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Western Approaches

Not Bad for a One-Eyed Fat Man

Remakes stimulate debate. Rarely does the new version come out on top. Received wisdom invariably is that “It isn’t a patch on the original.”

It’s an argument that has dual attractions: first in the direction of nostalgia and second of  one up-man-ship. “You mean to say you haven’t seen the original!” The word original (in this context) is straight from the emotive school of language. It’s use, in reality, is little more than saying hooray for my side of the argument. “I like the old one because it is the old one”. Having said that, remakes rarely out-do the fondly remembered.

Glen Campbell as La Boeuf, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby as Mattie Ross

Some classic westerns could be termed remakes. 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars for instance. They take their storylines and characters from Akira Kurosawa films. This doesn’t necessarily make them remakes just as  Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V is not a remake of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie. Same characters, same story; completely different film. Of westerns that are remakes, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Magnificent Seven (2016), Stagecoach (1966), and The Lone Ranger (2013) all fail to capture the qualities that made the earlier film and TV shows classics. One exception is the 2003 version of Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger which is a massive improvement of the 1970 version starring a miscast Mick Jagger. (OK it’s Australian but in every aspect it’s a western).  Some films deserve to be remade and some deserve to be left alone. The 2010 version of True Grit is a good film but it fits into the category of “why didn’t they use the wealth of talent at their disposal to make an entirely new western?” It’s like taking your band into the studio and doing a cover version of a Beatles song. It may be brilliant but it will never be(at) the Beatles.

John Wayne’s True Grit is not a masterpiece in terms of classic cinema. It’s a magnificent film, a wonderful 2 hours and 8 minutes  but it rarely features in the top 100 lists. It won John Wayne his Oscar but I think Wayne put in more complex and challenging performances in (for example) The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach. The great success of the film is the mixing of key western elements, classic revenge tragedy, stunning location photography, brilliant casting, toughness and grit into what is essentially a heart-warming comedy. What Edward Buscombe describes as “an expert blend of humour, tenderness and excitement”. There’s plenty of shooting, a double-figure body count and yet it is undoubtedly family viewing.

Jeremy Slate as Emmett Quincy, Dennis Hopper as Moon and Johns Wayne as Cogburn

I love it and intend to use the rest of this post to explain (to myself as much as to anybody else) just why this is the case.

First the Mirabell reason*. I admit the film has its faults and I like it better  because of them. Glen Campbell wasn’t the first or last popular singer to be cast in a western (see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, not to mention Roy Rodgers) but he is undoubtedly the worst actor amongst them. But this suits the film. His character is an awkward sort of a lump who gives both Maddie and Rooster an opportunity to exercise their wit. These are pre Peckinpah cowboys who can ride and fight and drink and never need a change of clothes. They simply don’t get dirty. Campbell’s distinguishing feature as a musician (apart from a voice given by the angels and supreme guitar picking skills) is a head of hair so wonderfully combed as to provide a model for Lego people. His character  rides through the wildest wilderness, crosses  turbulent steams and climbs the rockiest mountains and still looks like he’s wearing George Jones’s Barnet. It’s a performance so wooden that even after he dies we have to wait for Wayne to explain  the lack of movement.

Then there are the prompts, the previews, the tell-you-it’s-coming lines. “Careful you don’t fall down that pit, it’s full of rattlesnakes.” and you have a pretty good idea where the action is heading.

Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper

The title song is poor and has little other than the words ‘True Grit’ to link it  with the movie. It’s all sweeping strings of the over-produced late sixties Nashville style and completely at odds with the rest of Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Sevenesque score. But it works. All the faults work. They contribute to making the film  better. In the 2010 remake Matt Damon, as good a lead actor as Hollywood has produced in recent years, struggled to inject life into the character of Le Bouef. He appears  awkward whereas Campbell’s awkwardness appears as a sort of charming gaucherie and contributes enormously to the humour.

On the strong points you cannot avoid Wayne. This is his film even though he doesn’t appear until everything has been set up. Cogburn’s faults allow Wayne to show an impressive skill at comedy without sacrificing the dramatic qualities of the film. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s prejudiced and largely misogynist, mercenary and a drunk. Wayne has enormous fun with all of these. He’s happy either as straight man or comic and never misses a beat. Underneath all of this however,  is a man with a sense of right and wrong, a man capable of love and generosity; a source of goodness.

Strother Martin as Colonel Stonehill

Kim Darby is wonderful as Maddie Ross. She maintains her dynamic and intensity of performance while never attempting to take over the film. A single minded, clear thinking, determined, ruthless force for retribution who, like Wayne, reveals a vulnerable side to her nature when things go wrong.

The last fifteen minutes of the film (once these character traits have been revealed) are surprisingly tender and moving.

The supporting cast is superb. A young Robert Duvall shows what a great western actor he might have been if westerns weren’t rapidly going out of fashion. (I think he did ok without cowboy films). Dennis Hopper demonstrates a completeness in his portrayal of Moon which is perhaps proof that there are no small parts only small actors. Strother Martin is always a delight to watch; here he’s the horse dealer trying to short change Maddie and having the tables turned on him. James Westerfield has barely enough lines but uses them  to establish a court doling out frontier justice by means of a simple request for a peppermint to sooth his troubled stomach.

There isn’t a weak link in the chain. The storyline is gripping. Half revenge tragedy, half quest with a universality dating all the way back to the Greek myths. The story is sequential which requires a recurring pattern of dramatic climax and anti-climax. The timing is faultless, the editing flawless. Quest westerns invariably move from the town or city out into the wilderness. The towns represent all of the corrupting influences on man. Bad things happen in towns. The wilderness is a place for refugees and renegades and outlaws. It is also a place of cleansing. Bad things get put right in the wild, people become renewed and return older and wiser men and women.

“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man”

Which brings us to the cinematography. We’re invariably looking out across vast undulating hills towards distant mountains. This creates a sense of enormous space whilst delineating the limits of man’s world. Everything is in the  process of growth. The grass is green, the trees are coming into leaf. There is a sense of permanent springtime out there. Shot after shot is superbly composed and photographed with a depth of focus that makes it  look as if you can see for miles.

“Fill your hand you son of a bitch”

The climax is a shootout between Wayne and Duvall’s band of outlaws. It’s shot from different angles. At one moment we’re looking down on the field; a clearing in the wooded hills; an arena.  It could be a medieval tournament and close ups show the champions issuing their challenges.

Ned Pepper: What’s your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?

Rooster: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?

Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.

Rooster: Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

I wasn’t old enough to see True Grit at the cinema and it’s too good a film to be fully enjoyed on the small screen. Perhaps instead of remaking these westerns they might consider re-releasing the originals for the full big screen treatment. I would love that!

 

 

* Mirabell is a character in William Congreave’s The Way of the World. Romantic heroes had always extolled the virtues of their beloved. Mirabell was the first, as far as I know, to extol the faults.

MIRABELL
She has beauty enough to make any man think so, and complaisance enough not to contradict him who shall tell her so.

FAINALL
For a passionate lover methinks you are a man somewhat too discerning in the failings of your mistress.

MIRABELL
And for a discerning man somewhat too passionate a lover, for I like her with all her faults; nay, like her for her faults. Her follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her, and those affectations which in another woman would be odious serve but to make her more agreeable. I’ll tell thee, Fainall, she once used me with that insolence that in revenge I took her to pieces, sifted her, and separated her failings: I studied ’em and got ’em by rote. The catalogue was so large that I was not without hopes, one day or other, to hate her heartily. To which end I so used myself to think of ’em, that at length, contrary to my design and expectation, they gave me every hour less and less disturbance, till in a few days it became habitual to me to remember ’em without being displeased. They are now grown as familiar to me as my own frailties, and in all probability in a little time longer I shall like ’em as well.