By 1969, the Western as a film genre had begun to be officially- but prematurely -declared dead, in no small part due to the overabundant proliferation of western programs on television. Yet, that same year found the release of three western films of significance, two of extreme public popularity, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “True Grit” and one, a landmark of the genre, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”, as well as the contnued popularity of the Italian “spaghetti” western sub-genre. Of the three American features, Henry Hathaway’s “True Grit” follows the familiar conventions of the classical western unlike the encroaching trench of the anti-traditional revisionist western. Though seemingly an amiable, rambling pseudo-comedy, it is a film of uncommon psychological richness; a film steeped in the traditions of the “adult” western seemingly finding it’s first overt expression in Henry King’s “The Gunfighter”, the two remarkable 1950’s Western series of Anthony Mann/James Stewart and Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott, and finding it’s deepest expression in John Ford’s masterwork “The Searchers”, of which through both character and the starring performer, “True Grit” may be identified on the surface as a younger sibling.
Based upon Charles Portis’ acclaimed novel of tall-tale Americana, the film marks what may be the last of the great traditional westerns even though the content of the film would, in many ways, seem to be a peculiar hybrid of period realism and caricature of the mythic Western archetypes, especially those popularized in mass entertainment culture, in no small part by star John Wayne himself. However, despite the narrative trappings of classical genre tropes, “True Grit” brings something entirely new to the well-worn conventions of the western, and that is an emergent female character who is not simply a decorative character, anxiously awaiting the fate of the hero, nor is she a representation of feminine weakness or frailty who must be protected by the same hero. No, the role of Mattie Ross is smart, enterprising, stubborn, fiercely determined to bring Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), the man who killed her father to justice, and only fourteen-years-old. While there have also been an abundance of prominent children (or youths) in the western genre, never before has there been such a determinant character who is both catalyst and preeminent critic of the film’s trek toward justice. Despite the presence of Wayne, by the time of this film decades past his initial and permanent ascension to film stardom, it is Mattie’s story first and foremost.
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