Wednesday, January 5, 2011

TRUE GRIT: Blu-Ray (Paramount 1969) Paramount Home Video

Re-envisioned from the Charles Portis best seller as a starring vehicle for John Wayne, director Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969) is perhaps the last memorable western the Duke committed to film. Indeed, Academy voters felt as much, awarding Wayne his one and only Best Actor Oscar for this curmudgeonly performance of a U.S. Marshall who gradually befriends a young girl by rising to the occasion of avenging her father's death. For many, True Grit is a seminal Wayne western, yet it tends to date more so than others in the actor's canon upon renewed viewing; Wayne's coy delivery of the lines more playful than pensive and the overall tension of the piece somewhat blunted by the miscasting of Glenn Campbell as pompous law man, Le Boeuf.

In the novel, the character of Mattie Ross (originally offered to Mia Farrow but eventually played by Kim Darby) is first seen as an elderly one-armed woman who recounts the tale of her youth and meeting with Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Wayne); a hard drinking man's man who saw her cause to victory. In re-conceptualizing the book as a John Wayne film, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts retained Mattie's narrative but jettisoned this flashback set up. Instead, events unfold from a fourteen year old Mattie's perspective - circa 1880 - after the murder of her father, Frank (John Pickard) by his hired hand, Tom Chaney (Jeff Chaney).

Mattie's introduction to Rooster is auspicious at best. Rooster only agrees to find Tom after learning of the $1,500 price on his head. Meanwhile, Chaney has aligned himself with Lucky Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall); a gang leader that Rooster once wounded in a gun fight.

Venturing into Indian territory, Rooster and Mattie are joined by La Boeuf (Glenn Campbell); a boastful Texas Ranger who develops an unrequited infatuation towards Mattie. Arriving at a seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods, the trio are ambushed by Moon (Dennis Hopper) and Quincy (Jeremy Slate); a pair of horse thieves doing business with Pepper and his posse. In a resulting argument Moon is stabbed by his partner, forcing Rooster to shoot Quincy.

Rooster next sets a trap for Pepper. But in the resulting chaos Pepper escapes. Having fallen down a steep ravine on her way to bathe, Mattie comes face to face with Chaney whom she wounds with her gun, much to his surprise. Pepper and his posse take Mattie hostage, but Rooster forces a showdown with Pepper and his men while Le Boeuf sneaks into the hills to kidnap Mattie.

Pepper surprises Le Boeuf however, beating him to death with a rock to the head. (In the novel, Le Boeuf survives this attack. In the film, he dies.) Pursued by Chaney, Mattie trips and falls into a rattle snake pit where she is bitten and breaks her arm. Having sleighed Pepper and his men in a rousing showdown of marksmanship on horseback, Rooster finishes off Chaney, but is forced to abandon Le Boeuf's body in order to save Mattie from her wounds. She is taken post haste to an Indian doctor who treats her bite and resets her arm in a cast. (In the novel, Mattie loses her arm.)

Days later Mattie's attorney, J. Noble Daggett (John Fiedler) arrives to pay Rooster the reward money for Chaney's capture, plus an additional $200 for saving Mattie whom we learn is gravely ill. Upon recovering from her snake bite, Mattie takes Rooster to her family's burial plot. Since Rooster has no family of his own, Mattie offers that when he dies he should find his final resting place next to her kin; an offer Rooster accepts with a sly wink and smile - declaring that he hopes the fulfillment of that promise will arrive 'none too soon'.

Filmed in Ouray County Colorado, True Grit maintained the novel's references to Arkansas and Oklahoma despite its obvious change of locale. Kim Darby's pert performance is compelling though somewhat stunted by the script that gives equal play time to Wayne's character. In the novel, Rooster Cogburn is simply a part of Mattie's narrative. In the film however he remains arguably - and occasionally awkwardly - its star. Wayne relished this role, cribbing from Wallace Beery for his inspiration. Despite changes made to the character's mannerisms and appearance, Rooster Cogburn proved so popular with fans that Wayne eventually reprised him in another western titled after his character in 1975.

Elmer Bernstein's score, though occasionally sweeping, is also more than vaguely reminiscent of his orchestrations for The Magnificent Seven (1960); a comparison only made possible with the advent of our present home video age. But True Grit is arguably no Magnificent Seven and the similarities in scoring promptly end there. In the final analysis, True Grit is solid entertainment, but it falls short of expectations both as a western and as a John Wayne western.

The same cannot be said for Paramount's new Blu-Ray release. True Grit gets the star treatment with an exemplary 1080p transfer that is mostly crisp, clean and full of vibrant imagery and fine detail. Intermittently, the transfer can look a tad softer than expected and there are also moments when the grain seems thicker than in ought to. These, however, are a minor quibbling on an otherwise impeccable offering from Paramount that deserves much praise. The audio is preserved as mono with a new 5.1 stereo mix also up for grabs. The music is the real benefactor but dialogue continues to sound strident as do effects.

Extras include several brief featurettes on the film, the script and the locations used during shooting. There's also the original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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