Sunday, December 19, 2010

Don't Make a Scene: True Grit

The Set-Up: It's mentioned earlier in the script—how Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn, alone, faced down several gunmen on horse-back, by taking his horse's reins in his teeth and firing on the opponents with both hands.  It is assumed it is hyperbole, bold talk from a one-eyed fat man.  But, in this scene, from the original version of True Grit (the Coen Brothers' version, starring Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, opens Wednesday) it is revealed as truth.

Cogburn really is that crazy.

And that capable.  John Wayne won a long-deserved Oscar for the role; he's been better in other movies, but it was always assumed he was just "playing John Wayne."  Cogburn was enough of a character, with shades of the Wayne persona mussed up and made sloppy, that the Hollywood crowd could look at this and say "well, that's different."  They couldn't deny his comic timing when it was needed, and the still stalwartness when it wasn't.  Cogburn's a little arch, the language (from Charles Portis' sepia-toned novel) a bit flowery and precise, but bigger than life—it's entirely appropriate that director Hathaway stages this gladiatorial gun-play in the natural amphitheater of a forest glade, not far removed from the round Spanish ruins that framed the gun-duels of director Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns."

This scene also contains one of my favorite Wayne lines—not found in Portis' book, but the rest of the dialogue is his—the relief-expelling laugh line, bordering on camp: "Damn you, Bo" says Wayne's Cogburn to his beloved fallen horse.  "First time ya ever gave me reason ta...cuss ya."  It's a little precious, but leavened somewhat by Wayne's regret-filled reading.  It's the sort of line you'd expect John Wayne to say—the mythical Wayne—if he'd been allowed the vice of cursing.

Love this scene.  And I can't wait to see the Coen variation.

The Scene:  The motley posse formed to bring in the killer of a "little" Texas Senator and the father of young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) is "in a bad way:" Mattie has been captured by the gang the hapless gunman Tom Chaney, nee Chelmsford (Jeff Corey) has partnered with.  Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell) has rescued Mattie, who the two lawman had supposedly abandoned. 

But, it was just a feint.  They've split off, the Ranger tasked to rescue the girl, while Marshall Cogburn (Wayne) confronts his real prize, the gang of "Lucky" Ned Pepper (a pre-Godfather stardom Robert Duvall)


Dialogue is from the movie; the "descriptions" from the classic book(in the voice of Mattie Ross)© 1968 by Charles Portis.

"No sooner had we taken up our vigil then we were rewarded with the sight of Lucky Ned Pepper and the other three bandits emerging from the trees into the meadow.  There they mounted their horses and headed them west, away from us."

"They had hardly started their ride when a lone horseman came out of the brush at the western end of the field.  The horse was walking and the rider took him out to the middle of the open space and stopped, so as to block the passage of the four desperadoes."

"Yes, it was Rooster Cogburn! The bandits checked up and faced him from seventy or eighty yeards' distance.  Rooster had one of the navy revolvers in his left hand and he held the reins in his right hand."


"LUCKY" NED PEPPER: She was in wonderful health the last I saw her. I can't answer for her now.

ROOSTER: You'll answer for her now. Where is she?

LA BOEUF: Rooster! Make a run for it! I got Mattie. Chaney, too!

"The bandits turned to look up at us and no doubt they were surprised and not a little disconcerted by the interesting development.  Rooster made no reply to us and gave no sign of leaving the place."

"LUCKY" NED: Well, Rooster...

"LUCKY" NED: Will you give us the road? I have business elsewhere.

ROOSTER: Farrell, you and your brother stand clear.

ROOSTER: I got no interest in you today. Stand clear, you won't get hurt.

FARRELL: Cock-a-doodle-doo!

"LUCKY" NED: What's your intention? You think one on four's a dogfall?

ROOSTER: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience.

ROOSTER: Which will it be?

"LUCKY" NED: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!

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

"...and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of the strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits."

"It was a sight to see."

"He held the revolvers wide on either side of the head of the plunging steed."

"The four bandits accepted the challenge and they likewise pulled their arms and charged their ponies ahead."

MATTIE ROSS: Shoot them!
LA BOEUF: It's too far, they're moving too fast.

"It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshall whose manliness and grit I had doubted."

MATTIE ROSS: No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!

"I believe the bandits began firing their weapons first, although the din and smoke was of such a sudden, general nature that I cannot be sure.  I do know that the marshall rode for them in so determined and unwavering a course that the bandits broke their 'line' ere he reached them and raced through them, his revolvers blazing, and he not aiming with the sights but only pointing the barrels and snapping his head from side to side to bring his good eye into play."

"Harold Parmalee was the first to go down.  He flung his shotgun in the air and clutched at his neck and was thrown backward over the rump of his horse."

"The Original Greaser Bob rode wider than the others and he lay flat on his horse and escaped clear with his winnings." 

"Farrell Parmalee was hit and a moment later his horse went down with a broken leg and Farrel was dashed violently foward to his death."
"We thought that Rooster had come through the ordeal with no injury, but in fact he had caught several shotgun pellets in his face and shoulders, and his horse Bo was mortally struck.  When Rooster attempted to rein up with his teeth and turn to resume the attack, the big horse fell to the side and Rooster under him."

"The field now remained to one ride and that was Lucky Ned Pepper.  He wheeled his horse about.  His left arm hung limp and useless, but he yet held a revolver in his right hand."

"Rooster had lost his big revolvers in the fall and he was struggling to pull his belt gun which was trapped to the ground under the weight of horse and rider."

"Lucky Ned Pepper nudged his pony foward in a trot and he bore down on the helpless officer."

"LUCKY" NED: Well, Rooster...I'm shot to pieces.

"LaBoeuf quickly stirred beside me and assumed a sitting position with the Sharps rifle, his elbows locked against his knees.  He took only a second to draw a bead and fire the powerful gun."

"The ball flew to its mark like a martin to his gourd and Lucky Ned Pepper fell dead in his saddle."

"The horse reared and the body of the bandit was thrown clear and the horse fled in panic.  The distance covered by LaBoeuf's wonderful shot at the moving rider was over six hundred yards.  I am prepared to swear an affadavit to it."

MATTIE ROSS: Hurray for the man from Texas! Some bully shot!

ROOSTER: Damn you, Bo.

ROOSTER: First time you ever give me reason t'... cuss you!

True Grit

Words by Marguerite Roberts (and Charles Portis)

Pictures by Lucien Ballard and Henry Hathaway

True Grit is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

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