For better or worse, there is no film genre more uniquely and distinctively American than the Western. It was one of the first genres to emerge during cinema’s early days and has been a part of our culture ever since. As our culture has evolved, so has the Western along with it. The early Westerns were relatively simple morality plays: A good guy with a white hat has to kill a bad guy with a black hat (the bad guy ALWAYS has a black hat). And one of the best examples of the early Western is “True Grit” (1969).
Like many good Westerns, the plot of “True Grit” is essentially a quest for revenge. Farmer Frank Ross is killed in a bar fight while trying to make some money for his family and his daughter Mattie (Kim Darby) means to have the murderer hanged if it’s the last thing she does. So Mattie puts together a posse to track the killer down: Federal Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne) and a Texas Ranger named La Beouf (Glen Campbell). Of course Mattie is stubbornly optimistic, La Beouf is her love interest and Rooster is an aging, drunken cynic. And the rest of “True Grit” plays out exactly as expected, with one slight exception near the end.
But the well-worn conventions of “True Grit” don’t make it any less of a film. On the contrary, the fact that director Henry Hathaway knew exactly what audiences were expecting from a John Wayne Western meant he knew exactly how to make the film appealing. As is the case with old jokes, the delivery counts more than the content.
And “True Grit” is the quintessential definition of a John Wayne Western. By this point in his career, Wayne had been so many movie cowboys that real cowboys were modeled themselves on him. Wayne has a presence on screen that nobody else in his day had, if for no other reason than that Wayne had defined what it was to be a hero for so long. He owns the role of Rooster, turning what could have been a thankless cliché performance into an iconic hero. He would earn an Oscar for his performance.
The best example of Wayne being Wayne takes place in the film’s last act. After the posse ends up in a bit of trouble, the bandits emerge from the forest into a clearing, where Rooster just so happens to be waiting for them. Rooster gives the standard “surrender or die,” speech, though the rifle already in his hand indicates his preferred option. The bandits have Rooster outnumbered, which they think is enough of an advantage. When it’s clear the bandits aren’t going anywhere, Wayne gets his Oscar moment.
“Fill your hands you son of a bitch!” Rooster shouts, then puts his reins in his teeth, grabs his guns and charges. The only word to describe this scene is exhilarating. The sight of Wayne charging head on into the fray is enough to drown out the rational part of your brain screaming that the fight is already a foregone conclusion because John Wayne is in it. But that’s part of what makes it cool.
Aside from Wayne, the other elements that make “True Grit” stand out are its supporting performances. As Mattie, Kim Darby gives a Western heroine some strength and courage, refreshing to see when so many female movie characters (especially in Westerns) are mindless, passive screamers. Mattie is stubborn to the point of obsession, but she also brings out the best in the rest of the posse. Glen Campbell is okay as the Ranger La Beouf, but the movie also gets a hand from the fresh-faced (at the time) Dennis Hopper and Robert Duval as two key bandits.
In stark contrast to the standard hero fare of “True Grit,” is Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” (1967). Though “True Grit” was made after “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” the former is one of the last of its kind while the latter is an example of the new wave of revisionist Westerns that emerged in the late 60s and 70s. As such, Sergio Leone is out to make something new instead of polishing something that’s been done before.
There are several marked stylistic differences between the two films. The first is a change in scenery. Classical Westerns were filmed on location in American landscapes, which meant all the scenes began to look alike after a while. Being from Italy, Sergio Leone filmed most of his movies on European locations, usually in Italy or Spain. As such, the outdoor shots are foreboding and menacing while still being spectacularly gorgeous.
Another difference between “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” and older Westerns is the characters that populate Leone’s film. There are no real heroes in Leone’s Westerns, especially not “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” While Clint Eastwood is the nameless protagonist of the film, he’s not exactly what one would call a paragon of virtue. Nor is he one for bold speeches or heroic endeavors. Eastwood spends most of the film glowering from underneath the brim of his hat, silently smoking his cigar and letting his gun talk for him. He’s who the viewer roots for because the film identifies him as “The Good” early on with a caption on screen.
The bounty hunter Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is designated as “The Bad” while the fast-talking bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach) is “The Ugly.” All three men are after a chest of gold buried in a grave in a distant cemetery. Each has a piece of the chest’s location, but none has all of it. The story revolves around each man’s attempt to beat the others to the gold and features all manner of uneasy alliances, double crosses and shoot outs while the US Civil War plays out around them.
While Eastwood ended up being the star of the film (it was his third “Spaghetti Western” with Leone) and would ride the wave of popularity that ensued to super-stardom, Van Cleef and Wallach give equally good performances in the film. Van Cleef is even more quiet, ruthless and glowering than Eastwood, and Wallach perfectly pulls off his portrayal of Tuco as someone’s who in way over his head. Eastwood and Van Cleef stare unblinkingly at whatever happens to them while Wallach nervously shifts his gaze back and forth, uncertain as to whether he’ll survive the next encounter.
While the cast is solid all around in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” it’s a director’s film more than it is an actor’s film ala “True Grit.” Leone went to painstaking detail to recreate his historical setting as accurately as possible. The towns look dusty and dingy, and every building seems to creak and moan in the wind. The actors are always drenched in sweat and grime, which makes their fearsome stares that much grittier. The shoot outs are short and intense, but the buildup to them is agonizingly suspenseful. Tying all of this together is the musical score from Ennio Morricone, which fit the tone of every scene as if Leone based the action on the music, not the other way around. Leone newbies will instantly recognize the film’s main theme, as it has been recycled and parodied so many times since the film’s release.
The final duel between the three title characters is Leone working at his finest. The three men separate and circle each other slowly, wolves circling their prey. Then the music kicks in, heightening the tension as they stare each other down and wait for a hint of movement. There are lingering close ups of guns, faces, hands and eyes, all drawn out to let the detail and atmosphere saturate the screen and the viewer. The cuts come faster, the tension is thick enough to stop an axe, and then suddenly…it’s all over.
With “True Grit” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” John Wayne and Sergio Leone gave us two example of the Western at its finest. It’s somewhat ironic then that the Western appears to be a dying breed. Though the genre got a bit of a boost in recent years with releases like “3:10 To Yuma,” “The Assassination of Jesse James,” and “Appaloosa,” the Western seems to going the way of the musical as something people just don’t want anymore.
Let’s hope the cowboys haven’t ridden off into the sunset for the last time.
Contact CU Independent Entertainment Editor Rob Ryan at Rryan@colorado.edu.