“Time Just Gets Away From Us”: True Grit, John Wayne, and the West
My holiday viewing experience consisted solely of True Grit which (not unpredictably) has already been commented on throughout the internet. Genre, westerns, heroism, religion, virtue, and—this is a Coen brothers film—nihilism have all figured into play. But none I’ve read (admittedly not all that many) have touched on the matter that struck me from the opening moments; that is, an exploration of mythic history and mythic truth through that most mythic of American locales, the Old West, and those most Homeric of American figures, the CSA vet. League commenter extraordinaire Bob Cheeks perhaps came closest:
It is the relationship between these two men that ground’s the story, first, in the experiences of the War of Northern Aggression and second, in the uniquely conservative Southern consciousness of these two men who will take up, for their own reasons, their weapons in defense of an innocent because, in the final analysis, that is what these people do.
It should be noted that these two protagonists are Confederate veterans. Rooster, a veteran of the Yell County Rifles served in Pat Cleburne’s regiment whose service was employed in the western theater of operations in the Army of the Tennessee and later as one of Quantril’s raiders. The Texas Ranger, on the other hand, was a veteran of Hood’s Texas Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia and at Antietam saved Jackson at the Miller cornfield when they drove two Yankee divisions from the field in what may have been the grandest assault of the war, a charge that left the cornfield littered with the mangled bodies of Texas’s bravest.
I quote at length both to give the background for Cogburn and LeBoeuf and to note that where Bob leaves off—noticing the link between the film and the histories of the people and places it depicts—is where I begin. But first, we have to get meta for a moment: this movie should be thought of not only as the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Portis’ novel, but of their “re-make” of the earlier True Grit starring John Wayne. Having never read the novel, I’m only in position to read it in light of the latter relationship. Put too concisely, the point is, as the Drive-by Truckers song has it, “I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima.”
As the 2010 version opened, the score did more than just call to mind “Ashkoan Farewell,” the song best-known from its extensive use in Ken Burns’ The Civil War—I thought it was “Ashkoan Farewell,” albeit adapted. I realized my mistake shortly, but the link, intentional or not, was placed between the Civil War and the events of this film. Wikipedia (source of all sources!) tells us that the score was composed with reference to various hymns; I’d be willing to wager that, at the very least, the similarity to “Ashkoan Farewell” was not unnoticed by the filmmakers. Whatever the case, it only served to underscore a link later made explicit.
But Burns’ documentary, like Foote’s grand narrative, is, while masterful, myth-making. If the musical link stands, the True Grit is connected not only to the Civil War, but to a decidedly mythic idea of the Civil War, a kind of American Iliad to be told and re-told through the generations, where great men are flawed and flawed men are great, and war is both awful and awe-full.
Moreover, while this movie is not No Country for Old Men and Portis is not Cormac McCarthy, the Coen brothers are coming off of an adaptation of that novel. McCarthy writes about the West because of its mythic character and potential: that is, he seizes hold of a mythic setting and attempts to re-write and turn inside-out the accepted myths of that time and place. If there has ever been a Western protagonist who was not John Wayne, it was the narrator of Blood Meridian; the Judge, certainly, is a villain who would not merely have killed Wayne (as in Iwo Jima), but who would have left him defeated and unheroic.
True Grit—and perhaps this is also true of Portis’ novel—operates on a similar paradigm. The important distinction is that it operates in the world and language of religion rather than nihilism: this un-West, rather than McCarthy’s/No Country’s blood-soaked desert, is a veritable Valley of the Dry Bones. Cogburn kills Pepper and his gang in a valley; Mattie spends an evening sleeping among the dead—noting the similarity to Ezekiel—and, later, falls into a snakepit beside an old, dry skeleton.
The pit, of course, calls to mind more than just Ezekiel: the assertion in Ecclesiastes that “he who digs a ditch will fall into it” seems apt, as do Mattie’s opening lines, spoken from a present in which she has had time to reflect on the events of the film: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” Peter Lawler and (to an extent) Stanley Fish have both discussed grace and justice at more length; what I want to note is that the fact of a cost (a kind of punishment, perhaps) being inherent not merely in the execution of earthly or legal justice, but of what Mattie perceives as the inherent justice of the natural order. To her, this is the justice of God’s natural order; I refrain from calling it God’s justice to respect her refusal to cast herself as some kind of avenging angel. She wants Rooster, not the marshal who will bring in Chaney alive. While she does not trust man’s law, she casts her situation in light of a justice impersonal and all-encompassing, yet somehow less than divine. Perhaps it is her own, precocious acknowledgement that no one can know with certainty the mind of God and, therefore, the precise nature of God’s justice as well.
A world in which justice has a cost—indeed, does not go unpunished—is not the world of John Wayne’s west. Nor is the world of the visual imagery of this True Grit’s violence: Cogburn’s killing in this movie is not heroic. It is merely necessary. It is not Wayne’s killing. Our first introduction to Cogburn paints him, rather convincingly, as a drunk who would kill an unarmed man in cold blood rather than arrest him—from what? Perhaps laziness. It is simply easier this way. He collects the reward regardless. Cogburn has a respect for human life that should render him utterly unheroic.
When we see him in action, this sense is at least partially confirmed. Blood spatters on his face; he rides a horse to death; he kills a gang member who is clearly mentally impaired; he sells one corpse and refuses to bury two more, justifying the latter with a joke about, essentially, his unwillingness to exert himself. He gains some redemption—perhaps experiences some degree of grace—as he carries Mattie to the doctor. Yet, on a moral level, to call him a “hero” or even “heroic” is just as simple-minded as to apply either label to Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, no matter how tempting their deeds against odds may make it, if for no other reason than the sake of a story. Cogburn commits a single heroic deed, but he is no hero.
John Wayne is present through his absence throughout the film. Bridges’ Cogburn is not Wayne’s Cogburn; this West is not Wayne’s West. Only the inclusion of Cogburn’s fate and later life give us any clear indication of the way this film sees itself in relation to Wayne. Wayne’s Cogburn ends the film happily ever after, offered a space in the family plot, and rides off into the sunset—or at least a rather disappointing sequel, in which he is allowed some more heroism and some more redemption.
Bridges’ Cogburn—and, if my impression is correct, Portis’—does not make the familial connection with Mattie (though they have been bonded by their journey) until after his death. He ends his life in a Wild West Show, and old man reliving his younger days for the pleasure of paying customers. But what purpose does the man who kills because it is easier, who is lazy, sloppy, and drunk, play in the tales and world of a Wild West Show? It has no place there—and then, we realize, Cogburn has spent his twilight years telling false tales about his younger self: he was a hero, a U.S. Marshall who took on gang of murderers and thieves single-handed, who brought justice to a young girl and her family. He told the story not of Rooster Cogburn, but of John Wayne and his West.
Even if this scene has merely been “restored” to the film from Portis’ novel, it deserves to be seen in the light of this film’s relation to its predecessor. After all, this True Grit is an adaptation of two previous works with the same title, no matter what the credits say. Wayne’s Cogburn is too embedded in the imagination for it to be otherwise. I would not go so far as to say that True Grit is an attempt to rebut its predecessor. It makes no claim to facticity or historical truth. It operates in the realm of myth and does not attempt to break these constraints. True Grit is a counter-history, not meant to replace its forebear, but to be read alongside it.