Loose Canon: True Grit it and quit it
In this column, we highlight films that have directly or indirectly inspired the most cherished and popular movies of contemporary cinema. We will discuss the antecedents of a popular movie in a reversed chronological order – working backwards through film history. This week, we will do the Coen Brothers’ latest hit, True Grit.
The Coen Brothers usually make films with their own flavor, and sprinkle in the spice of director’s long past. With True Grit, it is the opposite; they have made a film using the flavors of the director’s long past, with mere hints of their own spice.
While the film was a wild success, it was—as is becoming an annoying axiom of our column—hardly without precedent. In the making of True Grit, The Coen Brothers stood upon the shoulders of giants.
Then they pulled out their cameras and shot a visual masterpiece chock full of lawlessness, companionship and spectacle.
With good reason, Unforgiven is often called a “revisionist” Western, meaning that the film employs some of the plot elements and themes of the genre—gunfights, bounty hunters, revenge, loyalty, etc.—while subverting the classic staples of the Western.
Like True Grit, Unforgiven makes a point of showing an old West that is bleaker and more violent than that which is usually portrayed on-screen. Director and star Clint Eastwood plays a former bounty hunter who has renounced his life of violence and crime for—you guessed it—one last job.
Beautifully shot and amazingly acted, this film won the Oscar for Best Picture and remains a standard for all Westerns—revisionist or otherwise.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Once Upon a Time in the West belongs on this list for many reasons.
Firstly, it is necessary in any exploration of the Western genre to see a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and this is one of his finest. Secondly, it is a visually stunning motion picture. Thirdly, it deals in large part with femininity on the frontier.
The main character is an ex-prostitute, not exactly like Hailee Steinfeld’s precocious youngster in True Grit, whose moral code guides her through the lawlessness of the masculine society she inhabits.
The Searchers (1956)
John Ford’s collaboration with the Duke, John Wayne, was arguably at its best in this film. Straight-faced Wayne, playing Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards, presents one of his most complex performances in this story about two men’s pursuit of a girl captured by Comanche Indians.
The film is at once a rescue and vengeance story. An opening scene, in which Wayne returns to his brother’s homestead to find his only living family burned alive, inspired the scene in A New Hope when Luke Skywalker finds his Aunt and Uncle killed by stormtroopers.
The Searchers is a visual masterpiece, prominently featuring breathtaking panoramas of the Wild West’s buttes, mountains, rivers and peoples.
Red River (1948)
Red River is Howard Hawks’ epic Western bromance. While male companionship was nothing new to Western audiences, Hawks elevated it to emotional heights bordering melodrama.
The film stars John Wayne as a stubborn homesteader hell-bent on making a dangerous cattle drive through Missouri alongside the young stud Montgomery Clift as his adopted son.
In this sometimes hilarious, often touching relationship, you may see pieces of the repartee between the characters of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, even Hailee Steinfeld. Regardless of gender, both True Grit and Red River are odes to the odd families of the frontier.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The big jump backwards from 1948 to 1903 may throw you off, and we apologize, but that period of Westerns is an unruly frontier, which we are currently unfit to explore.
The Great Train Robbery has two gargantuan claims to fame: it is the first western film, and it is arguably the first narrative film. At a run-time of twelve minutes (easily accessible on YouTube), its well worth your time to see the launching pad for both a genre and a medium.
Medium-busters: Red Dead Redemption (video game), Firefly (space-western TV show), Riders of the Purple Sage (novel).