The backbone of American cinema. A crucial component in Italian cinema. An interesting part of Russian cinema. An incongruous lark in Japanese cinema. Horses and cowboys and Native Americans and outlaws.
Where does it fit these days?
True Grit proved to be a pretty big hit in 2010 and was a serious Academy Award contender. Joel and Ethan Coen could see greatness in a story that had already been adapted in 1969 (which netted John Wayne his only Oscar). It featured some great cinematography by Roger Deakins, and amazing acting from Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. (Josh Brolin was great, but barely in it. Matt Damon… was OK.)
The movie is a story of what “true grit” really means. Is it being such a hardass bounty hunter that none of the people you pursue come out alive? Is it charging at four men on horseback and coming out the victor? Or is it riding all night and pushing a horse past its limits to save one life? Or is it facing down disbelieving old men and projecting such authority that they have no choice but to treat you like an equal.
That final scene, when an older Mattie Ross looms over Reuben Cogburn’s grave, always sticks with me. Why did she take the body of a person she’d only known for a few days? A sense of obligation to the man who’d saved her life? Or was it that in that drunk broken man, she saw someone who was her spiritual equal? The only two people in the world with “true grit”?
What ever it was… that ending felt right.
Westerns are a little diminished from their 30’s to 60’s heyday, but they never went away. In fact, what they now lack in quantity, they may have made up for in quality. They remain Oscar winners (Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves) and cult favorites (Tombstone, Bone Tomahawk). They follow familiar beats (Silverado, Pale Rider, Open Range), are odd mash-ups with modern trends (Django Unchained, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Sukiyaki Western Django), and can be quiet and contemplative (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Jane Got A Gun).
They’re also broad and comedic (Shanghai Noon, Ridiculous Six, A Million Ways to Die in the West) and loud and misguided Hollywood blockbusters (The Lone Ranger, The Magnificent Seven, Jonah Hex). Not every Western is going to be an Academy Award nominee. It adds to the variety.
And I’m not even counting movies with obvious Western influences like No Country for Old Men, The Book of Eli, and Logan.
The thing about the Coens, Tarantino, and Mangold: I think we like to think of them as revisionist Westerns. In these cases, though, sometimes it feels like they’re reaching back to the gritty roots of Western tales before Hollywood decided to pretty it up.
Though the John Wayne version of True Grit did have the scene where the guy’s fingers got chopped off. Man, I did not expect that.
Today’s prompt: what’s your favorite Western made after 1980?