Debt and Vengeance in True Grit
Updated: Sep 24
By 1969, John Wayne had already been in well over a hundred movies. He was past the highest point of his career, but he had become one of the biggest stars of his day, and possibly of all time. Wayne was willingly typecast for decades into essentially playing himself in a different era: a conservative man tough on criminals and most others during the height of Hollywood’s love affair with the old west. After being in pictures for over 40 years, he discovered the screenplay adaptation for True Grit and the role of Rooster Cogburn. That role would win him his only Oscar, and showed that even in a classic western movie, he could do something unexpected. Christopher Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit, was adapted by Marguerite Roberts, and Wayne immediately began lobbying for the part of Rooster even saying that her script was “the best [he] had ever read.” He knew at this point in his life and career, this would be the best opportunity he would have to do such a great character and story justice.
Most movies starring Wayne follow him and his character’s perspective throughout the story. What initially sets the character of Rooster Cogburn apart from most of his other performances is that the story is told through the eyes of someone else. The voice of young women is so rarely heard in western tales, especially those of the day. This story is made that much more intriguing by the main character we do follow. A young woman of only fourteen named Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby, guides us through the tale, and her and Wayne are supported by Glen Campbell as the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf who was a Grammy winning country singer of the day and former member of the famous Los Angeles studio recording group “The Wrecking Crew.” A choice for the role that always surprised me due to his fame as a musician until I learned that Elvis Presley was originally considered for the same role until he asked for top billing over everyone else in the cast. The three of them together are able to explore dynamics usually unseen in westerns of the time such as ageless friendship, major character conflict over individual definitions of justice, the potential for any person to be tough regardless of gender or background, and the use of monetary and personal debt to navigate the chaos of a lawless land.
After Glen Campbell finishes singing the Oscar nominated theme music, we’re brought into an opening scene at a wealthy westerner’s ranch. This wealthy man is Mattie’s father, Frank Ross, and this is her home in Yell County, Arkansas. We see Frank preparing to leave the ranch to make a deal in Fort Smith but before he leaves he stops inside the house to say goodbye to his daughter. The audience can see in only a few minutes that their relationship is not only one of familial adoration but of mutual respect. He calls her his “little bookkeeper” but asks her how much she’ll allow him to take to buy horses. She’s shown immediately to be a shrewd businesswoman, but we’ve yet to see even half of her tenacity and determination. Although Mattie’s skeptical of the deal, Frank is convinced she’ll come around to his plan. He clearly trusts and appreciates her advice. It would seem that though she is young, Mattie has helped him avoid bad moves in the past. He saddles up, and rides off with a man boarding on their ranch. As they ride away, Mattie remarks on the man, “Tom Cheyne, now there’s trash for you.” She doesn’t trust him and detests a perceived lack of appreciation for her father’s generosity despite him riding to Fort Smith with Frank. Mattie would prefer he stayed behind and watched their property, being that it's “his job” after her father gave him a “house” to live in. We see her almost comically severe business sense yet again when her mother points out that the “house” is only an old tool shed with a large hole in the south wall and Mattie’s response is “it's got a good a roof.” Mattie’s calculation of debt and attention to give and take, is her primary tool in making sense of this wild west.
Her mistrust of Cheyne is proven to be well founded and hardly severe, once we see what happens at Fort Smith. Her father attempts to stop Cheyne from getting drunkenly violent during a card game and he ends up catching the heat himself. Cheyne angrily shoots him instead of the men he believes are cheating him, and he takes the leftover money from the deal, as well as Frank’s two lucky gold pieces. He flees into the night and the story truly begins.
We cut directly to Mattie’s arrival in Fort Smith. She travels there to secure the last deal Frank made, as well as confirm his identity to the undertaker. Another stop is made upon arriving, however. The majority of the townspeople, men, women, and children, are all gathered at the town center to watch three men be hanged (a bit of a dark scene to see children playing happily on a swing with the backdrop of an imminent execution). It was certainly rare for western stories of the day to show any of the barbarism of the era, but this was one of people’s few forms of entertainment at the time. The ranch hand accompanying Mattie clearly is distracted and she can tell he wants to go. We also learn later that the boarding house where Mattie is staying is overbooked solely because of the event. Mattie decides to go as well and does not let her eyes be shielded to the execution. When the feet of the hanged men go still, Mattie is clearly shocked but more so intrigued. “That’s not a faint hearted judge,” she says assuredly as she walks away. “Cheyne would get his due before such a judge.” It seems this moment solidifies Mattie’s yearning for violent retribution. Her intensity goes well beyond meticulous bookkeeping.
Upon identifying her father’s corpse, both the undertaker and the ranch hand are surprised by Mattie’s cold reaction. “Put the lid on it,” she says quietly, with little feeling. She says nothing else with not so much as a goodbye. It is not until later, when she’s alone with her father’s effects, specifically his watch, that she lets her emotions come to the surface. This feels like a genuine reaction when compared to many of the family losses that characters experience in Westerns. She doesn’t fall to her knees and scream to the heavens upon seeing her father lifeless body. She cries quietly, alone, pressing his watch to her face, knowing that the material things left to her are all she will ever know of him again. The material will never match the intangible and it makes her reaction seem true. It also gives us a new example of Mattie’s strength and desire to show little weakness. Young people thrust into a position of responsibility have their guard up at all times. Especially a young woman like Mattie in this male dominated environment. She gives almost no opportunity for anyone to take advantage of her, and is constantly using her sharp mind to set up defenses against the possibility of such attempts.
Once Mattie has seen her father, she immediately goes to the Sheriff to see what’s being done. The Sheriff reveals that Tom Cheyne has fled into Indian Territory and is out of his jurisdiction. Only a US Marshall would have the authority to track him there. Mattie asks who the best Marshalls are and is given three choices. Two of the men are described as competent and one of those two is described as the “straightest” for bringing his men in alive. Mattie is not interested in these men. She is most intrigued by the man described as the meanest, Rooster Cogburn. “A pitiless man, double tough. Fear don’t enter into his thinking.” She begins asking just about everyone she meets in town about him. Even after she’s met him she’s still curious. Most say he’s a delinquent drunk and a killer, but they all concede that he has “true grit.” This only furthers her fixation and certainty that he’s the man for the job. Mattie wants to see Cheyne dead and Rooster Cogburn seems to be the one to deliver.
We meet Cogburn when he takes the stand in a criminal trial to defend his use of lethal force. Upon first meeting this character, we can tell he is hardly debilitated by his missing eye, but it causes him to jerk about wildly and tick strangely. He’s aging and he has a difficult time expressing himself. It's also clear that he's been hindered by years of hard drinking. It's fascinating to see John Wayne play a character who is unsure of himself. Nervous even. A violent man thrust into an uncomfortable, bureaucratic situation. The cross examination reveals he’s killed twenty three men in four years and the unspoken suggestion is that he enjoys it. That he never hopes to bring in any man alive. This does everything but dissuade Mattie. She chases after him when he leaves the courthouse and continues chasing even after he tries to walk away.
Mattie notices Rooster struggling to roll a cigarette and without asking takes it from him. She quickly works at it and plops a perfect roll between his lips. He is dumbfounded by this and it hilariously sets the tone of their relationship for the rest of the story. Though he tries to ignore her, Mattie has the plan laid out already. “You can get a fugitive warrant for Tom Cheyne and the government will give you two dollars for bringing him in, plus ten cents a mile for each of you, and on top of that I’ll give you a fifty dollar reward.” This stops Rooster in his tracks. “Well you’ve looked into this right smart,” he exclaims. Eventually Mattie admits she thinks “nothing will be done about Cheyne unless I do it myself.” This is the truth and she’s already taking the matter into her own hands. Even in the old west, bureaucracy and cost prevent anyone from willingly doing anything about the crime. She will have to make things happen on her own.
Mattie joins Rooster for dinner that night to “make medicine” and talk over the deal. On noting her persistence and determination he begins to affectionately call her “Baby Sister.” They sit together and Mattie watches as Rooster eats like an animal and drinks like a fish. He is a product of the old west and she is the future, though they seem directly connected. He drunkenly shoots a rat eating from the cornmeal stores of the Chinese grocery he’s living in stating “you can’t serve a rat papers. You gotta kill him or let him be.” Rooster doesn’t see much good in bringing “rats” in alive. Mattie isn’t very put off with this and is more indignant with the cat for not doing its job, again applying the order of give and take to the violence and insanity of human behavior in this environment.
Upon returning to the boarding house, a man staying there named LeBoeuf reveals his purpose in Fort Smith to Mattie. He had tried conversing with her casually before, but this time he directly engages her about Tom Cheyne. Cheyne is actually a man named Theron Chelmsford who shot a politician in Texas. LeBoeuf is a Sergeant with the Texas Rangers and has been hunting this man for almost four months. This creates some issues for Mattie’s plans. She cares little for a Texas politician or LeBoeuf’s plans for advancement. She not only wants to see Cheyne hang here in Fort Smith for killing her father, but have him know that that is why he is being punished. LeBoeuf attempts to make her see his side by appealing to her desire to avenge her father. He explains that he’s working for the politician’s family who would also want to see him hanged and that Cheyne will certainly be punished wherever he ends up. Even after Mattie explains she’s hired Rooster Cogburn and doesn’t want his help, LeBoeuf makes a fair point. “He knows the land and I know Cheyne. It’s at least a two man job to take him alive.” Though this is true, he then ruins his chances of convincing Mattie by being something of a fool. He admits he mostly wants to bring Cheyne back to Texas because there’s a “well-placed” young lady there who will “look favorably” on him if he can complete this task. Then adding, that he initially wanted to “steal a kiss” from Mattie but would now like to belt her for her perceived insolence. She leaves the conversation furious, letting LeBoeuf know that he will not be part of their hunt for Cheyne.
Before Mattie and Rooster can depart on their mission, however, she must secure his payment. This scene proves crucial in solidifying Mattie’s character and is our first time seeing her own “true grit.” Her father had come to Fort Smith to buy ponies for breeding but the salesmen sold them only geldings, neutered horses. After much condescending and arguing from the salesman, Mattie refuses to concede, of course. She threatens him with action from her Lawyer Daggett and backs him into a corner of giving her no less than the three-hundred dollars she asks for. LeBoeuf will later claim of Mattie and her Lawyer that “she draws him like a gun.” Debt is the discipline she has studied, her weapon of choice, and her tool to define boundaries to the harsh situation she’s been thrust into. She only dives in deeper the harsher it gets, however. Before she leaves, she asks the disgruntled salesman if he knows of a Rooster Cogburn. His response is quite interesting. “Most people around here have heard of Rooster Cogburn and some have lived to regret it. I would not be surprised to learn that he’s a relative of yours.” Though he’s known as a murderous drunk, Mattie and he seem to share a recognizable trait.
It is not until she brings Rooster the money that Mattie reveals her plan to come along for the manhunt. “I’m not paying for talk.” She needs to be sure her investment is sound and the debt is paid, but riding sixty miles into Indian territory will be dangerous even for Rooster, despite who he is and what he’s capable of. He cannot imagine what it will be like for Mattie. She, of course, does not concede and it is only LeBoeuf who can convince Rooster to leave her behind. He entices Rooster with the large payout promised by the Texas state government for bringing Cheyne back to them. They decide they will leave Mattie behind and hunt him together despite a bit of mutual distaste for each other. When they attempt to ditch Mattie at a river crossing, they watch as she doubles back and rides her horse through the water with pure determination. “By God! She reminds me of me,” Rooster exclaims with a glow in his eye. Her “grit” is now shown to extend well beyond a business mind or monetary ruthlessness. Rooster knows she can make it with them. In this moment he truly begins to see her as a baby sister.
LeBoeuf tries to get his wish of punishing her for her insolence as she chases their party of two down. He jumps her from behind a rock and pulls her from her horse, beating her with a switch. It's not long before Rooster pulls a gun on him. After commanding him to stop, LeBoeuf claims that he finishes what he starts. “You do and it’ll be the biggest mistake you ever made you Texas brushpopper!” LeBoeuf can see that Rooster is very serious. They set off uneasily from here on their manhunt for Cheyne, but time only proves that despite obvious differences and motivations, each of them are capable of doing right by one another and giving each other aid when they need it most.
Throughout their travels, Mattie proves she doesn’t need much protection from even the most dangerous situations the frontier has to offer, but it doesn’t stop Rooster Cogburn from being there for his “sis.” Mattie and Rooster develop a friendship beyond respect during their mission. Even LeBoeuf, despite their many cracks about Texans, considers the two of them friends and allies worth dying for by the film’s end. Because Mattie knows that Rooster has no family, she goes as far as inviting him to have his final resting place laid beside her if he wishes. The trait they share is their “grit” and though the toughness of their nature brings them together, it’s the empathy and compassion they thought the world had taken from them that keeps them fighting for one another.
Pierce Allen is a local musician and movie enthusiast living in Beacon, NY. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and vanilla mixed together.