Rat Lit! The Masterpiece True Grit (1969), and the Unbearable Awfulness of Native Son (1951)
True Grit (1969) and Native Son (1951) are both pictures in which the respective protagonists dispatch a rat. The former is a Western, set in Arkansas, circa 1870, while the latter is an racist, Communist, propaganda flick, set in Chicago, circa 1950. True Grit was shot in Colorado, while Native Son was shot in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
For reasons that shall become apparent, I’m going to segregate the sections.
Rooster Cogburn: “Mr. Rat, I have a writ here that says you are to stop eating Cheng Lee’s cornmeal forthwith. Now, it’s a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of same!
[To Mattie Ross] “See? He doesn’t pay any attention to me. [BANG! He shoots the rat.]
“You can’t serve papers on a rat, baby sister. You either kill him or let him be.
[Rooster’s Chinese cook and servant (not slave), Chen Lee, runs in from the kitchen, and yells angrily]: “Outside is place for shooting!”
Rooster Cogburn: “I’m servin’ some papers!...”
Rooster Cogburn: “Judge Parker. Old carpetbagger, but he knows his rats! We had a good court going on here ‘til them pettifogging lawyers moved in!
[Judge Parker was a real man, Judge Isaac C. Parker (1838-1896), a “hanging judge” in Arkansas’ Fort Smith. He sentenced 156 men and four women to hang, but actually hanged only 79 men and no women.]
Rooster, to Mattie Ross: “Corn dodger?”
Mattie: “No. It has [rat] blood on it.”
The first scene occurs as Mattie sits down with the drunken Rooster—Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn—to talk turkey about him hunting down Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), the farmhand who had worked for, and then murdered her father, Frank. Chaney is the quintessential White trash, although, come to think of it, there are several such characters in the story.
The second scene occurs during the night before the big gunfight, one of the greatest ever captured on film. It is technically a “didactic” (aka “exposition”) scene, in which we learn about Rooster, through his telling of humorous stories about his life on both sides of the law to Mattie, while they sit around a fire. However, if it is a didactic scene, it may be the greatest ever committed to film. Between Maggie Roberts’ scriptwriting and John Wayne’s acting, it is suffused with wit and warmth.
In conventional scriptwriting, good or bad, each scene anticipates future scenes. In the scene at the fire, Rooster recounts a moment of younger glory, when he faced and bested a posse, all by his lonesome. He also tells of his failures as a husband and father, a theme that recurred in his pictures, especially as he got older (most poetically in The Cowboys ).
True Grit has a marvelous script by Marguerite “Maggie” Roberts who, according to my chief of research, improved on Charles Portis’ eponymous novel, by cutting the endless, early court scene to its hilarious nub, and by writing the fade-out from scratch.
The language is wonderful, particularly in the court scene. Maggie Roberts bragged that her grandfather had been a pioneer in the general area, and thus that she’d grown up with the vernacular.
Rooster says of his estranged son, Horace, “A clumsier child you’ll never see. He must’ve broke 40 cup.”
The man who posted that scene on youtube commented that it was one of the reasons John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit.
The story revolves around the murder of Frank Ross by Tom Chaney, and the search by the victim’s teenaged daughter, Mattie, for vengeance, which she understands to be synonymous with justice. That’s the way the movie understands it, and that’s the way I understand it.
Mattie chooses Rooster, because the sheriff (John Doucette) assured her he has “grit,” is fearless, and won’t be terribly concerned about whether he brings in the bad man alive. However, she, a hard-working, God-fearing, blue-nosed Christian, comes to have all sorts of concerns about the drunken, smelly, Rooster’s morality.
True Grit was directed, up in Colorado, by Henry Hathaway (1898-1985), the last of six Wayne vehicles Hathaway would helm.
It has a dream cast: John Wayne, giving one of his grandest performances; Kim Darby; Glen Campbell (who was a talented actor, even if he found the work intimidating and never assayed another role); Robert Duvall; Strother Martin; Alfred Ryder, Jeff Corey; Jeremy Slate; Dennis Hopper; and the ubiquitous Hank Worden, whom I believe functioned as a good luck charm to Western directors on their sets.
Mattie Ross goes a-huntin’ for Tom Chaney with Rooster and La Boeuf, Campbell’s pretentious, Texas Ranger.
True Grit also has the most beautiful fade-out I’ve ever seen, written expressly for the picture by Roberts, and a lovely score (excepting the schmaltzy, opening version of the title song, as song by Glen Campbell) by Elmer Bernstein (“Bernstein West”).
What makes the fade-out so powerful is: 1. Bernstein’s beautiful version of “Rooster’s Theme,” which accompanies it; 2. The close-up of the old, ugly, 275 lb. (one-lunged) Wayne/Rooster taking his new horse over the fence (he’d ridden the old one to death, saving Mattie); and 3. The realization that Mattie is all that Rooster has in the world, and that, although she retains the fragments of a family, he is all she has left. She, who would not marry for marriage’s sake, has only known three men with grit: Her late father, Frank; Rooster, who by now functions as a guardian angel and honorary uncle, who not only avenged her father’s murder but saved her life; and La Boeuf, who not only saved her and Rooster’s lives, but saved the fat old man’s life a second time, “after he was dead.”
Which is to say that the picture’s a masterpiece. A lot of people wished that Wayne had retired after winning his Oscar for it, but John Wayne (1907-1979) was not a retiring man. As I recall him once saying, “I’m a fella that’s got to work.”
He had an Olympian work ethic, a bunch of wives and children to support, and felt obligated to also provide work for old cronies. Ultimately, for John Wayne/Duke Morrison, there was no life on Earth like that of a movie star, and he was and remains the brightest star the cosmos had ever seen.
I dragged out my discussion of True Grit, because watching it never fails to give me pleasure, and to forestall discussing the rat picture I recently saw on TCM, Native Son (1951), which was the dumbest, most pathetic picture I’ve yet seen from its period.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.