Hollywood’s Unique Western: True Grit (1969)
By Sabrina Desha
Henry Hathaway’s movie True Grit (1969), tells a story about teenage girl Mattie Ross’s strong will to find her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, and bring him to death for her father’s justice. To help with this mission she hires Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn to help her seek her revenge and by default Texas Ranger La Beouf joins in on the manhunt as well. True Grit is significant and should be recognized not only for its incredible cinematography and cast but for its underlying meaning about a young girl struggling to find acceptance and respect within a male dominated society. Within the film young Mattie constantly fights for her word and to be taken seriously in the revenge for her father’s death. It is not till later on that Rooster begins to show her the respect she deserves and becomes a father figure for Mattie. True Grit effectively represents issues of difference, power, and discrimination with many characters that are accurately represented through specific visual and audio techniques.
As a traditional John Wayne movie, True Grit is a classic western. The film was made during a time when westerns were very popular in Hollywood (Benshoff and Griffin 242). Lead male actor John Wayne’s character Rooster is represented as a straight able-bodied white male who has “True Grit” and carries traditional male cowboy traits. Supporting male actor Glen Campbell’s La Boeuf is also represented as a straight able-bodied white male with traditional cowboy traits. Interestingly lead actress Kim Darby, Mattie Ross, does not carry traditional western female traits, which is what makes this film so significant. Her character strays away from the traditional housewife feminine western cowgirl to an independent and strong-willed woman who would do something so manly as kill a man to avenge her father.
Encoded within the film difference is represented by the theme and main character. The theme of the movie is about a young girl seeking revenge for her father’s death, which is unlike any western Hollywood has created. Though there are few westerns that have a strong female as the main character, for example, Cat Ballou (1965), True Grit is particularly special for having a teenage girl as the main character. Not only is the theme of this film incorporating a lot of difference, but the main character herself represents the difference. Mattie’s character has significance for women in the film industry because she breaks all barriers. She not only avenges her father’s death but makes deals and bargains with multiple men who try to cheat her, along with taking care of the men she is traveling with. There is no doubt that Mattie Ross made an impact on the film industry and was so significant that it is still talked about today.
The movie was rebooted in 2010 with Hailee Steinfeld as our strong-willed lead Mattie Ross and carries her traits into the modern day. In the article, “Teen girls in film Showcase True Grit” published in the Los Angeles Times in 2011, the author elaborates on role shift in our young Mattie Ross. The author states, “She’s the product of a film industry in which young women are infiltrating traditionally male genres like action films; female directors and producers are wielding increasing creative influence, and the culture is moving from a sexed-up, dumbed-down model of female adolescence to one marked by smarts, strength and scrap” (Keegan).
Power could be the ultimate theme for this movie. In this film, the power or authority is centered around only white straight able-bodied men. Mattie, however, doesn’t care. All difference and discrimination aside, Mattie’s number one struggle throughout the movie is for acceptance and power. Since she is not only a teenager but a woman, Mattie is almost always overlooked in every scene with more than just Rooster. From finding out who killed her father, to selling her horses, Mattie is constantly being disrespected and struggling to be heard within a male dominating society. Rooster is the first character that starts to respect her within the film, but she is still struggling for power in the manhunt. The biggest representation of issues with power in the film is between La Boeuf and Mattie. Since Mattie had already hired Marshall, she did not want La Boeuf’s help and he went behind her back to talk to the marshall himself. In the scene where he tries to recruit the marshall, the dialogue is significant. Mattie is overlooked during the entire interaction and struggles to be heard due to the power of the men.
Discrimination is represented within this film directly with the main character Mattie. She is constantly battling discrimination with everyone in the town and the men she works with. Since Mattie is a young woman she is overlooked, sexualized, and discriminated against by many men. When she goes to sell her horses the dealer tries to cheat her and Mattie stands up for herself having a great significance on the film. The most discrimination Mattie receives is from La Boeuf. When they first meet he sexualizes Matties and talks about wanting to kiss her then later treats her like a little kid and spanks her for following them on their ride to find Mr. Chaney. Mattie’s discrimination for being a teenager is great representation as much as her being a woman.
Why did I choose this film? I chose to write about True Grit because it was truly life-changing for me to watch. I love the movies. I love movies that make you laugh, escape reality, and ultimately impact you to be a better version of yourself. Growing up I always felt like “one of the boys” and I always thought that was wrong and I needed to be more feminine. As an adult, I care less about being “one of the boys”, but watching this movie as an adult impacted me on a whole different level. I love this movie so much because it’s badass, and teaches young women to stand up for what you believe in and not let men influence your decisions. Mattie Ross inspired me to be a strong independent woman, and I think this film is important for young women to watch.
Though it might be old, True Grit is a milestone movie in Hollywood. With its incredible cast and cinematography, this film is one of my favorite movies. This movie is important for people to watch because it tells a wonderful story about a young girl struggling for her respect.
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011.
Keegan, Rebecca. Los Angeles Times, “Teen Girls in Film Showcase True Grit,” Jan 9, 2011. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2011-jan-09-la-et-0109-true-grit-girls-20110109-story.html