“They say you’re a man with true grit,” Mattie Ross states bravely to the burly U. S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, True Grit, starring John Wayne. True Grit is a western, a genre that has preserved the masculine soul of the late 19th century United States’ western frontier. Largely as a result of the Gold Rush and Oregon Trail, the frontier became known as a land to which men could escape and re-secure their male identities. But as industrialization spread to the west, the heroic frontiersman of old died out and the memory of the old west was embalmed within the western genre. In the spirit of the frontier, films such as True Grit craft a world where masculinity is well within reach, and appeal to both the obsessions and fears of the male audience. However, as a result of changing frontiers, the ways those ideals are presented and manifested have changed. This is evident through the 2010 Coen brothers remake of True Grit.
The Self-Made American
When Henry Clay, in his 1832 speech on the Senate floor, first used the phrase “self-made man”, he managed to condense into three words precisely what it meant to be an American man. The self-made man has been an enduring symbol of the United States, and an idea central to the notion of the American dream. With hard work and dedication, man can accomplish anything he sets his mind to. However, this definition of masculinity contains a dark duality. While the idea of the self-made man grants a person full ownership of their achievements, it equally means that failure is a direct result of ones own inadequacies. Win or lose, the outcome lies entirely on the self-made man. This level of control over one’s own destiny leaves a man’s economic, political, and social identity in constant jeopardy. The result is a nation of self-made men plagued with anxiety: anxiety of failing, anxiety regarding their own inadequacy, and anxiety concerning their masculinity or lack thereof.
Gender studies focused sociologist, Michael Kimmel, posits the same notion. “If social order, permanence, could no longer be taken for granted and a man could rise as high as he aspired, then his sense of himself as a man was in constant need of demonstration. Everything became a test—his relationships to work, to women, to nature, and to other men”. Dr. Kimmel argues that every man, whether he succeeds or fails in these tests, has two possible choices: compete or escape. And in the mid ninetieth century, a great deal of men chose escape. Escape came in the form of the west: a largely uncivilized territory. Taking after great frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, men traveled west to ease the anxieties and pressures of the American self-made man.
Others coped with the anxieties posed by the “self-made man” not through escape, but through exclusion or through internal achievement and self-control. Exclusion includes sexism, racism, or any means of creating a false sense of superiority through disassociation, denial, and ignorance. Compensating for emasculation with self-control is the notion of creating personal achievement when the exterior world has proved too competitive for a man. What these three compensation methods share is the idea of individualism. When the constant competition of being a self-made man becomes too much, compensation through disconnecting oneself from others, whether psychologically or physically, has existed as long as the “self-made man”.
For decades, up until the early twentieth century, the western frontier became an outlet where a man could re-secure his masculinity and his male identity. Largely as a result of the Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail, the west became considered a place to start anew. But as industrialization spread to the west, the frontiersman of old phased out and new frontiers were established. “Once rooted in genteel land-ownership or in the pride of independent artisans, shopkeepers and farmers, manhood was transformed by the industrial revolution, which made American males, by the mid-19th century, insecure, mobile, competitive, chronically restive and seeking a sense of themselves as men through their economic success”. As the old west became civilized, a man’s ability to physically escape the endless competition of masculinity became increasingly difficult. Men had to find new outlets to exercise their masculinity and secure their male identity.
A Genre Rises in the West
But as frontiers shifted, male anxieties remained, as did the modes of compensation. Despite the Wild West having been tamed, the masculine symbol of the wandering frontiersman persisted through the western genre. It is no coincidence that the mythos of the wandering gun-slinging cowboy takes place in the latter half of the nineteenth century following the Civil War. The same modes of escape, exclusion, and self-control used to compensate for the anxieties of the self made man, are themes central to the western genre. “The Western owes its perennial appeal…to the deftness with which it responds to the obsessions and fears of its audience. And no obsession…has figured more prominently in the Western than what it means to be a man”. So while the advent of escaping to the frontier of the west has disappeared, the idea survives through fiction and media.
The western film genre is well versed in masculine symbols and replicates the anxieties of the self-made man. In this sense, it forms a deep connection with male audience members. Embracing the strife of American men, it romanticizes the life of the independent vagabond who has escaped from the pressures of ordinary civilization. Protagonists are typically physically capable, individualistic wanderers with strict moral codes and few worldly attachments (Allison, Title Sequences in the Western Genre: The Iconography of Action, 2008). Male characters are portrayed as headstrong and willful, despite having suffered from the incessant pressures that come with the continuous tests of masculinity in America. Beginning with the first silent western films at the turn of the 20th century and lasting until the late 1960s, these traditional westerns glorify their protagonists and settings. It is as a result of these deep sympathetic bonds with male audiences, that the western genre has remained extraordinarily popular through the late 1960s.
True Grit – 1969
True Grit, released in 1969, is one of the final western films to embrace those traditional aesthetics and values. Though the film introduces some new themes, it largely abides by the masculine ideals typical of the western genre. The plot revolves around Mattie Ross, a young tomboy who is set on avenging the murder of her father. However, this framework merely serves to introduce Rooster Cogburn, a grizzled veteran U. S. Marshal. Rooster is hired by Mattie to track down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, who has since fled to the Indian Territory and linked up with a band of outlaws. Joined by La Boeuf, a young Texas Ranger hunting Chaney for a separate crime, the unlikely trio sets out on what quickly becomes a dangerous and deadly mission of justice and revenge.
In the 1969 version of True Grit, “The Duke” John Wayne, plays Rooster Cogburn and won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Wayne played many of his most iconic roles in western films and became known as a powerful masculine symbol echoing the strife of the American man. In his roles he often embodied the ideal self-made man, embracing individualism, strong morals, and control over his destiny. His characters showed the physical and psychological wear that comes with being a self-made man in America. Compensating for their anxieties, Wayne’s characters turn to escape, exclusion, and self-control to combat the endless emasculating test that is being the self-made man.
Yet, Wayne, the hero, manages to emerge successful in even the direst of situations. In Fort Apache he leads a cavalry charge against dozens of foes after questioning his superiors. In Red River, he drives a herd of cattle despite considerable adversity. In The Searchers, Wayne embarks on an odyssey to find a child kidnapped by Indians, and against all odds returns her safely. In Rio Bravo, he and a motley crew uphold the law when no one else will. And in True Grit with Rooster Cogburn, Wayne plays his most pitiful character yet: a fat, old, drunken Marshal. Yet, even then, Wayne still rises to the occasion of helping young Mattie Ross. He cunningly tracks down the murderer, displays incredible bravery charging against four armed men, rescues Mattie, and ultimately upholds what is just, serving as a righteous and successful role model despite his initial masculine shortcomings.
Similar to other traditional westerns, True Grit creates a world reflecting the mindset of men. In this world, man is in free to roam, he has no possessions of great value weighing him down, life is straightforward, and there is never a conflict a trusty firearm cannot solve. Breaking free from the endless emasculation of civilization to start a heroic life of adventure on the frontier is something any 20th century man, anxious about masculinity or success, would covet. The west was a place a man could become something. Essentially, True Grit and other westerns craft a world where masculinity is well within reach, and this appeals to both the obsessions and fears of the audience.
The 1969 True Grit is a late example of the traditional western film that connects deeply with male audiences. From the outset of the movie, the male characters wrestle with their masculinity and the notion of the self-made man. Those who are more masculine and exercise the anxiety compensation methods are the more glorified characters. Conversely, those who are more domestic and less tenacious are often portrayed negatively. This is evident before the protagonist, Rooster Cogburn, is ever introduced, when the audience meets Mattie’s father: an emasculated man who quickly meets his demise.
Mr. Ross is a family man, and falls under the former category of emasculated, domestic male characters. A stark contrast to the forthcoming Rooster Cogburn, Mr. Ross is an ordinary typical civilized man. He seems to have few anxieties, is content with a regular family life, and is generally portrayed with close to no masculinity. From the commencement, it is clear Mr. Ross is a weak man that does not belong out on the western frontier. When he interacts with Mattie, she talks down to him and questions his intelligence. When Mrs. Ross learns that he will be riding in to town on horseback, she questions his physical ability. He is ultimately killed trying to help his employee avoid a fight concerning a poker dispute. He is left to die in the middle of town, no one stepping up to avenge him. It is only later that his daughter Mattie that takes up the task of avenging the emasculated father.
Mr. Ross serves as a stark contrast to the rugged masculinity of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn. The audience is first introduced to Rooster through word of mouth. When Mattie inquires as to which is the best Marshal, some say Rooster is the meanest, others recount hearing terrible things about him, even more say that “he likes to pull a cork” or is a “notorious thumper”. Her first encounter with Rooster is from afar, as he wheels in a wagon full of prisoners presumably from his exploits out on the frontier. Yet, despite his exceedingly frightening reputation, Rooster Cogburn is often shown as quite the opposite. Audiences are told he is a man of questionable morals, but the aesthetics and appearance argue otherwise. Even during his drunken spells, his terrible hangovers, and his darkest moments, Rooster is almost always clean-shaven, chipper, witty, and clear. He has a violent military history, but he’s also a wisecracker. He may be an old fat man, but he has strong morals. Rooster wears an eye patch, likes to drink, and is known to sometimes step outside the law, but he remains a hero male audiences can identify with and a masculine symbol they can respect.
However it is not until the next scene that the audience receives a real introduction to the masculine figure of Rooster Cogburn. His profession as a U. S. Marshal has him going into the Indian Territory searching for known criminals to bring back. Due to the wild nature of the west, these arrests often turn violent. The second scene takes place in a court where a prosecutor is questioning Rooster after the latest series of arrests ended with a shootout. Rooster is asked how many men he has killed in his few years of service. He responds that he’s not sure, continuously looking at the judge, his expression begging the question, “Why am I here?” Rooster is clearly unconcerned with the prosecution, and makes jokes sparking laughter in the courtroom. In contrast to the masculinity of John Wayne, the prosecutor has more in common with Mr. Ross. He too makes jokes, yet they yield no laughter. John Wayne continues by responding to the questioning with overt fabrications in a fashion that clearly demonstrates his superiority to the other men and the justice system. As anticipated, nothing comes of the court case and Rooster walks out as a free and glorified man.
True Grit and the Plight of Man
True Grit, like other films of the western genre, incorporates the means of coping with male anxieties in America. Escape, exclusion, and self-control are three ways in which men compensate for the toil and tests that come with the idea of the self-made man. Though True Grit’s plot concerns a murder and a subsequent revenge mission, in many ways this and other westerns of old serve a singular purpose, which is to appeal to the fears and obsessions of the audience. The plot is irrelevant, what male viewers want is a film that sympathizes with their struggle for masculinity, and a film that they in turn can empathize with. With the three anxiety compensation methods incorporated into the film, the text becomes one males can identify with on a personal level.
Whether one fears the agony of defeat or merely requires an interruption from the pressures of being a self-made man, it is common for American males to desire escape. Westerns such as True Grit provide a representation of that impulse to flee reality by romanticizing what would be an otherwise terribly arduous lifestyle. Countrymen like Rooster Cogburn and La Boeuf lead a life with no luxuries. These men consistently sleep outdoors despite the weather, eat unpleasant food, they are dirty, they are privy to the dangers of the wild, and they spend weeks without seeing other people. Yet despite the reality of the situation, True Grit romanticizes an otherwise punishing way of life. True Grit tries to create a desirable world, and it begins by fantasticating the setting and the subject matter.
The vibrant color palate, the epic music, the breathtaking vistas, and the cleanliness of the sets all serve to create an atmosphere that any ordinary man would gladly escape to. Lush grassy fields, azure blue skies, snow capped mountains, and crisp flowing rivers are commonly seen. To embellish the effect, the characters never address the incredible beauty of the wild, which leaves the audience with the impression that much of the wilderness is this fantastic. At one moment on the road, La Boeuf complains that, “This is worse than a pig trail!” when in fact the terrain is very easygoing and extremely serene. Robert Frye commenting on Deborah Carmichael’s book The Landscape of Hollywood Westerns states, “The wildness of the western landscape may offer subliminal reasons why these moving pictures retain their popularity. After all, most of these [landscape] photoplays reveal, either directly or subconsciously, an understanding of the national ethos”. And that national ethos is the American male’s desire to escape from the pressures of masculinity and civilization.
This is visible particular in a scene where Mattie, La Boeuf, and Rooster stop at an outpost deep in the Indian Territory. Considering the distance from the nearest town, the lack of running water and the amount of strangers that come through, the outpost must be at least somewhat filthy. But quite the opposite is true; the outpost is completely tidy and clean. When the trio sit down to have a meal, there is a spotless tablecloth, and massive amounts of carefully prepared hot food. In fact, throughout the entire movie everything is clean. The people are healthy and have clean teeth, the buildings are tidy, the town is green and full of laughing children, and even the outlaws look bathed and fresh. What would normally be a harsh lifestyle appears to rather welcoming. But unless the audience pauses to consider the absurdity of those images, it passes to the subconscious and only builds on the notion that this is a world a man can escape to, sympathizing with that male desire.
In addition to escape, the characters of True Grit cope with the pressures of being a self made man through exclusion; compensation method male audiences can empathize with. If a man fears the risk of failure, he may disconnect himself from the emasculating agent through exclusion. Racism and sexism are two very common means of exclusion as ethnic groups and females are two powerful threats to a man’s masculinity. Exclusion towards both of these is found innocently in True Grit. Mattie is constantly put down for being female at the inception of the film. La Boeuf and Rooster take offense when they find themselves being “hoorah-ed by a little girl”, a conflict that sparks many arguments. La Boeuf in particular simply cannot cope with the young Mattie’s attacks at his masculinity. He constantly puts her down and eventually disciplines her with a spanking. Initially, Rooster too won’t even entertain the idea of Mattie coming on the voyage. Even after being employed by the little girl, he still won’t give her or women in general any credit: “Women have no generosity, they hate to pay up. A man will never work for a woman unless he’s got clabber for brains”.
True Grit also presents a fair amount of racism towards the two other excluded groups portrayed in the film. The first victim of masculine exclusion is the Asian shopkeeper that allows Rooster to sleep in his back room. Despite this, Rooster is still inordinately rude to him. “You can never tell what’s in a Chinaman’s mind,” he states. Similar is the Native American at the aforementioned outpost. He is seen giving another man a haircut, then called on to dress La Boeuf’s hand wound. The man is subsequently reprimanded and humiliated by Mattie who believes the man should wash the wound. While these things do show a level of exclusion on behalf of the white male characters, what is more disturbing is how the film itself presents the minorities. Despite the verbal abuse, they continue to smile and act friendly. Male audiences laugh or follow this exclusion on a personal level, and due to the presentation, they might never suspect something is wrong.
Finally, self-control as a mean of compensating for one’s male anxieties is heavily featured in True Grit. Both La Boeuf and Rooster are headstrong characters with steadfast beliefs about what is right and wrong. It is such notions that makes Rooster a respectable character despite being left by his wife and only son. He redeems his masculinity through these other modes of compensation out on the frontier. The movie’s last scene summarizes the mood appropriately. Rooster goes to visit Mattie at her house after the adventure has concluded. And after he is told that he is too old and fat, he and his horse proceed to triumphantly leap over a fence, where the shot freezes and the credits roll. Male audiences can relate, and empathize with the conflicts, themes, and subject matter of True Grit.
But True Grit was one of the last westerns of its kind. According to Kimmel, after the 1950’s, “Men attempted to prove their manliness through sports, business, bodybuilding, clothes, fraternal organizations, participation in two world wars and the Depression (emasculating both at work and at home)”. Despite the idea of the self-made man remaining constant, frontiers and ideals have changed. The notions of compensating for the anxieties caused by the pressures of being a male haven’t changed. Escape, exclusion, and self-control are still themes that men can deeply connect with. However, as a result of changing frontiers, the ways those compensation ideals are presented and manifested have changed. This is evident through the 2010 remake of True Grit.
True Grit Redefined
True Grit is an exceptional case study for two reasons. Not only was True Grit one of the last western films of it’s kind, but in the year 2010 a remake was made by the Coen brothers, based on the same 1968 novel by Charles Portis. According to Fordham University Media Professor, Brian Rose, even more fascinating is the idea that the Coen brothers may have never seen the original film before shooting the remake, yet used the same source material. As a result, the two True Grits do hold a great deal in common: characters, dialogue, and plot. However, the two movies feature a variety of exceptional differences. The 1969 True Grit glorified its subject matter and characters, creating a text derived from the fears, obsessions, and anxieties of male audiences. Contrastingly, the 2010 True Grit fails to even remotely mimic that masculine foundation.
Right from its inception, the Coen brothers’ True Grit strikes a rather different note. The music is more somber, the mood feels darker, and there is a grittiness and despondency to the setting and characters. Gone is the righteous gunslinging hero, Rooster Cogburn, of the original True Grit film. Instead, the new iteration focuses more closely on the story of a young girl’s coming of age and her befriending of two somewhat pathetic cowboys.
Where the original film focused on Mattie largely as a means of introducing the protagonist and masculine symbol, Rooster Cogburn, the remake focuses more closely on her. Rooster, played by Jeff Bridges, is not a hero destined for redemption, but a tired old man nearing the end of his life. This is evident from Rooster’s introduction. In the original film, Mattie hears from various sources about Rooster’s reputation, and each comment makes the man sound more formidable than the last. In the new iteration, Mattie asks the sheriff who the best Marshal is. He starts by describing the best tracker and marvels at the Marshal’s technique, he then mentions Rooster as being the meanest and a drunkard, and then moves on to the Marshal he believes is the best of all. Rooster has no significant presence; he is merely another Marshal, far from the best. Afterwards, Mattie and the audience are first introduced to the new Rooster Cogburn recovering from a night of heavy drinking and vomiting in an outhouse. When the audience finally gets a glimpse of him, it’s he appears dirty and disheveled, a significant difference from John Wayne’s masculine clean-cut hero. As David Denby states, “Bridges is playing a man, not a myth; you can sense Rooster’s stink and his nasty intelligence”.
This is most evident in the courtroom scene, where Rooster is being prosecuted. As discussed earlier, in the original True Grit, this is a scene where Rooster demonstrates his superior masculinity by casually dealing with the law as if it were some minor inconvenience. In the 2010 True Grit, the prosecutor actually boasts more masculinity than the U. S. Marshal. Rooster appears slow and somewhat pitiful as his lawyer guides him through a made up story. His speech is almost unintelligible and he appears distressed or hurt when insulted. He almost whines his retorts, a sharp contrast to John Wayne’s staunch, bold replies. Like Wayne, Bridges’ Rooster jokes in the courtroom, but in the latter case, he can summon no laughter from the onlookers.
In the new True Grit, gone too is the theme of escape. The environment is dull and dirty. The vibrant color palette of the older film has been replaced with a muted winter. Many scenes filmed during the day in the first film, have been changed to night. Overall there is a gritty and realistic feel to the newer film that does not conjure the same sense of wonder and desire from audiences. Instead we look on with pity as the motley crew struggles to overcome obstacles preventing the completion of their mission.
The notion of exclusion has been diminished from the new film as well. The Chinese shopkeeper is portrayed as a normal, middle class man. He is not ridiculed in this version. As for the racism towards Native Americans, it remains present, but has been reduced to mere slapstick humor. The exclusion towards females, Mattie in particular also somewhat remains, but is cancelled out by Mattie’s strength and importance to the film. As a consequence, any attempt on behalf of the men to exercise exclusion to supplement their masculinity acts against them.
The conclusion of the 2010 True Grit epitomizes the overall differences. After Rooster manages to slay the outlaws and save Mattie, another voice over begins. The audience is shown an adult Mattie making a trip out to a Wild West show where Rooster is performing. In this True Grit, Mattie has lost her arm as a result of the snakebite. In addition, she hasn’t gotten married. When she arrives at the Wild West show looking for Rooster, two old men inform her that Rooster has passed away three days prior. They share a couple of words and she goes on her way. Later, Mattie recounts how she had Rooster moved to her graveyard. This ending is vastly different from the original film, where Rooster visits a healthy Mattie and leaves her by vaulting a tall fence in triumphant manner. The Coen brothers leave the audience with a rather pessimistic and defeatist conclusion. The old gunslinging U. S. Marshal died working in a small time Wild West show and the promising young woman, Mattie, spends her days frowning about the troubles of life. Where the old movie was serious about its grandeur, the new True Grit is humorous in its pessimism. In 1969, True Grit captivated audiences by appealing to their male anxieties, fears, and obsessions. The Coen brothers instead capture audiences with storytelling, style, and humor.
Traditional Masculinity Vs. Modern Realism
The 1969 True Grit and the 2010 True Grit share a lot of common characteristics. Details from both films such as the plot, characters, and dialogue are very similar to Portis’ original novel. But though the films are alike in title, there are major differences in their motivations. John Wayne and the 1969 True Grit create a text that sympathizes with difficulties and struggles of living as a self-made man in America. It does this by creating a world and characters male audience members can identify with. Rooster Cogburn is a man who has also suffered emasculation, and audiences can revel in his self-assured success. Elements of escape, exclusion, and self-control weave their way into the film, creating a personal bond with all those men who yearn and cope with similar methods. On the other hand, the Coen brothers’ True Grit is one that lacks said masculinity. The audience looks upon the characters with a degree of pity. For most of the movie, Mattie stands alone as the only hopeful personage until she too assimilates into the gloomy landscape in the epilogue and the “savage moral incoherence of the West”. The True Grit of old fully embraces the myth of masculinity, while the Coen brothers’, like so many other modern westerns, seeks to expose the faults of this ideology.
But to what can these glaring differences be attributed? Is it possible that the conceptions of masculinity have changed so drastically in forty years? Or is this an isolated case study comparing merely two different styles of filmmaking? Even if this last notion is true, the difference in style has a significance of it’s own. In 1969 it would have been revolutionary to portray such a cynical outlook on male identity in such a traditionally heroic masculine genre. Though the era of modern westerns that question the old conceptions of masculinity such as High Planes Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales had already arrived, a film as dark as the new True Grit would’ve been incredibly avant-garde. However, it is plausible that American masculine ideals have wholly changed in four decades. Male identity should shift naturally with a progressing society, and the effect is evident across a variety of media and in society. But the comparison of the two True Grit films does not provide the ambitious scope required to draw such a conclusion. But just as the old west was exchanged for a new frontier when society underwent a metamorphosis, over the forty years separating the two films, the frontier may have been redefined again. The original True Grit crafts a world where masculinity is well within reach, and appeals to both the obsessions and fears of the 1969 male audience. Forty years later in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, the element of male identity that defined the original is seemingly nonexistent.
If the frontier has indeed changed since 1969, the ways male ideals are represented and demonstrated, have also transformed. In the time between the True Grit films, it would not be the ideals of masculinity themselves that have been altered: the self-made man and the anxieties that accompany that notion, have endured. Rather, what has been potentially augmented is the means by which contemporary man copes with, and exercises his own personal true grit.