Shootout at the 'True Grit' corral: Which film wins?

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By By Mark Blankenship

The two versions of "True Grit" are like Athens, Greece, and Athens, Georgia: They've got the same name, but they're in totally different worlds.

Yet for all their differences, both Westerns found plenty of fans and got plenty of Oscar attention. John Wayne was named Best Actor for the 1969 original, and the 2010 remake, directed by the Coen brothers, competes for 10 Oscars on Feb. 27, including Best Picture and Best Director.

So which movie is better? Take a look at these comparisons and decide which version you think is the truest … and the grittiest.

Rooster Cogburn (The U.S. Marshall)
1969:
  In Charles Portis' 1968 Wild West novel, Rooster Cogburn is a one-eyed, overweight lawman who ain't takin' any guff. In the 1969 film, he's John Wayne. Always more of an icon than an actor, Wayne uses his drawl and his swagger to make Rooster a classic movie cowboy. When we meet him, he's hauling bad guys to jail, and in the last scene, he jumps his horse over a fence and rides into the sunset. He might be an ornery old cuss, but in Wayne's hands, Rooster Cogburn is an American hero.

2010: When the Coens introduce Rooster in the new movie, he's locked in an outhouse, shouting that he wants to be left alone. For the rest of the movie, he's always caught with his pants down, stumbling into dangerous situations and somehow shooting himself out of them. But thanks to strong writing and a gruffly sweet performance by Jeff Bridges, Rooster is more than a joke. He's part of an outlaw world that's disappearing. Sometimes, that makes him a fool, and sometimes, it makes him a lost soul with a bruised heart.

Advantage: 1969. Bridges is the better actor, and he's working with a better script, but he can't overshadow one of the Duke's most iconic roles.

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The violence
1969:
Not to sound prudish, but this movie's awfully violent for something you'd see on TCM. There are severed fingers flying, punches getting thrown, and one darkly funny scene where John Wayne threatens to make a scofflaw eat turkey feathers. But that said, there's not a lot of gore. The film's violence isn't supposed to seem real. It's supposed to make this yarn more exciting.

2010: The Coens use a similar approach. We see the aftermath of fighting — a bullet hole in a jacket, blood spatter on a beard — but when it comes to the actual fight, the camera pulls away, letting the movie focus on story and character instead of brutality. There is one exception, though. Mattie goes to a hanging in both films, and in the first, we only see the prisoners standing with hoods on their heads. In the new version, we see their faces first. We hear them pleading or cursing or singing before they die. Knowing the men, even a little, adds the sting of reality to their punishment.

Advantage: Draw. Both movies do a great job of using violence to forward the mood of the story.

Mattie Ross (The girl)
1969: Mattie Ross may be just 14, but after a lout named Tom Chaney kills her father, she wants vengeance. She hires Rooster to track Chaney down and has the nerve to join him, but in the 1969 movie, she also sneaks away to cry.

(Left) Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn playe by John Wayne and Mattie Ross played by Kim Darby in 1969' True Grit' (R) Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in the 2010 version.

Kim Darby's terrified eyes say that for all her sass, Mattie's a little girl. When she retrieves her daddy's things, she cradles his pocket watch and weeps. We're reminded how vulnerable she is.

2010: The new Mattie looks at her father's watch, but she grabs his gun instead. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Hailee Steinfeld makes the character a no-nonsense kid who can outsmart adults and tame wild horses. The Coens clearly believe in her: Just like the book, Mattie narrates the film, and we learn to see the characters through her eyes. You get the impression that if this Mattie met the original, she'd pop her in the mouth.

Advantage: 2010. Hailee Steinfeld is so good that some pundits are predicting she'll be an upset winner for Best Supporting Actress. Kim Darby is fine, but her performance isn't award-worthy.

LaBoeuf (The Texas Ranger)
1969:
LaBoeuf is just along for the ride. Sure, he's been hunting Chaney longer than Rooster and Mattie, and sure, he's got years of experience as a Texas Ranger, but once he joins them on their quest, he mostly reacts to their shenanigans.

(Top, L-R) Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn, played by John Wayne and La Boeuf played by Glen Campbell in the 1969 movie, 'True Grit.

He's supposed to be the movie's heartthrob, but country singer Glen Campbell, in his acting debut, never seems comfortable with his co-stars or his Texas accent. And his last scene proves that once the main characters are safe, the movie doesn't need LaBoeuf anymore. Poor guy.

2010: Matt Damon's performance feels too modern — would a 19th-century Ranger be that sarcastic? — but he makes LaBoeuf seem witty and vain, and a little dangerous.

When he meets Mattie, for instance, he's sitting in her room, watching her sleep. It's hard to know if she should trust him. By the end of the film, the Coens make him even more complex. He's a hero in two fight scenes, and when it counts, he's a loyal friend to the girl he scared awake.

Advantage: 2010. The Coens make LaBoeuf a character worth loving, not just a Ridealong Cassidy.

The humor
1969:
"True Grit" is a great novel because it balances death and revenge with charming characters and lighthearted comedy. Both movies understand that. In the original, the jokes are pure comic relief. When Rooster recalls "borrowing" money from a bank in New Mexico, Mattie says that sounds like stealing. "That's the position them New Mexicans took," he brays. "I had to flee for my life!" We're supposed to laugh along with Wayne, slapping our knees and saying, "Oh, that old so-and-so!"

2010: Every laugh in the new film has a dark side. There's a funny bit where Rooster and LaBoeuf throw corn cakes in the air and try to shoot them. Rooster gets frustrated because he keeps missing, and he's hilarious as he sputters and hollers. But he's also drunk. We're laughing at his expense, which never happens with Wayne.

Advantage: 2010. The new film's complex humor is much more satisfying than a night at John Wayne's Ha-Ha Factory.

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The music
1969:
The original "True Grit" is 20 minutes longer than the new one, and that's mostly because there are so many scenes of John Wayne riding through the countryside to Elmer Bernstein's rousing score. The music and the landscape are both so majestic that you expect two bald eagles to fly down with a banner in their mouths that says, "Visit Montana!"

2010: Bernstein's score wouldn't be appropriate for the newer, darker film, of course, and Carter Burwell's string-heavy music, which ranges from mournful to ominous, suits the Coens' style. Still, it's hard not to love the old-time fanfare. It's enough to make you want to be a cowboy, just like John Wayne.

Advantage: 1969. It's Bernstein! He's a legend for a reason.

And the winner is ... 2010. The original "True Grit" captures John Wayne's appeal, and despite its deviations from the novel, it tells a ripping good story. Still, it's awfully hokey, some of the acting is atrocious, and since it was released in the same year as "Midnight Cowboy" and "Easy Rider," it was old-fashioned way back in 1969. The new film might look dated in 40 years, too, but right now, it plays like a smart and subtle Western that's  fun to watch. The Coen brothers deserve a tip of the cowboy hat.

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