Do You Need To See the Original ‘True Grit’ Before You See the Remake?


“True Grit” is not my favorite Coen Brothers film, but if it’s Coen that means it’s merited quality at the least. I am not a huge fan of westerns in general although I could point to some masterpieces. Most of those masterpieces were made between 1966-1971. In order of preference: “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), “Little Big Man” (1970), “The Wild Bunch” (1969), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966). I would also put Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” (1992) up there, for I’ll argue it retains the same late 1960’s moviemaking spirit.

But the question is, do you need to see the 1969 John Wayne version of “True Grit” before seeing the new one? I say no. Brace yourself, and get ready to collect yourself, before I make a hugely controversial statement: “The Searchers” (1956) with John Wayne is the most overrated “classic” ever made. There are cinephiles out there and then there are smart people out there that just casually look for good films – I will call them “real.” I don’t think real people of today not attuned to classics would think much of it. I don’t think real people not attuned to watching old films would ever give watching old films a chance again if they saw that one.

“The Searchers” is a racial conflict story that falls into discords of knockabout family squabble comedy and pedestrian romances between the younger cast in the second half, and is certainly not helped by the distraction that Natalie Wood has been under abduction for years and yet she somehow found a way to apply mascara to herself. If there is a John Wayne must-see it is “Red River” (1948) which is almost a masterpiece of losing your mind and family loyalty after being lost out on the range for ten years, only to be undone by the most spoiling, falsest final scene in movie history.

 According to the catalog of Academy Awards, Wayne won his Oscar for the 1969 “True Grit.” Wayne is convincing as a swaggering and gruff drunk and U.S. marshal headhunter, but is there any other way to play Rooster Cogburn? The role is written that way, swaggering and drunk. But in that same role, Jeff Bridges goes the extra mile in the remake. The consummate actor has a gravelly voice and ratchety body language – as if he had been run over by a horse wagon. But there is something more than just mileage within the character, as Bridges has this prickly sardonic humor that is propelled further by the juicy folksiness in the Coen’s script.

But Bridges versus Wayne is not the only comparison gauge to be made. Kim Darby as the young teen Mattie Ross is just a whiner (and coat hanger) in the original, while the bright new Hailee Steinfeld is a bona fide whippersnapper. This isn’t among my favorite of their films, as said, but the scene where Hailee negotiates a refund with a horse herder that is iconoclast Coen Brothers wit. The original had a simplified and middlebrow script that stuck to the familiars of the genre.


When it comes to conclusions the remake goes into much deeper thematic territory, considering on the way the events impact Mattie Ross’ life, and how they impact the rest of the way life is lived in the 19th century. Mattie is a character, at least in the remake, with too much gumption. She is told to stay home by the Marshal and the Texas Ranger (strappingly played by Matt Damon, much better too than the spaghetti brains of actor Glen Campbell), but Mattie charges forth too insistently. Darby’s Mattie had no authentic force to her, and so it was just as well that she was given a pat ending. The episodes that occur to Steinfeld’s Mattie have lasting power because we acknowledge the breadth, and fullness, of her life.

Did I also mention that the Coen’s, despite some uncharacteristic plodding, still nonetheless stir up evocative images that the original lacks? If you are of this generation you don’t need to look back into history to see a film that could spoil of what could be freshness of the new film. Only if you become a big fan of the remake and you got to see the disparities, then look at the old one second. But don’t even make time for that if you haven’t seen yet “McCabe” or “Once Upon a Time in the West,” etc. Time lost on not seeing these must-sees is lost value on your time. Reckon with the essentials first.

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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