National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
True Grit

True Grit

by Charles Portis

I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task.


The Life and Times of Charles Portis

1870s
Mark Twain publishes Roughing It, 1872.
Judge Isaac Parker, the "Hanging Judge," oversees the first of 79 executions during his tenure in the U.S. Court for the Western District of Arkansas, 1875.
George Armstrong Custer's troops routed by Lakota and Cheyenne fighters on the Little Bighorn River in Custer's Last Stand, 1876.

1880s–1890s
Jesse James shot and killed, 1882.
President Benjamin Harrison authorizes claims on Indian Territory land for white settlement, 1889.
Buffalo population on the Western plains reduced from 30 million to fewer than one thousand, 1890.

1900s–1910s
Owen Wister publishes The Virginian, a novel romanticizing 1870s cowboy life in Wyoming cattle country, 1902.
Oklahoma enters the Union, 1907; Arizona and New Mexico follow, 1912.

1920s–1930s
Charles Portis born in south Arkansas, 1933.
John Ford directs Stagecoach, his first Western to use sound, starring John Wayne, 1939.

1940s–1950s
Portis's great–grandfather Alexander Waddell, who fought for the South in the Civil War, dies at age 99, 1946.
Shane, starring Alan Ladd as a taciturn gunslinger, released, 1953.
Portis serves as a Marine in the Korean War, graduates from the University of Arkansas with a degree in journalism, 1958.

1960s
Portis works for the New York Herald Tribune, rising to London bureau chief, 1964.
True Grit published, after being serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, 1968.
John Wayne stars in the film version of True Grit, for which he receives his only Oscar, 1969.

1970s–1990s
Unforgiven, a Western starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, wins four Oscars, including Best Picture, 1992.
Esquire magazine essay on Portis inspires The Overlook Press to reissue Portis's out–of–print novels, 1998.

2000s
The Coen brothers' version of True Grit released, 2010.
Two decades after Portis's last novel, Escape Velocity published, 2012.

The Western Film and True Grit

As a genre, the Western film dates to the earliest days of the medium itself. According to cinema historian Gerald Mast, The Great Train Robbery (1903) was the single most popular film in moviemaking's first two decades. Its final frame of a gunslinger pointing his weapon directly at the viewer and firing shocked audiences in its day. Up until the 1930s, the Western, and primarily silent Westerns, thrived largely as simple, pulpy action tales that set up archetypal characters and landscapes.

Early Western films evoke "vast western vistas and the dignity of the good–bad men who inhabit these spaces," as Mast writes in A Short History of the Movies. The one film that did more than any other to change the genre from mere entertainment to cinematic art was John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Starring John Wayne in his first major role, it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two.

Ford became the preeminent director of Westerns for the next fifteen years and Wayne the biggest star; they collaborated on classics like Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956), which the American Film Institute has named the best Western of all time. Ford and other directors explored themes of courage, human decency, and written versus individual law. As critic Robert Warshow wrote in 1954, "The Westerner is the last gentleman, and the movies which over and over again tell his story are probably the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength."

In the 1960s, consistent with the counterculture of the time, Westerns became more morally ambiguous, glorifying the outlaws in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and portraying graphic violence in The Wild Bunch, both from 1969.

That same year, Henry Hathaway directed 62–year–old John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the film version of True Grit, which earned Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar. Compared with other Westerns in the late 1960s, True Grit had a more traditional feel. Nevertheless, it was very popular and ranked among the ten top–grossing films of the year. Fans of the book complained that Kim Darby was too old for the part of Mattie Ross, and that country singer (and Arkansas native) Glen Campbell, playing LaBoeuf, was too green an actor. The film did stick largely to the plot and structure of the book; Portis said that in the couple of days he spent on set he noticed Hathaway often referring to a marked–up copy of the book. Portis also observed that the actors "had trouble speaking the (intentionally) stiff dialogue." Although he did not write the screenplay, he did write the final scene in the film in which Mattie and Rooster talk in her family's graveyard before he mounts his horse, jumps a fence, and rides away.

In 2010, Joel and Ethan Coen directed a second version of True Grit, also extremely popular and award–winning, earning ten Oscar nominations. Starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (who was actually fourteen during filming) as Mattie, it was praised as a more "faithful" remake, mainly in that Steinfeld's Mattie was more true to the forceful adolescent of the book and the actors skillfully mastered dialogue that was often taken verbatim from Portis's scenes.

Whatever the flaws or faithfulness of the two versions, their popular success, forty years apart, affirms the timeless quality of the source material and the enduring appeal of the genre.

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