the ’69 version even though the ’69 version actually stuck closer to the narrative structure. Additionally, the story is once again about Mattie Ross and not some old eye-patch wearing codger. It’s the reason people were asking for Steinfeld to be nominated for Best Actress, rather than Supporting Actress where Paramount placed her and the Academy nominated her.

This morning I was sent the following video comparing the two films, and I should preface this by saying Henry Hathaway’s True Grit is a fun film. Almost anything The Duke was in is a fun film, but to say the two are comparable is just silliness in my opinion. I will concede one point, Wayne was easier to understand.

Watch the video and let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Weekend: Nov. 22, 2018, Nov. 25, 2018

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