Archive for October 1st, 2013


By Stephen Mullen

It was a gutsy move remaking a beloved John Wayne movie, the one where he won his Oscar, but the Coen brothers have never been shy about that kind of thing. They remade The Ladykillers, after all. They’ve made disguised versions of Hammett (Miller’s Crossing), Cain (either Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the book of Job (A Serious Man.) They’ve parodied Capra, Roadrunner, Chandler. They’ve pretended to adapt Homer! Taking on the Duke is right in character.

It was a gutsy move, but a good one. It gives you what you can ask from a remake, it works on its own merits without undermining the original’s merits. The story, I imagine, is familiar enough (I hope it’s familiar enough that I don’t need to note that there are spoilers here): Mattie Ross, aged 14, goes to Fort Smith Arkansas to retrieve the body of her murdered father, then sets out to find the killer. She hires Rooster Cogburn, the toughest marshal in the place, a man with true grit – but they are joined by a younger, flashier Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is after the same man for shooting a senator and a dog. They head off into the Choctaw Nation, squabbling as they go, forming and dissolving alliances as they pass through the wilderness, tracking Tom Chaney the killer and Ned Pepper the bandit chieftain. They catch them up, Mattie herself almost gets Chaney, but the other two are obliged to rescue her. Cogburn fights one of the most famous gunfights ever put on screen, Mattie falls into a pit full of snakes, and Cogburn carries her across the Indian Territory to find a doctor. This plot is the same in its outline in both films – the Coens’ changes serve mainly to shift the focus from Rooster to Mattie, and from John Wayne to the ensemble. The films look different, they are shot in very different locations – if you were inclined to Metaphors, you might say they do with the story what they do with the locations: replace the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains and John Wayne’s star power with the plainer beauty of the West Texas and New Mexico hills and woods and more focus on the whole cast, on Mattie and LaBoeuf, and the world they move through. It’s a harder country, flatter, but full of jagged upcroppings of rock, loose stands of trees, caves, pits, and dugouts, a world of holes and mysteries, where anything or anyone could matter, and you can’t know how they matter until you are past them. (more…)

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