It’s become common wisdom to say that the best remakes are those made of non-canonical, non-classic films; that is, it’s typically better to give a second go to a film that – while possibly venerated, is hardly deemed a work of perfection that can’t be improved upon – than to redo a classic. Such a rule isn’t set in stone, of course, but it can be argued through example via some of the most celebrated of remakes (like The Thing or, in a more modest and more recent example of improvement-on-imperfection, The Crazies), and are often a result of a genuine inspiration from the source material rather than a simple means of capitalizing from its name.
With the Coen brothers’ quite popular and much celebrated remake of True Grit, however, the distinction of what kind of a remake it is isn’t exactly so clear, as what kind of movie the original is proves to be something of an enigma in of itself.
The Coens’ True Grit represents something of a departure for the filmmakers. Their three most recent films were something of a tonally varied but equally hopeless rumination on nihilism and meaninglessness. No Country, Burn After Reading, and especially A Serious Man, while differing greatly in stylistic and storytelling aspects, were tied together in their portrayal of a world in which actions were inconsequential, the search for answers was futile and stupid, and the universe possessed a cruel lack of order or justice which meant nothing good would come of its unheroic protagonists. True Grit, by contrast, presents us with a familiar world that, astonishingly, makes sense (at least in cinematic terms, if the Coens’ unofficial “nihilism trilogy” may operate closer to “reality,” as cynical as such an assertion might be). True Grit is a western that, unlike the (admittedly inspired) shaking of the genre’s skeletons in recent work like The Assassination of Jesse James and their own No Country, has grown tired of the term “revisionist western” as well its corresponding notion that, after the genre’s premature burial, only such a tweaking can take place amongst a postmodern and cynical cinematic culture within which the Coens act as both concomitant culprits and interrogating respondents in their continued classical cinema resurrection project.
Thus, to make something that is so transparently indebted to bygone cinema (the remake, a designation most of their work can comfortably carry unofficially), yet stands alone so well as a wonderfully crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment whose appreciation (as evidenced by its mass appeal) stands independently of the intertextual referencing or craft-centric admiration that characterizes the experience of most of the Coens’ work by cinephiles. Of course, as writers like Ignatiy Vishnevestsky of Mubi argue, True Grit can also be seen as an exploration of nihilism within yet another framework of genre and style, but True Grit has something their previous work doesn’t, and that’s the impression of closure, which in a clear way distinguishes True Grit from the divided audience reactions of their previous three films. And it is in the presence of closure that seals the deal on the Coens’ creation of, what at least appears to be, a (neo-?)classical and comparatively straightforward piece of damn good entertainment.
The original True Grit was made in the year 1969, a notably odd year for westerns. While perceived in retrospect, especially through John Wayne’s sole-Oscar-winning-performance, as a classic western, the film was instead more of an anomaly, and at best an anachronism. Directed by Henry Hathaway, whose film career in westerns was nearly as long as Wayne’s, True Grit belongs in any year but 1969. It reads like Hitchcock’s work after 1963’s The Birds: a film involved with individuals whose strength of expertise resides in decades past, but whose presence in the particular year in which the film was made provides something of a desperate question.
The original adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel was not without its distinct flaws or troubles: Wayne reportedly complained much about the performance of Kim Darby (as the original Mattie Ross), which whom he has no visible chemistry onscreen, while Hathaway allegedly only cast singer Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf in order to ensure a hit song to accompany the film. Finally, in an example of the generational divide that in so many ways defines the film, Wayne (a traditional Hollywood star used to economic filmmaking) couldn’t stand the repeated requests for additional takes by method actor Robert Duvall’s Ned Pepper.
These tensions only illustrate a greater issue with the original True Grit, and that is its relationship with the Hollywood western at the time. Despite being made only a year after the publication of the novel, in the late 1960s the western existed in a strange, tenuous way in Hollywood cinema. It was nowhere near as marketable as its classical Hollywood incarnations, and neither was Wayne for that matter who stood in direct disregard not only toward the popular direction of Hollywood at the time but also popular opinion with his bold, bizarre, and reactionary pro-Vietnam war epic The Green Berets the year before.
True Grit was only a modest theatrical success, and Wayne’s Best Actor win (for a performance hardly celebrated by critics, especially when compared to the year’s fellow nominees) is seen as something of an unofficial lifetime achievement award rather than an honor bestowed on this particular performance itself; his roles in anything from Stagecoach to The Searchers are notably more iconic, culturally reflective, and fitting than anything on display in True Grit beyond the inherent iconography of the Cogburn character (in fact, his role in The Shootist (1976), which was unexpectedly his final lead performance, is often credited as a more impressive display of his talent and aura in the twilight of his career than True Grit).
However, more importantly, the first True Grit stood in direct contradistinction with some of the most important neo-revisionist-westerns of the New Hollywood era. 1969 might be the most unfortunate year for True Grit to have been released, and Wayne’s Oscar can be seen as nothing less than an act of generosity, when compared with the other celebrated films of that year. Sam Peckinpah had already obliterated the notion of the classical western, and its traditions of virtue associated with the individualistic western hero, with the take-no-prisoners style of his then-ultra-violent The Wild Bunch, a film that enacted its western revisionism with the presence of a classical western star (William Holden) while True Grit held desperately onto that traditional formula in tandem with a traditional star, functioning as an odd manifestation of modern nostalgia more than anything else.
1969 also saw the year (and many corresponding and competing Oscar nominations) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a New Hollywood Western with New Hollywood movie stars if there ever was one. But most significant is Midnight Cowboy, the temporarily X-rated homoerotic tale of a desperate gigolo looking to capitalize on the last remaining popularity of the cowboy image in his culturally ignorant urban poverty. The fact that in 1970 Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture and Wayne won Best Actor (beating out Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman for Cowboy) shows two very different sides of the same coin from which Midnight Cowboy became the ultimate victor against Wayne’s nostalgia pick when subsequent years are used as evidence: the Best Picture winner was, in both form and content, about the death of the frontier myth in the wake of the counterculture, thus emboldening cinematic landscape in which the revisionist western, not the traditional western, was the only possibility.
Thus it becomes something of a curious inevitability and a profound conundrum that the Coens most “traditional” film in years (possibly of their entire career) come out of remake of something so odd an untraditional in terms of its relationship to the time of its release, and that well into the era of the modern and postmodern revisionist western a classical western should come about. Upon closer examination, the True Grit remake may be as cynical and nihilistic as any of the Coen’s work, but for many audiences on first glance it is simply a reflection of what westerns used to be: well-crafted Hollywood entertainment. It is fitting, then, that the True Grit remake end with Cogburn’s off-screen death at a “Wild West Show,” a reflection of the fact that the West was already being reimagined, recreated, mythicized, and commodified in its dying days, and as if operating as a signal of cinema’s classical-to-revisionist cycle of complicity in the frontier myth starting over once again.