By Sandra M. Gustafson, associate professor of English in the College of Arts and Letters
The stories we tell matter, and the startling success of True Grit reminds us why. Released on December 22, 2010, the Coen brothers’ remake of the film that won John Wayne his only Oscar clearly touched a national nerve with its stark depiction of the violence that unfolds when a teenage girl teams up with a U.S. Marshall to avenge her father’s murder on the Arkansas frontier. That nerve was then set jangling by the carnage at a shopping center in Tucson in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was badly wounded, along with a number of other victims of a disturbed young man with a gun. In the months before the shooting, Giffords commented on the frontier spirit of her district, which includes Tombstone, site of the storied gunfight at the O.K. corral that took place in 1881, less than a decade after the main events portrayed in Charles Portis’s novel.
The ensuing media debate over whether and how the fractious tone of national politics in the two years since the United States inaugurated its first African American president might have contributed to the murders in Tucson missed the deeper elements of the story. Those lower layers, to echo Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s great novel about political union, can lead to a much richer conversation about the relationship between government and the common good.
Early in Charles Portis’s novel his fourteen-year-old heroine Mattie Ross defends her murdered father to imagined accusers, as well as to herself: “Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. Chaney was a tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?” Her father’s sense of Christian obligation led him to intervene when a drunken Tom Chaney threatened to shoot the men he thought had cheated him at cards. Frank Ross ends up with a bullet in the head for his trouble, a fact that infuriates his daughter, who first seeks help from the local sheriff, and when that isn’t forthcoming turns to the federal authorities who control the Indian Territory where Chaney has fled. Mattie sees herself as an agent of divine vengeance.
To understand the context in which Portis wrote his best-known novel, it is helpful to trace his career path during a time of national unrest. He became a journalist in 1959 during what is sometimes referred to as the second civil war, that is, the fight over desegregation that reached a crisis point in Little Rock that same year. As a reporter in Arkansas he covered pro-segregation white Citizens Council meetings, which few reporters were willing or able to do. He also covered the Civil Rights activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and interviewed Malcolm X, calling him “Mr. X” as a gesture of respect, to the considerable amusement of his friend the writer Tom Wolfe. (Mattie is similarly respectful of the only black character in Portis’s novel, her neighbor Yarnell Poindexter, who accompanies her to Fort Smith and returns with her father’s body. On the train to Fort Smith, Mattie faces down a racist conductor who abuses her companion.)
True Grit first appeared serially in The Saturday Evening Post in three segments, the first published in May 1968, some six weeks after King’s assassination, and the last published shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June of that year. These events overlapped as well with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which failed to end an increasingly unpopular war. The novel was published in book format later that year. The film version that came out the following year was designed to calm the panicky sense of a society coming unraveled. John Wayne’s character is more avuncular and less morally compromised than the Rooster Cogburn of the novel, and in the end Mattie is restored, arm injured but intact, to a lush family farm surrounded by the Colorado Rockies. The film ends with John Wayne inviting Mattie to come and visit him sometimes.
By revising the novel in important ways, the makers of the first film contributed to the conservative narrative of social restoration through a return to frontier values of independence identified with John Wayne and, later, Ronald Reagan. The frontier carries such symbolic weight in American culture because of its associations with self-reliance and independence, with “grit” or indomitable spirit. Frontier democracy captures a situation of rough equality, where individuals survive by their own abilities.
The Coen brothers’ remake of the film corrects central divergences from the novel and evokes the other sense of “grit” as a substance that grinds something down. Their film is set in a bleaker landscape and shot in a more muted palate. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a drunken sot with flashes of talent and empathy as well as a wide streak of brutality and irresponsibility that prevents him from forming stable ties to anyone. The biggest differences are in the ending sequence. The amputation of Mattie’s arm is rendered harshly visible when she appears dressed in black, her truncated arm in stark silhouette. She hopes to reunite with her old partner, but her journey ends in failure when she learns that Rooster has recently died.
The first film both diminishes Mattie’s losses (her arm is injured but not removed) and compensates for them (Cogburn becomes a substitute father-figure). The Coen brothers’ film accentuates these same losses, while also portraying Mattie’s capable, matter-of-fact approach to dealing with them. Mattie’s character has many attractive qualities, but at the time of the major events portrayed in the novel she is young and her judgment colored by grief for the father she loved. Her decision to avenge his death is both admirable and deeply troubling, but most of all it shows her naïveté. The film goes on to show the carnage that ensues as Mattie seeks her revenge. She witnesses many a death—some who may deserve their violent deaths and others who clearly do not.
Like the novel, the new film leaves the lingering question: Was Mattie’s revenge worth the sacrifices and loss of life? Coming at a moment of national and global stock-taking about what some regard as military and financial over-reach, it has the potential to evoke conflicting feelings.
By remaking True Grit now in a fashion that stays truer to Portis’s novel, the Coen brothers take us back to 1968 and ask us to reconsider our country’s solutions to the social conflicts over Civil Rights and Vietnam that engulfed the United States in that year. Portis’s autobiographical writings offer strong evidence that he intended the ties between region, nation, and world that such a view invites. Shaped by colonialism, slavery, large scale refugee movements, and broad civil conflict, Arkansas in the 1870s presents in miniature the realities of large regions of the globe more than a hundred years later. Globalization makes such parallels and connections ever more salient. In recent years two views of this situation have shaped civic life in the United States: the exceptionalist view, which understands American history as a record of a unique ability to resolve social conflicts and to lead the world; and the view that emphasizes similarities to other postcolonial nations, while also paying attention to distinctive histories and circumstances.
In his autobiography Dreams from My Father (1995), Barack Obama made a connection between race relations in the United States and the legacy of colonialism in his father’s Kenya. His sensitivity to these parallels, as well as his attentiveness to the distinctiveness of each situation, guided his approach to American democracy. It was his belief that government has the power to shape a better future for the United States and the world that led to his involvement in politics. He addressed these ideals in his speech accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, when he quoted John Kennedy on the need to build global institutions for peace: “’Let us focus,’ [Kennedy] said, ‘on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.’” Obama repeated the last phrase, “A gradual evolution of human institutions,” and emphasized that such an evolution would require “the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share.”
The expansion of moral imagination and the gradual evolution of institutions for peace: What do these have to do with Mattie Ross’s decision to pursue her father’s killer? Portis hints at an alternative story that we can use to make a connection. If Mattie had followed her father’s example to be her brother’s keeper, she would have chosen a different marshall to go after Chaney. Running through the possibilities, the sheriff notes that Marshall L.T. Quinn “brings his prisoners in alive” and “believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” Quinn, the sheriff continues, “is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot,” and advises Mattie to hire him. Quinn is a very different representative of the federal government than Cogburn. If she had followed the sheriff’s good advice, we would not have the classic frontier tale True Grit, with its stunning violence and bleak conclusion. But we might have another, more hopeful story of justice tempered with compassion in the service of the common good. Such stories can foster the trust and respect that governments and international institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court depend upon for their successful functioning, rather than the cynicism and despair that grind down our belief in the common good. It is these problems of choice and faith that make True Grit such a compelling tale for our time.