Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 33, Number 7. 27 May, 1970
It is not difficult to understand why True Grit has been disliked by so many filmgoers. In all senses the film is an anachronism, recalling a genre that reached its zenith with Shane and High Noon, staged a momentary and nostalgic comeback with Sam Peckinpah's Guns In The Afternoon, and has not been seen since, apart from a few not very notable exceptions and one or two good ones (for example, The Stalking Moon, El Dorado). The Italianate versions, whatever can be said about them as films, are but pale substitutes, as phony as hell, in fact, if one withes to recall the style and conventions of the great Westerns. Unless one is in tune with the traditional mainstream, True Grit is not likely to appeal at all. This is one of the reasons why the widespread antipathy saddens me, since it indicates a lack of acquaintance or sympathy with past glories, an insufficient appreciation of the seminal influences that have shaped the modern film. The other reason is that True Grit is a beautiful little work that can stand on its own feet without reference to its predecessors.
The most striking thing-about True Grit is the fact that it is so obviously and unashamedly 'old fashioned'. John Wayne wears his age heavily, and reminds us that he was acting in films before Spencer Tracy, dark Gable or Humphrey Bogart, all now dead. Mis presence brings to mind Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as the ageing Westerners in Guns' In The Afternoon. Lucien Ballard photographed Josef von Sternberg's Morocco in 1930, while director Henry Hathaway has been in the game since 1908. The film is assuredly old fashioned, in style, colour and morality. Yet this is an attractive quality, since there is attendant here a dignity and spirit which will not be blunted by the vagaries of our cynical age. Wayne's performance cannot possibly be the best of the year, as the Academy would have it, but he is excellent for all that, even in his more porcine moments. His politics and ultra-Americanism stink but this has never blinded me to the fact that in the right part he is a highly competent performer, possessing an innate (and necessary) sense of timing and understatement. His brief monologue recalling his family, for example, is perfectly done.
The Kim Derby character is initially rather unsettling. This sprite with her determined dogmatism does not wear well at first, seeming both in dialogue and behaviour to be stilted and artificial. Yet as time passes her presence convinces and misgivings are overcome. The fact that I can accept the last scene at her father's grave as genuine and oddly moving is a measure of the success of the performance and the way in which the character has been developed. Several of her exchanges are extremely amusing, especially those with the redoubtable Strother Martin, lately seen in both The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy. In fact the dialogue throughout (by Marguerite Roberts, faithfully adapting the book by Charles Portis) has a flavour and bite that is rare, with whimsy, unself conscious corniness, and verisimilitude each having its fair share. Glen Campbell is surprisingly effective, if a trifle smart, while Dennis Hopper gives a worthy display of on-screen hysterics.
Henry Hathaway doesn't have the vigorous technique of directors thirty years his junior, but his ability to unravel the narrative or portray a situation to maximum effect and with a minimum of fuss cannot be faulted. This facility he shares with other veterans like John Ford and Howard Hawks-their styles are subtle and exact, despite the absence of startling camera manipulation and frenetic editing, now very much a commonplace.
The colour photography hasn't got the sharp crispness we have come to expect from modern films. Ballard opts instead for the subdued, autumnal tones he used to beautifully in Guns In The
Afternoon, giving the film a visual redolence that matches the story and the characters in it. True Grit doesn't have the gut-wrenching impact of Midnight Cowboy or the technical and intellectual attributes of other masterpieces of the screen, but for all that it's still one of the most satisfying couple of hours I've spent in the last year. I'm wondering why I've only met one other person who thinks so.