Mr. Hathaway’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense approach to moviemaking has never been more effective, since he simply refuses to take the time to acknowledge the sentimentality in which the movie is really awash.
Equally important is the work of Lucien Ballard, the cinematographer whose career started over forty years ago and has embraced everything from the Dietrich-Von Sternberg Morocco and The Devil Is a Woman to the current The Wild Bunch. Anyone interested in what good cinematography means can compare Ballard’s totally different contributions to The Wild Bunch and True Grit. In The Wild Bunch, camera work is hard and bleak and largely unsentimental. The images of True Grit are as romantic and autumnal as its landscapes, which, in the course of the story, turn with the season from the colors of autumn to the white of winter.
After The Green Berets, I never thought I’d be able to take John Wayne seriously again. The curious thing about True Grit is that although he still is playing a variation on the self-assured serviceman he has played so many times in the past, the character that seemed grotesque in Vietnam fits into this frontier landscape, emotionally—and perhaps politically too.
It’s the kind of performance that I found myself beginning to remember quite fondly, even before the movie was over: Wayne riding the trail of gomovies the outlaw and getting increasingly, pleasantly drunk, finally falling off his horse and announcing to his party that that is where they’ll camp for the night. There is a classic shoot-out in which the one-eyed marshal faces four outlaws, riding to meet them across a pastel-colored meadow, holding the reins of his horse in his teeth and shooting with both hands.
The last scene in the movie is so fine it will probably become Wayne’s cinematic epitaph.
I was not particularly taken with Kim Darby, who is rather large and well-developed (both physically and as an actress) to be completely convincing as the fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross. Even her obvious, glossy professionalism is not entirely out of key with the Hollywood heritage. Glen Campbell, the country-and-western singer, is very pleasant as La Boeuf (which he pronounces “La Beef”), the Texas ranger who joins forces with Wayne and Miss Darby.
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