Ian Fielding on True Grit: Bravery on TapPosted: March 7, 2011
Dino De Laurentiis, the late, great producer of Blue Velvet once said that to be a man you need three things. Heart, brains and balls. In looking at the Coen brother’s new film True Grit, I’ll be focusing on balls.
True Grit. The background is spiritual pollution, the bloodthirsty acquisition of the west. The book is Charles Portis’ classic take on the western novel. The characters are the tough and weather-bruised products of their environment. They meet death with equanimity, resort to brutality with laissez-faire matter-of-factness and treat each other as straw dogs, with little more than money, justice and the need to survive binding them together.
The film contains stirring feats of heroism, which serve as the flags to the measure of its character’s constitutions.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the astonishing 14 year old Presbyterian with a smart mouth and steady nerve is a monster of progress and logic who is driven by a powerfully centered emotional force – the need to exact retribution upon the man who killed her father.
The moment when Mattie frees herself from the keeper of the river ferry and crosses the water on a swimming horse amazes and charms us with her spontaneous resourcefulness. Bravery is not trait-like, it only emerges in special circumstances like this.
J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), cranky, robust and raw, is a true veteran of the plains, corrupt, forgetful and above the law. There’s a sense of old school masculinity in the way he lets his soul play out, it’s like Johnny Cash’s voice, timeless and forged in the fire of primal humanity, as fixed as the North Star and attached profoundly to the earth. This is not a man of wit and stealth but a man of straight talking simplicity, clear means and closely guarded pride.
Cogburn turns on the physical courage when he rides fearlessly into a gang of four outlaws, facing them head-on, reins in mouth and two pistols blazing, facing the fray in confidence. Though elsewhere (especially in Mattie’s eyes) he is shadowed by vice.
Psychological bravery means acting against our natural inclinations and facing fears which may not have any social implications. This includes overcoming personal addicting habits, irrational anxieties and harmful dependent relationships. So as Cogburn turns to drink, he looses his bottle and the film throws its own quiet anti-drinking campaign. Mattie loses her faith in him (not in the least because it is a reminder of the circumstances surrounding her father’s death) and Cogburn looses face as he rides onward drunkenly through the day boasting and singing to himself.
Moral Courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement. The prime cinematic example is James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces. Who on his death bed, his appointment with the electric hair, acts like a cowardly, sniveling wretch before all the criminal kids who idolise him so that they don’t follow in his footsteps, completely annihilating his reputation in a swoop.
Cagney’s display is the polar opposite to Nietzsche’s vanity bravery: ‘One never dives into the water to save a drowning man more eagerly than when there are others present who dare not take the risk.’ For me, Cagney’s is the greatest act of sacrifice in cinema.
So what is true grit? Is it not a kind of bravery on tap? Pure internal focus and resolve. Like the characters in this film who have it embedded into their bones. A necessary state to get by in a tough universe. A thought that makes Mattie an even more formidable character considering it takes time to build such resolve.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Julius Caesar (II, ii, 32-37)
You will be hard pressed to find a film that doesn’t contain a moment of bravery, ranging from the foolhardy to the heroic. Bravery is the key catalyst to progress in life and so it is with film.
My name’s Ian. I’m a writer and Filmmaker from London currently shooting my second feature film – a detective thriller called Dead Unicorns
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