Every once in a while PBS makes the tax dollars I and the rest of the American public spend on it worthwhile, and it did so on Saturday night by running Henry Hathaway’s classic 1969 Western, “True Grit,” in which John Wayne won an Academy Award for his role as the one-eyed, hard-drinking, shoot-first-ask-questions-later deputy marshal “Rooster” Cogburn, hired by the tomboyish 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to find the man who robbed and killed her father. In this day when Dems and journos are wailing over denial of habeas corpus for enemy aliens who are suspected terrorists, it was nice to see Rooster literally kicking into line a gaggle of outlaws he’d captured and hauled into the town jail for justice. And to witness three said outlaws hang for their crimes all at once! The movie doesn’t think much of criminal-defense lawyers, either. What a politically incorrect movie!
One of the best things about “True Grit” (besides Wayne, the gorgeous Western scenery, and the beautiful music by Elmer Bernstein, which won the film another Oscar) is the character Mattie. Remember that in 1969, women’s liberation was just a spark in Kate Millett’s eye. But Mattie puts the whole lot of 1960s-era feminists–Millett, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan–to shame. She’s so good with numbers that at age 14, she’s her father’s bookkeeper and ranch manager, and she can drive a hard horse-trading bargain as well as ride a horse hard. She can quote Shakespeare and the Bible with aplomb. It all gives the lie to the myth that before feminism, women were uniformly treated like, and acted like, dopey, emotionally frail Barbie dolls for whom “math” was always “hard.”
Furthermore, Mattie, underneath her gruff manners, zero tolerance for Cogburn’s boozing, and prickly-pear exterior, has a tender heart for men, even a dying and repentant outlaw (Dennis Hopper in one of his very first roles)–so eventually, nearly every male she encounters is smitten with her, even Cogburn (who begins to take the place of the father she has lost), and even the mega-outlaw and Cogburn nemesis Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall in one of his very first roles). What attracts them to Mattie is not just her courage and spunk, but her virtue. Mattie is not perfect (she has a few lessons to learn about herself and others in this movie), but she is unstintintingly honest and truthful, insisting, for example that Cogburn live up to his promise to afford the repentant outlaw a decent burial and to notify his family. “True Grit” is in many ways a story of the power that a woman, even a half-grown teen-ager, can have over men if she chooses to value her personal integrity above what anyone thinks of her. The only man in the movie whom Mattie fails to move is Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), the multiple murderer who has slain her father–but he is shown as too hardened by his crimes to be affected by goodness, and he tries to both rape her and kill her. He is beyond redemption; no one else in the movie is.
They don’t make movies like “True Grit” anymore. And that’s too bad, because Mattie Ross is a powerful role model for teenage girls. Our filmmakers nowadays usually insist that the strong woman is a “bad” woman who breaks all the rules, especially the sexual rules. “True Grit”‘s Mattie Ross shows us that a good woman is the strongest woman of all.