The American West as myth is far more powerful than its historical reality. The period of American history that has spawned thousands of films, TV series and books lasted less than 40 years at the end of the 19th century. If the reality of the pioneering spirit of the early settlers runs deep in the American psyche it is the mythology created around this period first by Hollywood and then by the TV networks, that has reached out to every part of the globe through the creation of the unique cinematic genre that is the Western.
As a dramatic context within which to present and explore the moral beliefs and sensibilities of an ethnically diverse nation, the rural wilderness of the Western has been largely superseded for 20 years or more by the Police Thriller, the urban cop: in movies and especially TV. Both have latterly, often been re-invented and transplanted into outer space. The perfect example for me is Avatar, which seeks to re-mythologise an old and harmful myth into a new prettified one, just as false, just as patronizing and perpetuating the harm. But that’s another story.
I mention this background because the Cohen brothers have said that their True Grit is not intended as a ‘re-make’ of the Henry Hathaway, John Wayne movie that won an Oscar for Wayne in 1970. This is clear from both the language their characters use and the earthy realism of their portrayal of the society within which the action takes place. Wayne’s movie was firmly within the mythological tradition up to and including the conflation of actor with role that he perfectly represented. And if we are tempted to underestimate the power of myth just think how Wayne and Charlton Heston after him both represented a powerful strand of the way many Americans thought of themselves. They were accorded a political influence and social respect totally out of keeping with the scope of their actual achievements.
The 1970 movie had good credentials: Hathaway was highly respected and made over 100 films; Robert Duvall was Ned Pepper, Dennis Hopper, Moon, Glen Campbell Le Boeuf; while the 22 year-old Kim Darby in a role Wayne wanted singer Karen Carpenter to read for, had a good 8 years on Haillee Steinfeld the Cohen’s nod to casting literalism.
Hathaway had no message: he told a rattlin’ good yarn conflating the Wayne/Cogburn personas perfectly. His film was the pure mythology of the West: when the chips are down confronting evil and wrongdoing will finally rest in the hands, and guns of a Wayne, a Cooper, or a Stewart et al. The segue from this eternal verity in the rural West to an urban landscape is perfectly represented by Eastwood’s Harry Callaghan. In fact with True Grit Hathaway traced the perfect Hollywood circle: to mythologize a fcitional character in a way that transformed the open-ended power of mythology back to create a quasi-legendary portrait with by definition no historical truth to sustain it. We see the same move again and again with real historical characters from Billy The Kid to Jesse James; Wyatt Earp to Doc Holliday. The psyche of many Americans needs their myths to be real, to be true. And Hollywood was the cultural factory to turn myths and dreams into a reality all would conspire to believe in – because simpler, more comfortable, more idealistic, than the complex, more disturbing reality around them.
Over decades the cinemagoer was ‘indoctrinated’ in this tradition: we understood its grammar and were attracted to its simplistic verities. So this is a powerful dramatic force the Cohens have discarded in their pursuit of realism: in language, dress, manners, social practices etc. And this has two problems for their film: the puritan-based language though having a special cadence, even musicality, sounds a bit forced and worse it slows some scenes down. I can understand that both Bridges’ Cogburn and Matt Damon’s La Boeuf are supposed to be men of few words but if the few they do utter are so deliberate and carefully phrased one is a little tempted to feel – get on with it! Also the trick with being a man of few words is to be able to convey the sense that you choose to say little; not that you have little to say. As Steve McQueen once famously said: “feel as much as possible – show as little as possible”.
The second problem for the Cohen’s historical approach is deeper. They don’t appear to have realized what a minefield trying to be historically accurate is. OK, they carefully note the dress and spurs and rudimentary sewerage; mention some arcane facts about rifles; give us a glimpse into the implied horrors of frontier dentistry etc. But both Hathaway’s mythology and the Cohens’ historical realism share one fundamental flaw: both are irreducibly and selectively white: in their portrayal of society and the moral tone they adopt to it. In their moral sensibility. As I recall there are virtually no black people in True Grit; certainly no black characters. And their dramatic use of the few token Indians is objectionable and for the dramatic affect sought, not accidental, requires first a racist understanding and then a racist sensibility.
Big claims. Needing justification. Two different scenes. Early on when Mattie arrives to pick up her father’s body and seek out a champion to avenge him, we see a public hanging: two whites and an Indian. Each of the two white men is offered a few last words: one gives a defiant “it wasn’t my fault and I don’t care anyway” and is hooded; the second whines and snivels for a couple of minutes and then he is hooded. Then the Indian begins “before you hang me….” at which point he is hooded in mid-word, unheard: response from the audience – laughter. Ho ho – what a sight gag. So what does it take to find this funny? Well the mythology mentioned above has prepared us perfectly for it: Indians don’t count, speak in funny monosyllables, how could an Indian have anything worth listening to etc?
I know I’ll get stick for this: oh God Zettel, aren’t you taking this little thing too seriously? Well you see that’s precisely the Cohen’s fault: I didn’t look to any pompous historical reality or naturalism from a Hathaway/Wayne movie: I knew the game: white good, red bad, and black invisible. And to our collective white shame we accepted this nonsense for far too long. This hanging scene can only be there for two reasons – to get a laugh out of the sight gag and provide three fresh cadavers to reinforce Mattie’s pluckiness in sleeping free in the funeral parlour overnight. I’ll believe the essential racism of the sight gag was unwitting but it is none-the-less objectionable for all that.
Not content with the racist roots of the hanging sight gag; so help me they do it again. Off on their curiously leisurely pursuit of Mattie’s dad’s killer, Brolin’s Tom Cheyney, Cogburn and La Boeuf stop at a shack with two Indian children sitting on the stoop. Cogburn kicks one of the kids off the stoop on the way in and repeats the process on the way out. The audience in my cinema liked this sight gag even better than the hanging Injun’ one earlier. Trivial? Meaningless? Well let’s suppose they’d been say the kids of the Sheriff or the Mayor? It would have seemed a weird thing to do. We wouldn’t have understood what it was there for. It wouldn’t have been so funny. And in 2011, why do you suppose they wouldn’t have cast the kids as black?
This isn’t about political correctness or sensitivity – I wouldn’t expect either from the Cohens: it’s about artistically deliberately exploiting a racist mythology and playing to it to generate gratuitous sight gags that contribute nothing to the narrative except encourage our perception of Cogburn as a crusty old reprobate who is deep down a right-thinking hero.
If they wanted historical realism in these two scenes the Cohens would have had to convey the sense of total racial contempt and indifference for an indigenous people reduced by slaughter and disease from Columbus to dear old Cogburn’s boot from 12million to 240,000 – a 95% decline. Mine the light hearted humour out that ‘reality’ gentlemen.
It is disappointing to find that 40 year’s on from Wayne’s phoney mythology two talented directors apparently seeking a realistic historical setting should so carelessly perpetuate the worst myth of all – for cheap laughs.
In movie terms it is even more disturbing that this slightly ponderous, slow-moving, admittedly beautifully shot, slice of nostalgic Americana, given a few flips of Cohen cool, has amassed 10 Academy Award nominations. I thought Jeff Bridges a deserving winner last year for Crazy Heart: an Oscar for his Cogburn would devalue both.
Haillee Steinfeld is charmingly precocious and Matt Damon is sort of OK as a taciturn Texas Ranger. But the villains all lack any juice to give the narrative any real emotional drive. Brolin’s Chaney seems about as threatening as Gene Wilder with a beard and as evil as a bent tax accountant. Dennis Hopper’s off-the-wall Moon is replaced by a little guy running about giggling a lot.
The movie lacks pace almost to the end: the pursuit is like an afternoon stroll with the clues as to which way to go as subtle as an empty whiskey bottle on a tree. Even this pedestrial ramble is interrupted for about 10 minutes by a scene with a guy hanging in a tree, a dentist in a bearskin and an Indian who buys and sells bodies. I have no idea what this scene is for: it has nothing to do with the ‘hot’ pursuit of Chaney.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is so good it is almost aesthetic overkill in that it gives this plodding movie a visual tone and graphic resonance the screenplay, the characters and the narrative drive of the movie cannot begin to live up to.
The decline of the Western genre for those of us who lived through it was extraordinarily fast. One clue to this I think may be signalled by a film released in the same year as Wayne’s True Grit – Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue which for the first time showed the brutal reality of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre where the US Cavalry exterminated a peaceful Indian village: men women and children.
This iconic movie was virtually unseen in the US at the time with a largely unheard title song by Native American singer and activist Buffy Sainte Marie whose protest songs were banned from radio under the Johnson administration. This was a reality too far for the American psyche but as the truth rather than the myth of their own history began to receive more attention the false mythology of the Western had to re-locate. Where better than an idealized urban police force: a setting with the added bonus of loads of black characters.
So every now and then someone tries to resolve these uncomfortable contradictions between an all-powerful, deeply loved but utterly false mythology and the brutal, largely shameful reality of the ‘Western’ historical period. But most have relied on comedy pastiche or like this True Grit, a kind of nostalgic lament.
You don’t need to know anything about American history to enjoy True Grit: indeed it’s better not to know anything of American history to enjoy True Grit.
And the indigenous people of North America still await a film that does not falsify their history; patronize and misunderstand their culture; and does justice to a profound spiritual connection to the natural world that for all our science, technology and philosophical analysis, we are only just beginning to understand.
The competing visions of American civilization are stark: the one – that the power of the law in the final analysis rests upon the heroic individualism represented by the Rooster Cogburns, the Wyatt Earps, the Harry Callaghans and their indispensable tool – the gun. The second: that the power of the law lies in the free consent to the wisdom of the Constitution and its practical expression – the due process of law. An extraordinarily large proportion of American movies and TV series wrestle with this dilemma: merely the latest of which is the new Sky Atlantic series Blue Bloods.
One of the many tragedies to befall the First American people was that they placed their trust in the second of these conflicting visions: that the Constitution and the impartial due process of law would guarantee the endless promises made to them: all reneged upon. As Chief Red Cloud famously said:
“The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember, but he never kept but one: he promised to take our land – and he took it.”