In memory of Laura Barrows, May Viers, and the Davis sisters, Edith and Nellie.
True Grit was the only novel on my late grandmother’s bookshelves, passed down to her by my great-grandmother (who was more of the reading sort). Compelling representations of Protestants and Confederates in Missouri during Reconstruction, and as Southern Democrats up to 1928, are few and far between. Charles Portis gave us one of them, preserving the sensibility characteristic of the time and place. My grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunts embodied a similar sensibility, rooted as they were in conservative Protestant faith, yeoman husbandry, and Appalachian folkways. I miss them, and looked forward to the Coen brothers’ adaptation as an opportunity to see, in a way, my kin on the big screen. Unfortunately, the film is disappointing, since the Coens find it difficult to appreciate or identify with the Christian- and Confederate-centered story they chose to depict.
A recurring half-truth in the ten reviews of True Grit I have read is that the most recent version is more faithful to the Portis novel than the original version was. Reviewers cite the dialogue, Hailee Steinfeld’s age, the unsavory physicality of Jeff Bridges, the sepia-toned cinematography, and the partially restored framing device. That the Coen brothers have on these counts been more faithful is not to say that they have, in fact, been true to the novel. They haven’t. Far from fidelity, the Coens have made a myopic movie that undermines the novel’s most important features.
Briefly, here is the main character of True Grit as written by Charles Portis. Mattie Ross is a Southern Democrat through and through, a lover of her home state of Arkansas—of Yell County, where she’s from, in particular—with a very negative opinion of “the Republican gang” ruling Reconstruction. Her father fought for the Confederacy, as did the men with whom she rides to avenge his death. Even more definitive with respect to Mattie is her faith. She is explicitly, emphatically Christian. I count twenty-five instances in the novel where her speech is overtly Christian, specifically Southern Presbyterian (as opposed to Cumberland Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Campbellite). It is the distinctive combination of religion and politics in Mattie’s perspective that makes it such an American perspective. The Coens include only 16% of Mattie’s Christian speech (plus three examples of their own), and cut her political references completely. Sadly, the onscreen American is a far cry from the in-print American.
Consider the triple hanging Mattie witnesses shortly after arriving in Fort Smith. In the novel, each of the three men is given an opportunity to speak before dying. First a white man, unrepentant. Then an Indian, who says “I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man.” Finally, another white man, whose speech sensitively conveys how and why he went wrong, compelling sympathy both for himself and for his wife and “two dear little boys.” He finishes in tears, and Mattie is moved to tears also. What do the Coen brothers make of this scene? They change the order of criminals, and they favor the words of the unrepentant man. The speech of the sensitive, apologetic white man is severely curtailed; he is blubbering and pathetic, rather than dignified. The Indian is made to go last, and is kept from speaking by the hangman. Why did the Coens distort the scene in these ways? Why import racism? Why expunge both Christ and compassion?
That they have, in fact, imported racism is underscored by what they have excluded from their film. Readers of the novel encounter Indians in a variety of forms: as repentant Christian; as victims of crime; as half-breed with “a face hardened in sin”; as “civilized Creeks and Cherokees and Choctaws from Mississippi and Alabama who had owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy and wore store clothes”; as misbehaving teenager; as Southern Presbyterian same as Mattie; as hunting companion; as traveler with news of a robbery; as provider of medical treatment; as police officer and friend who jokes, shares information, and goes out of his way to help; as wealthy farmer instrumental in saving Mattie’s life. The Coens, rather than show any of this real diversity, allow their initial distortion to stand as the story’s characteristic Indian experience.
By compassion I mean both the ability to see others in the round, and the empathy that naturally follows. The Coens do not allow their audience to see the characters created by Charles Portis in the round. Mattie’s religious and political perspectives are but two examples. Little of Rooster Cogburn’s point of view is allowed either, though it is central to the narrative, and though his backstory is a tragicomic tour de force. What Rooster says as he struggles to complete Uncle Sam’s fee sheets is very instructive:
If you don’t have no schooling you are up against it in this country, sis. That is the way of it. No sir, that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home.
More instructive still is the rat scene, featured in the original film, cut by the Coens. After facetiously serving a writ to keep a rat from eating cornmeal, after shooting said rat when it did not stop, Rooster has this to say:
You can’t serve papers on a rat, baby sister … These shitepoke lawyers think you can but you can’t. All you can do with a rat is kill him or let him be. They don’t care nothing about papers … We had a good court here till the pettifogging lawyers moved in on it. You might think Polk Goudy is a fine gentleman to look at his clothes, but he is the sorriest son of a bitch that God ever let breathe. I know him well. Now they have got the judge down on me, and the marshal too. The rat-catcher is too hard on the rats. That is what they say. Let up on them rats! Give them rats a fair show! What kind of show did they give Columbus Potter? Tell me that. A finer man never lived.
Potter is the fellow marshal recently killed by the rats Goudy rather selfishly defends. In addition to revealing Rooster’s take on the criminals and lawyers with whom he deals, this passage sheds invaluable light on his capacity for friendship, and on his sense of injured justice. Readers of the novel later learn that Cogburn and Potter fought together in the Civil War, surrendered together, and fled Federal punishment together, too; Potter subsequently saved Rooster from prosecution for a separate offense, and secured his commission as a deputy marshal. Relating these facts, Rooster tells Mattie “Well, there is no beat of a good friend. Potter was a trump.” The Coens make only passing reference to Columbus Potter in their film, depriving us of the sympathy we would otherwise feel for Rooster Cogburn’s sensibility. Why do they take away that which makes the main characters in the story who they are? Why are we, the audience, not allowed to know who these characters are?
Stanley Fish, in his glowing review, is on to something when he writes:
In the original True Grit, we are told something about the nature of heroism and virtue and the relationship between the two. In the movie we have just been gifted with, there is no relationship between the two; heroism, of a physical kind, is displayed by almost everyone, “good” and “bad” alike, and the universe seems at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to its exercise.
To be clear, Fish is referring to the original movie, not the novel, but his comment applies to both. It may be an exaggeration to claim the Coens present us with a total disjunction of heroism and virtue, but there is no question they downplay the relationship’s significance. Fish approves of this, and ties it to Mattie’s conception of grace:
You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.
According to Mr. Fish, it follows that grace is:
distributed in a way that exhibits no discernible pattern… In short, there is no relationship between the bestowing or withholding of grace and the actions of those to whom it is either accorded or denied.
Works avail you nothing, the Lutheran and Calvinist radicals claimed. Their tenet is not true in traditional Christianity, it is not true in life, and it is not true in the novel either, where miscreants pay for their bad behavior over and over again, even down to Odus Wharton. The only exception is The Original Greaser Bob, who “escaped clear with his winnings.” This exception suggests an absence of perfect justice in this imperfect world, but it is far from the exaggerated claims of Mr. Fish. By the same token, those on the side of virtue experience success (again, with one exception—Mattie’s father). On Fish’s reading, the world provides no support for Mattie’s convictions. Yet the quest to avenge her father’s death was successful, aided by the heroism of Cogburn, Mattie herself, LaBoeuf, and Little Blackie, as well as the basic goodness of certain peripheral characters. LaBoeuf, too, does what he set out to do. He is able to take Tom Chaney’s corpse to Texas, and presumably collected the reward money. Cogburn busts up Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang, which is what he set out to do, and is paid handsomely for his grit (to use Mattie’s word). No support? Mattie’s convictions are thoroughly vindicated, giving her narrative voice in the novel much of its authority. That, of course, is one more thing the Coens cut, partially restored framing device notwithstanding.
It is curious that the Coens, and Stanley Fish, turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the presence of virtue in True Grit. And it is nothing short of perverse to assert that there is no relationship between virtue and heroism in the story, or between grace and the works produced by faith. Those relationships fairly permeate the story. Rooster Cogburn, for example, deals constantly with the line between right and wrong. Whether forcing LaBoeuf to stop switching Mattie (thereby allowing her to join them), or handling the teenagers who were abusing a mule, or returning the money stolen by Lucky Ned’s gang, or acting as an avenging angel on behalf of the innocent and victimized, his judgements (and actions stemming from them) give True Grit its moral ballast. Make no mistake, Cogburn is a man of integrity, though the principles of an uneducated, border-state Southerner and “bushwhacker” are, it seems, easily dismissed. His opinions (of high-interest banks, Republicans, the Federal government, Red Legs and jayhawkers, lawyers, carpetbaggers) and his friendships (with Columbus Potter and Cole Younger) are as consequential to the Coens as Mattie’s political references, all of which criticize Republicans and praise Democrats. The ties that bind in the novel are Confederate ties; characters take for granted a moral framework the Coens, and Mr. Fish, deny.
Rooster’s virtue is elsewhere evident, too. The rat scene can only be understood in terms of his feeling mistreated during Goudy’s cross-examination. He is thinking through Goudy’s over-the-top defense of Odus Wharton. Likewise, his comments after LaBoeuf judges his wartime service harshly. In that Rooster is capable of feeling slighted, and responds to insults with reflection, he has an internal sensitivity to right and wrong. A concern for right and wrong is woven into the fabric of the novel. It is present throughout the debate as to whether Mattie should be allowed to join the manhunt. Lawyer Daggett tells her “your headstrong ways will lead you into a tight corner one day.” And they do, of course. Stonehill, the stock trader and auctioneer and cotton buyer, tells her the good Christian does not rashly court difficulties. He thinks her “wrongheaded.” LaBoeuf had excellent grounds for opposing her participation, asking Cogburn “What if something happens to her? Have you thought about that? Her people will blame you and maybe the law will have something to say too.” That also comes to pass. These warnings fly in the face of Fish’s “anti-foundationalist” interpretation:
In the novel and in the Coens’ film … things happen, usually bad things … but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face.
If you haven’t yet surmised, the Coens have made a film that is far darker than the novel it trades on. Stanley Fish treats the novel as written by Portis in an even more Procrustean manner than do the Coens. The context for events in True Grit is not merely physical and devoid of logic. Rather, it involves love of place, filial bonds, the bonds of friendship, the politics of Reconstruction, Christian faith, the nature of justice, and the interplay of virtue with heroism and grace with works. Evidence indicates the displacement of this context is the ultimate objective of the Coen brothers and their academic admirer.
Up to now, I have focused on what the filmmakers cut from True Grit. Their interpolations are at least as damning. Mattie sleeps in the mortician’s workroom with the dead bodies from the triple hanging; she and Cogburn come upon a dead man strung-up high in the wilderness, his face and eyes being eaten by a raven; they cut him down, and an Indian takes the body to see what he can get in trade for it; soon after, they encounter a bizarre dentist cum vet cum doctor wearing a bear’s head for a hat and the bearskin as a robe who has acquired the body for “two dental mirrors and a bottle of expectorant”; he has taken the man’s teeth and will now “entertain an offer for the rest of him.” Is any of this in the book? No. The Coens deliberately made the story more freakish, more other, than it is. They also give to Cogburn a second wife, an addition at odds with the novel factually (there is no Edna in the book) and chronologically (his second marriage—to Potter’s widow—occurs after the story’s main events, not before). Two of their riders are in keeping with the novel’s characters and themes. The outhouse scene—“There is no clock on my business!”—is a wonderfully comic example of Mattie’s initiative and Rooster’s earthiness. The dugout scene’s coda, in which Mattie and LaBoeuf distinguish between acts that are intrinsically wrong and those that are only wrong by law and custom, does hint at the justice theme prevalent in Portis. But most of what the Coens add is both gratuitous and out of step with the rhythm of True Grit. They split off LaBoeuf from Rooster and Mattie—twice. They overplay the hostility between Rooster and LaBoeuf, presumably to justify separating them. They have Rooster, rather than Lucky Ned’s gang, shoot LaBoeuf at the dugout. This leads to charges of ineptitude:
You missed your shot, Cogburn, admit it. You are more handicapped without the eye than I without the arm.
The imputation of inadequacy with which the Coens conclude this “corn dodger” scene (Rooster failing to prove his marksmanship) exceeds tenfold what Portis ascribes to his hero. It is followed shortly by another interpolation. The trio arrives at the silver mine where the gang, on Rooster’s telling, should be. They are not there. That Rooster’s leadership is to be perceived as futile and foolish is underscored as he fires into the mine and yells “Lucky Ned!” into the hills. The Coens close this scene with LaBoeuf’s snarky sarcasm: “Very good, Cogburn. Now what.” Their taunt sounds, to my ear, like a reprise of countercultural sentiment toward the “Establishment” forty-odd years ago, when True Grit was published. Portis, however, did not include such sentiment in his novel. None of these touches, it must be emphasized, are in the novel. The next scene brings the cumulative mischaracterization of Cogburn to a head. He denies LaBoeuf food. He states, wrongly, that Chaney is long gone. He shirks responsibility, washing his hands of Mattie and saying “I return home! Our engagement is terminated! I bow out!” The whole coon hunt, it seems, is misbegotten, and reflects poorly on Rooster as the expedition’s leader. What we have here is a pattern, a concerted effort by the Coens to diminish Cogburn’s heroic stature. They want to cut him down to size, take him down a peg or two. That is why they play up his mean-spirited bellicosity and drunken selfishness; why they elevate LaBoeuf’s station at his expense. They go so far as to have Mattie tell LaBoeuf “I picked the wrong man.” Shifting her allegiance away from Cogburn toward the Texas Ranger is a major departure from Portis. In their hands, Cogburn’s heroism at the end of True Grit—his daring display of manliness against Lucky Ned’s gang, his do-whatever-it-takes determination to save Mattie—is almost jarring. It is practically a surprise. It does not easily fit their nihilistic narrative. That he is a flawed and imperfect hero (misjudging the proximity of the bandit’s lair, participating in the Johnson County War, drinking to excess) is evident in Mattie’s print narrative, but knowledge of his faults does not adversely affect the balance of a reader’s sympathy. Rooster remains the moral center of the story. The Coens, in their film, cut against the traditional American expectation that heroism is the ultimate expression of virtue. For this reason the Hathaway film, carried by the heroism and virtue manifest in John Wayne’s persona, more truthfully conveys the novel’s governing spirit. Though its blemishes are many, disfiguring the moral landscape is not among them.
I have mentioned the all-important presence of Confederate ties in True Grit, and the implicit moral framework ignored by the Coens and Stanley Fish. It remains to point out the most significant of these ties, the one that best explains Reuben Cogburn’s perspective. Readers are told (and viewers aren’t) that Rooster’s “home was out of Osceola, Missouri.” No random detail this. Osceola is the border town that was pillaged and burnt to the ground on 23 September 1861 by Red Legs and jayhawkers led by Kansas senator Jim Lane, also known as “the Grim Chieftain.” Nine men were executed there after mock trials. The farm of Reuben’s parents was robbed and burnt, leaving them destitute and starving. “You can eat a peck of roasting ears and go to bed hungry,” he tells Mattie. That Cogburn is from Osceola backlights his perception of injured justice. When Quantrill’s Raiders (Cogburn among them) attacked Lawrence, Kansas two years later shouting “Remember Osceola!”, it was payback for crimes committed by Federal troops against the citizens of Missouri. Lawrence was a staging area for incursions, and Jim Lane’s residence. It was Lane, along with eleven other prominent Kansans, Quantrill’s men intended to capture. They failed in that regard, which is why Cogburn (in the novel) answers LaBoeuf’s antagonistic line of inquiry by saying “We missed Jim Lane.” The back-and-forth between Ranger and marshal is worth considering in some detail. The context is clear. Rooster’s plan to apprehend Lucky Ned’s gang at the dugout has failed because LaBoeuf fired prematurely. There is no evidence he is chastened by his error or aware of its ramifications; instead, he tries to take advantage of Rooster’s understandable anger. In a series of leading, insinuating questions and statements, he calls Cogburn, in effect, a murdering thief guilty of killing women and children. Rooster deflects some of the provocations, and answers others directly. To the most inflammatory accusation—that women and children were killed in the Lawrence raid—he says “It is a damned lie.” When LaBoeuf presses on into mockery of Captain Quantrill, he is told “If you are looking for a fight I will accommodate you. If you are not you will let this alone.” All in all, LaBoeuf’s self-righteous hectoring is offside to discerning readers who necessarily recognize (1) the significance of Osceola; (2) that LaBoeuf set out to antagonize Rooster when circumstances called for more subdued behavior; (3) that his cocksure assault is built upon a falsity (as a matter of historical fact, women and children were not murdered—or even harmed—in the Lawrence raid); and (4) the clear-cut support Portis gives to Cogburn’s sensibility.
On this last count, I have three examples in mind. The tactic Cogburn uses in his face-off with the four remaining outlaws—charging directly at them “in so determined and unwavering a course that the bandits broke their ‘line’ ere he reached them and raced through them, his revolvers blazing”—is one he learned with Quantrill. As he told Mattie at the dugout:
We done it in the war. I seen a dozen bold riders stampede a full troop of regular cavalry. You go for a man hard enough and fast enough and he don’t have time to think about how many is with him, he thinks about himself and how he may get clear out of the wrath that is about to set down on him.
By linking Cogburn’s heroism in the meadow to his having ridden with Quantrill, Portis legitimizes the latter. Likewise when he has Cogburn say, after LaBoeuf’s scathing indictment:
Well, we done the best we could with what we had. We was in a war. All we had was revolvers and horses.
Thirdly, discerning readers recognize that LaBoeuf was not much of a soldier. Only fifteen as the war neared its end, he served six months, mostly in the supply department. He was, however, eager to fight and regrets the paucity of his experience. Rooster, on the other hand, spent four years in what he calls “the bullet department” and is much more circumspect about it. In this argument between Confederates, we are meant to favor the sensibility informed by hardship and suffering over the one that is romantic and idealistic and speaking out of turn.
It will come as no surprise to find that is not how the Coens present the exchange. In their telling, Rooster is instantly defensive; he loses his composure at the first mention of Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, and resorts to name-calling. He is so sensitive on the subject, so implicitly in the wrong, he severs his agreement with LaBoeuf, jeopardizing the manhunt and endangering them all by splitting up. Add this to the pattern of diminishment. Cogburn maintains his composure throughout the scene Portis wrote, thereby displaying his most pronounced heroic attribute: the ability to handle himself in adverse conditions. Taking that away from him (while enhancing LaBoeuf’s military bona fides and securing for him the moral high ground) changes the tenor of the exchange dramatically, and alters our perception of both men. That is standard operating procedure for the Coens. They undermine the novel’s most important features so consistently, it stands to reason they find those features disconcerting. Seen in the round, Rooster Cogburn is a very sympathetic figure. As presented by Portis, the cause Rooster identifies with draws our sympathy, too. His cat is named Sterling Price after the preeminent defender of Missouri in the war, the man who devoted himself to its liberation. Offered a presidential pardon after the war, Price replied “I have no pardon to ask,” a sentiment Cogburn no doubt shared. The Coens cannot but omit such a detail. The ontology of a Confederate hero is, it appears, anathema to them. Naturally, I am not suggesting they should have followed the novel in every particular. It is the nature of film to be less than the literature it adapts. I am saying the identities of Cogburn and Mattie are shamelessly reduced. Their ways of being—the uneducated, border-state Southerner with sand in his craw and the 64-year-old Southern Presbyterian from Yell County, Arkansas in the year of our Lord 1928—these are, by and large, lost. Why cut nearly all the magnificent first-person narration? Mattie Ross is one of the most memorable characters in American literature, at sixty-four not fourteen. In the hands of politically correct nihilists, a Christian- and Confederate-centered story is bound to suffer. The Coens, I aver, are seamstresses in command of their stitch rippers, altering a classic American quilt such that I miss my great-grandmother in it.