Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Coen Brothers' True Grit

During the Silent Era and Hollywood's Golden Age, when westerns were a regularly produced film genre, new films based on western novels and stories were commonplace. New western fiction appeared weekly on newsstands and on bookstore shelves, and Hollywood producers saw little need for remaking a western movie that already had been based on a prose work.
Therefore the number of western films that have had remakes is relatively low. Consider, then, the number of western remakes of movies already assigned classic status. A smaller number still, right?

Look at this in another manner – how many western films have been based on books whose remakes have been produced during the original author's lifetime?

Can you count 'em on one hand? I can, if I don't take time to gargle the Internet for further research (other than to double-check some dates) . . .

1.  Destry Rides Again by Max Brand (Frederick Faust): three film versions, including the famous JamesStewart/Marlene Dietrich film (1939); less famous is the Audie Murphy version titled Destry (1954 – granted, Faust had died in World War 2 by then); and a still-less-known version with Tom Mix was made in 1932. That's two versions during Faust's lifetime. (Just for kicks, let's throw in a 1959 Broadway musical version starring Andy Griffith.)

2.  3:10 to Yuma by Elmore Leonard: two versions, one with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin (1957), and the other with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale (2007).

3.  Stagecoach, based on Ernest Haycox’s story “The Stage to Lordsburg,” has been filmed multiple times--most famously by John Ford and starring John Wayne, but only once during the author’s life. Another Haycox story, “Stage Station,” was the basis for two films: Apache Trail (1942) starring Lloyd Nolan and Donna Reed, and Apache War Smoke (1952) starring Gilbert Roland and Glenda Farrell. Only the former was released during the author’s lifetime.

4. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Yes, I'm willing to consider this a western: It occurs in a western city, San Francisco; it has been well-argued that Sam Spade's occupation, private operative, is a literary updating of the popular culture fashioning of the romanticized loner cowboy; the time and setting are not so distant from the Wild West era; the story's tropes and the play of the characters in their fringe-culture environment certainly displays similarities to activities in a semi-lawless boomtown during the western-expansion golden age. Besides the famous John Huston/HumphreyBogart adaptation (1941), there was a 1931 version with Ricardo Cortez.

5.  And then there's True Grit by Charles Portis: first filmed by Henry Hathaway in 1969 with JohnWayne, and remade in 2011 by Ethan and Joel Coen.

True Grit is now a member of a very select club. (If I've forgotten other members of the club, please let me know.)

There are a number of surprises that some people express about this fact. Indeed, both surprise and dismay were expressed by many folks when the plans for the remake were first announced:

At a time when so few westerns are filmed, why shoot a new version of an existing film?

Why remake a movie already declared a classic?

Or, considered another way, Why remake John Wayne's greatest film?

Why remake this film?

Who do these Coens think they are, anyway?

I'll make an effort to respond to these questions from my own highly subjective perspective.

At a time when so few westerns are filmed, why shoot a new version of an existing film?  That's a pretty good question. I'm sure the Coens have addressed this somewhere, but without reading any of that, I know Hollywood is all about successful box office draws. Just as mainstream (or, if you prefer J.A. Konrath's term, Legacy) publishers are looking for bestsellers, Hollywood is looking for blockbusters. So, if a movie has performed well in the past, why won't it perform well now? And if someone wants to make a western, which Hollywood apparently hasn't so sure about these days, why wouldn't you make one that's already considered a success? Why spend money on something untested, on something that might not be a Sure Thing? (And what, after all, might be a Sure Thing in this sketchy genre called Westerns? There are no fast cars, no CGI monsters or rocket ships, no cosmic explosions – heck, there are NO ZOMBIES!) Therefore, following the Algebra of Money, it makes sense to produce a new version of an existing film.

Why remake a movie already declared a classic?  Again, another good question. The gist of my response would be to say, “See previous response.” I'll throw in a few more details: Hollywood money men seem to like gambling on a Sure Thing. It was a classic once, why can't it be a classic again? The original hung its hook on John Wayne; we don't have Wayne, but we have those off-kilter Coen Brothers who seem to have a following, and they made Money with some of their other movies, so let's roll the dice that are somewhat loaded with Coens and Their History Of Making Money.

Or, considered another way, Why remake John Wayne's greatest film?  First, I'll argue that True Grit is not John Wayne's greatest film. It may be his best-known movie because of an awareness that exists beyond the typical audience for western movies, thanks in part to its ubiquitous existence on cable channels. It's true he won his only Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn, and I enjoy him in that role. But I'll argue that he acted as well or better in other movies. Stagecoach, another John Wayne film (perhaps the one that most got his star rising), has been remade multiple times. And one might argue that Wayne remade one of his own films when he performed in Rio Bravo. (Or was that El Dorado?) Anyway, while this point may have value in discussions of other topics, it has no more weight in this discussion than “You shouldn't remake a movie that didn't win an Oscar.”

Why remake this film?  See my first and second responses, above. And, to borrow from my third response, I'll say that True Grit may be John Wayne's most famous film, and people who know it or are at least aware of it might have been willing to pay money (see references to Algebra of Money, above) to satisfy their curiosity about a remake.

Who do these Coens think they are, anyway?  I haven't met these boys. But from the evidence, I'd say they are solid storytellers with a fine sense of Hollywood history and filmmaking under their hats. They understand genre and how to use, expand, and step outside of its tropes. Apparently they know how to nurture fine performances from actors. They understand how to play off-kilter in a way that is endearing and strengthening for a film (just watch Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, TheHudsucker Proxy, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and True Grit is a story with some off-kilter moments; go read the book. One can argue they had proven their facility in filming a western when they made a successful movie from the dreary story of No Country For Old Men. (Really, it's a western.) So, altogether I'd say they were actually a good choice for heading up a remake of True Grit. Audiences really wouldn't have appreciated Hollywood's turning over the history of a beloved movie to a couple of hacks.

1 comment:

Meg said...

All VERY true! We *need* more western films too, I am so tired of all the CGI-fx in the current lot. Look at the success of the Hatfield & McCoy's -- and they threw in a bit of western flavor (inaccurate for the Appalachians) to boot! ;-D

Hooray for the Coen Brothers! Please make another western. Please!!