Produced at a time when many were flocking to see the harsh realism of Italian westerns, Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit' is a great mixture of authenticity, mixed with some of the classic motifs that idealized the American West. For one, the difference between the good guys and those nasty, no-good varmints is made pretty clear with one specific, decisive character trait. One wears the badge while the other doesn't. Granted, this is a rather blatant truism, but it's better than a worn-out cliché like the hero wearing a white hat while the bad guy is dressed in black. I'd like to think Hathaway does without such obvious color coding intentionally, aware that European westerns had changed the genre forever.
Then there are the other subtle aspects to the story which portray a slightly more realistic slice of life in the old west. The two villains show physical deformities so as to bring out the ugliness of their souls. A stock stereotype to be sure, but our hero — whom we meet long before the bad guys — isn't really any better looking. And he's not exactly the model of cordial society and high moral conduct either. No, he's an overweight, irritable old man with only one good eye and a serious drinking problem. Then we have a stubborn, heedless 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), on a quest to avenge the senseless murder of her father. Though naïve and immature, none of her behavior is lady-like or befitting her age, except maybe the anger and desire for retribution.
With a pocketful of money and her father's outdated gun in a sack, Mattie is determined to find help from someone with "true grit." Meaning someone with unflinching courage and the fortitude for what is right in spite of the dangerous risks — the genuine article. Who better to fill those shoes than John Wayne as U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn. Only, he's not exactly the spitting image of heroism. One of the beauties of 'True Grit' is how Hathaway takes advantage of Wayne — more the persona than the actor. By this time, the Duke was seen as a legend of the genre, and his performance as the drunk, quick-tempered lawman is mixed with our own notions of him. He's fearless, valiant and resolute. But combine that with his less than desirable traits, and he's an oddly sympathetic, affable individual, a character we like spending time with. The other twist is that he also needs some motivation for performing his duties.
In this world of gunslingers and murderous thieves, the pursuit of justice and upholding the law as lofty goals in themselves is not enough. True grit apparently comes with a price tag. Hard, cold cash is what really motivates the hearts of men and what gets the job done. For crooks — in real life as in the film — we already know this as a tried and true pattern. But even in honorable men like "Rooster" Cogburn and Texas Ranger Le Boeuf (Glen Campbell), money is the final incentive for tracking down outlaws and making them pay for any wrongdoing they might have committed. It's funny to see the only times when Wayne smiles or looks excited are at the mention of money and reward.
Although it doesn't quite live up to expectations, 'True Grit' is still one hell of a fun ride for fans of the genre. Adapted from the novel by Charles Portis, it also earned John Wayne his first and only Oscar for Best Actor in a career that had already spanned four decades. Personally, his portrayal as Ethan Edwards in 'The Searchers' is a worthier choice for such an honor. But it is what it is, and "Rooster" Cogburn is one of the Duke's finest and most memorable roles, along with terrific performances by Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. Hathaway also gives John Wayne one of the coolest shootouts seen on screen, showing he definitely has true grit. On horseback in a wide open field, gripping the reins in his teeth, holding a six-shooter in one hand and a Winchester rifle in the other. Four against one. Very cool.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit' to Blu-ray on a BD-50, Region Free disc. The blue eco-keepcase comes with an attractive, sepia-toned cover art featuring John Wayne with his rifle. At startup, the disc goes straight to the standard selection of menu options and a still image of the three main characters.
'True Grit' comes to Blu-ray with a satisfying and generally pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.85:1), a noticeable improvement over previous standard def versions. The video has definitely been digitally cleaned up some, but it's nothing too intrusive or distracting as a very thin layer of grain remains visible throughout.
Fine object details are attractive and discernible although they don't quite compare to some of the best catalog titles we've seen in the past. Still, textures in clothing are distinct and clear, and the picture displays great clarity and visibility of the beautiful Colorado landscape. There are a few scenes where resolution falters a tad, but overall, the transfer shows fairly good definition for a film already over 40-years-old. Contrast is spot-on, with crisp whites, and black levels are true and deep with strong shadow delineation. Colors are accurately and cleanly rendered with primaries being the brightest of the entire palette.
All things considered, this is a good-looking presentation for an entertaining Western.
Paramount Home Entertainment also includes a surprisingly engaging DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that does the film justice.
Dialogue reproduction is well-prioritized in the center of the screen and intelligible from beginning to end. Being a mono design, the entire track is located in the front channels and displays a welcoming and spacious soundstage, with attractive fidelity and acoustics. Channel separation is nicely balanced with the left and right speakers used only for some mild off-screen action, and the mid-range is sharp and cleanly delivered. There's no bass to speak of, but the lower frequencies — feeble as they are — are present for gunshots and to complement Elmer Bernstein's subtle musical score. Despite not using the surrounds, the lossless mix exhibits plenty of activity with the faint ambient sounds of the countryside.
All in all, 'True Grit' sounds excellent, as it should on Blu-ray.
Considering it's the only film to win John Wayne an Oscar, you'd think Paramount would have put a bit more effort into this Blu-ray edition of 'True Grit.' As it stands, it's a pretty good selection, but some new material would have been nice since this is the same assortment ported over from the Special Collector's Edition of 2007.
Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit' is a fun and entertaining western which earned John Wayne his first and only Academy Award for Best Actor. It's a great story that nicely blends American West idylls with a touch of realism in the "Rooster" Cogburn character, making it one of the Duke's most memorable performances. The Blu-ray shows a very good picture quality and an admirable audio presentation, but the supplemental package is on the weaker end. Overall, this Blu-ray edition of 'True Grit' is a worthy purchase for fans and a recommended rental for those itching for a good a western.