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True Grit: Horses, Hollywood and American filmmaking

Updated on January 9, 2011

Before I get to my review of True Grit, I'd like to express a few opinions about the Hollywood Western, horses and why the two didn't always mix well.

I love horses. I am not sure when I recognized horses as creatures that I could trust absolutely and count among my friends, but I do know that when I was eight, a Pepsi commercial showing a boy getting a horse for his birthday present inspired me to want to learn more about horses and even to learn how to ride.

A few months shy of my tenth birthday, my ideal horse was crystalized in the shape of Walter Farley's The Black Stallion (1979). Although some of the scenes involving the horses were upsetting, I had the fortunate opportunity to meet and correspond with Corkey Randall, the trainer for all the horses in both Black Stallion movies, as well as The Mask of Zorro (1998) and many others.

He described in detail some of what they did to create many of the scenes - for example, the scene upon which Alec Ramsey comes upon the Black after they arrive on the island. The Black appears to be entangled in his harness, with ropes hobbling his hind legs. However, Mr. Randall carefully dissects the scene, explaining that the horse was taught to sit, liwe down and get up on command. They then carefully put in place ropes (with quick-release ties, in case the horse panicked), and asked the horse to sit up and lie down, which he did willingly. The footage of the scene was then edited together with sound and quick, tight angles and (with a little smoke and mirrors), you have a wild horse struggling to get free.

However, horses were not always treated with respect or given proper training that would allow them to perform for many years. While the American Humane Association has been in existence since the late 1800's, they did not become involved with the film industry by monitering the care of animals and stamping their approval with "No animals were harmed in the making of this film...." until 1940. It was due to a very dangerous and cruel stunt during the filming of Jesse James (1939), where a horse was blindfolded and ridden to its death off of a cliff that the AHA stepped in to offer the animal actors a voice. That is only one example of what horses endured to create 'realism' in early Westerns.

Thus, I have never been a big fan of the Western film. It didn't help, at the age of nine or ten, to watch John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn ride a horse to death while Kim Darby was fighting for her life. That is the only scene I remember from the original True Grit (1969). Around that same time period, I watched a horse get his jaw stuck in a stall door and choke to death. I have tied those two events together in my mind for years. It's not easy to separate them, even though one had nothing to do with the other.

That being said, as I grew older and a little wiser to the ways of Hollywood and how they worked their magic behind the scenes (thanks to trainers like Corkey Randall and special effects crews, who create mechanical horses to play dead), I was able to relax my bias of the Western.

So. To my review of True Grit (2010). This film is the second Western by the Coen Brothers (the first being No Country For Old Men) and they have created a world that has long since passed from our experience, but is still relevant today.

The Western is a part of the American mythos - cowboy justice has been seen in many genres other than the Western (Star Trek and Firefly are subgenres of the Western). The story of an individual seeking justice for a loved one transcends any genre.

By going back to the original source material, Charles Portiss' novel, the Coen brothers have brought us an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining film where the most action is a lot of stillness. This is may seem like a contradiction in terms, but physical stillness allows for emotional and psychological action.

Yes, there are a lot of shoot-out scenes (and horses do 'die' in this film), but the sheer determination by young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) to bring justice for the murder of her father is what drives this film. She is a force to be reckoned with, much to the dismay of the adults around her. An excellent example of this is in her refusal to allow a barn owner to disavow any responsibility for the theft of a saddle and a horse by Tom Cheney, the man who killed her father.

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn has managed to not only honor John Wayne, but make the role his own - with humor and beligerance, he carried the weight of his role as marshall with an unsteady (and drunken) dignity. A particularly funny scene demonstrates this when Cogburn (Bridges) attempts to shoot multiple pieces of cornbread with one bullet. His attempts are marred by Matt Damon's Lebeouf (pronounced 'Lebeef'). If the Coen brothers choose to re-interpret the other Rooster Cogburn films, Jeff Bridges is their only choice.

This film is one I would enjoy seeing again (especially since I missed the first five minutes) - the cinemotgraphy was gorgeous (one could almost feel the rough terrain); the setting and costumes actually looked lived in, not squeaky clean, as in earlier Westerns; the script not only honored the novel, but the original film as well. Adaptations are not easy to do - the Coen brothers have somehow managed to do it right, not once, but twice. They are the primary reason I went to see this film, and I would gladly do so again.

And towards the end of the credit crawl, the Amercian Humane Association showed their approval with the words "No animal was harmed in the making of this film".

That was actually more important to me than Paramount disclaiming the representation of smoking in the film.


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      Charlotte 5 years ago

      I am a horse lover too, and as soon as the movie finished I went and looked this up. I am such a big softie and when I was lying in bed that night thinking how Rooster Cogburn had stabbed Little Blackie to make him go even faster and Mattie crying out "Stop!". That was probably more.. let's say traumatising then Rooster shooting Little Blackie, for me. I have no idea why but that moment stuck in my head more.

      Anyway thanks for reassuring me that this movie was humane.