Saturday, July 2nd, 2011
The Coen brother’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name (True Grit) is a deep and dark revenge story about a young girl named Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel) who embarks on an uncompromising pursuit after her father’s killer – the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).
However, True Grit is also the story of two diametrically opposed lawmen who set out to hunt Chaney down in the Indian Territory – the hard drinking “one eyed fat man” US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the incessant talker of refined upbringing Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). Unlike the original True Grit movie, which earned John Wayne his only Oscar, the Coen brothers breezed past a lot of the underlying contention between Cogburn and LeBoeuf. So it’s worth revisiting to better understand their relationship within the narrative.
LeBoeuf and Cogburn had fought in the American Civil War for the Confederate Army. LeBoeuf’s war was that waged by the West Point trained officers who waged it with what they saw as honour, integrity and valour. Cogburn’s war was served under the guerrilla fighter William Quantrill who gained a Confederate commission as captain of partisan rangers. Quantrill, dead at 27 from a gunshot wound to the chest in an ambush, was reviled by the West Point officers for the barbarity of taking no prisoners, the murder of women and children and his propensity for hit-and-run raids. Quantrill’s men were responsible for the infamous Lawrence Massacre of 1863.
Notable real life outlaws who rode under Quantrill were Jesse James, Frank James, Cole Younger and Jim Younger. These were the breed of men that would have fought beside Rooster Cogburn only a decade earlier.
That explains the uneasy tension between the two men hunting Tom Chaney through the Indian Territory of the 1870s. The Civil War was recent history and a time of lawlessness as parts of America readjusted to the Union victory. The further contention between the men was LeBoeuf’s incessant talking and high handed attitude as a Texas Ranger. Even when LeBoeuf nearly bit his tongue off he found it impossible to hold silence.