We look back at the 1969 film and role that gave Duke his first Oscar.
For many of us, it's the definitive John Wayne image, the quintessential John Wayne scene.
At the edge of a birch grove, aging lawman Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) sits astride his horse and casts his one good eye on four mounted outlaws within shouting distance. To their leader, Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), he issues a threat with the impact of a warning shot: “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which will it be?” Ned, thoroughly unimpressed, responds: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” Cogburn registers surprise, then rage, and then bellows: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”
And with that, Cogburn grips the reins with his teeth, gallops toward the outlaws, proceeds to deal a two-fisted dose of death with his Winchester and long-barreled revolver—and provides a megaton kick of catharsis for the unforgettable climax of True Grit.
Three decades after his first true burst of star power in John Ford’s Stagecoach, Wayne finally found a way to grab long-elusive Oscar gold: He donned an eyepatch (reluctantly, according to most reports), expanded his waistline, and gave his familiar onscreen persona a tongue-in-cheek twist while playing the gone-to-seed but not yet over-the-hill protagonist of this classic western directed by veteran filmmaker Henry Hathaway (who, it should be noted, is the man credited with convincing the Duke to don the patch) and based on Charles Porter’s picaresque novel.
Wayne has a great deal of fun spoofing his own image, robustly portraying Cogburn as a seemingly unreliable drunk who can barely stay on his horse, much less operate his six- shooter. But when the chips are down, and the odds are against him, our hero proves he’s still up to the challenge of doing what a man’s got to do. Not unlike John Wayne himself.
Costarring Kim Darby as a plucky 14-year-old girl who hires Cogburn to find her father’s killer and Glen Campbell as a clean-cut Texas Ranger who comes along for the ride, True Grit ambles along at a unhurried pace, relying more on character than action to hold the audience’s interest. But make no mistake about it: Wayne is a real character here, in every sense of the word. And the character he portrays is at once a satirical distillation and an eloquent summation of all the earlier characters that helped transform the man into a legend.
Throughout the month of October, C&I is celebrating the golden westerns of 1969, a year that permanently changed the game for the beloved film genre. Check the Entertainment tab each day to see a different film recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for the upcoming November/December 2019 print edition, which prominently features one of the 25 greatest films of 1969 on its cover.