Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Charles Portis: True Grit

Image from

I saw the first movie made from this Portis novel way back when it came out, or a little thereafter. It starred John Wayne and Glenn Campbell, who were well-known, and Kim Darby, who wasn't. The film was okay, but it was a John Wayne vehicle to an Oscar and was marred by Campbell's 'acting'. I think that I liked it because it was sort of about Arkansas, my home state. I was just a kid of 13 or 14, I reckon.

Well, I finally read the book over the weekend past because I was taking some time off and had the thing handy since I'd gotten it for my daughter as a Christmas gift. I bought it for her because it's sort of about Arkansas and because Charles Portis and LeRoy Tucker are friends, and I thought that I ought to get to know the friend of a friend.

Also, a new movie has been made based on the book, a Coen Brothers film, said to be far superior to the first one, so I thought that I'd prepare myself for seeing it.

Anyway, I liked the book. "A good story, well-told," as I wrote to Mr. Tucker upon finishing it. I wondered, though, why the book has stayed on my mind -- not that much time has passed since the weekend, of course. I think that it's stuck with me because it brings together several things that give the story tension. One thing is the distinctive narrative voice of the girl Mattie Ross, who sets out to avenge her father's death by hunting down and killing his murderer, Tom Chaney, in spite of being a good 'Christian'. Indeed, despite being even a very strict Calvinist with a deep attachment to the doctrine of predestination, she nevertheless hooks up with an obvious reprobate, the one-eyed U. S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, for him to help her do the dirty work. Another thing, naturally, is Rooster Cogburn himself, who might not be a saint, but who turns out to be a chivalrous knight on a horse -- in less-than-shining armor, but a knight nonetheless -- for even when he knows that Mattie is safe (or seems to be), he performs for her by 'jousting' against four dark knights:
Rooster said, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits. It was a sight to see. He held the revolvers wide on either side of the head of his plunging steed. The four bandits accepted the challenge and they likewise pulled their arms and charged their ponies ahead.

It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshall whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!

. . .

I believe the bandits began firing their weapons first, although the din and smoke was of such a sudden, general nature that I cannot be sure. I do know that the marshall rode for them in so determined and unwavering a course that the bandits broke their "line" ere he reached them and raced through them, his revolvers blazing, and he not aiming with the sights but only pointing the barrels and snapping his head from side to side to bring his good eye into play.

Harold Permalee was the first to go down. He flung his shotgun in the air and clutched at his neck and was thrown backward over the rump of his horse. The Original Greaser Bob rode wider than the others and he lay flat on his horse and escaped clear with his winnings. Farrell Permalee was hit and a moment later his horse went down with a broken leg and Farrell was dashed violently forward to his death.

We thought that Rooster had come through the ordeal with no injury, but in fact he had caught several shotgun pellets in his face and shoulders . . .
One dark knight remains to be dealt with, the bandit chief Ned Pepper, but that's part of the story.

Also, Mattie's own ordeal isn't quite over, for she must face down her father's killer one last time, but in firing at him with her father's heavy pistol, she's thrown backward from the recoil and falls deep into a sinkhole that threatens to swallow her ever more deeply as she finds herself loosely wedged into a narrow neck of the hole and hard by the bones of a dead man, whose ribcage is filled with a ball of serpents. Rooster descends to harrow this hellish scene, stomp the serpents that threaten, and save her from falling entirely into the pit of utter darkness below.

All this is told with a lighter touch than I've used here, but I wanted to make explicit what's going on at a deeper level.

I think that there are even echoes of Don Quixote in the protagonist Rooster Cogburn, partly from the picaresque aspect to his character, partly from the ridiculous figure that he cuts, and partly from his exaggerated sense of self, but we shouldn't be too surprised to find the Knight, the Christ, and the Man of La Mancha all put into one character, for the chivalrous cowboy is commonly portrayed as the last incarnation of the Medieval knight, of which Quixote was a Renaissance example, and the virtuous night was ever a Christ figure. It all fits, somehow, even if Rooster isn't exactly a cowboy.

No wonder Mattie Ross falls so deeply in love with Rooster, without ever quite realizing that she does.

And that makes her story a tragic one . . .

Labels: , , , , , ,


At 12:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with your comments, and having just seen the current movie version, it does stick much closer to the book than the original did. Including a much different ending than the John Wayne version. From what I could tell, a lot of the dialogue was also closer to the book. Since my wife's family lives in SE Oklahoma, we drive through a lot of the Oklahoma "territory" places mentioned in the book and in the movie, such as the Winding Stair Mountains, Poteau River, and other landmarks, even though the movie was actually shot in New Mexico.

All in all, we really enjoyed this new version.

Jason Nemec

At 5:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jay. Being an actor, you would be more astute than I about the relative quality of the two films, so I'm glad that we agree.

I also know that part of Oklahoma, having ridden my bicycle from Tahlequah south to Texas way back in August of 1976.

The mountains nearly killed me.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home