Thursday, February 3, 2011

I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned...

I don’t go see a lot of newer movies in the theater. This isn’t a blanket condemnation of current films—I realize there are some great ones out there and that some movies need to be seen on a big screen. But, in the end, I’d rather watch an old black-and-white Bogart or Errol Flynn movie than spend whatever absurd amount of money you gotta pay nowadays to go to the theater. Gee whiz, I wish my town had a revival theater.

Regardless, I may see the new film version of True Grit in the theater. If it comes close to doing the original book justice, it’ll be worth it.

Because the original book, written by Charles Portis in 1968, may very well be the best Western ever. By golly, it’s fun to read. And though the 1969 film version with John Wayne is a great movie, it doesn’t really fully capture the “voice” and humor of the novel.

You see, the novel is narrated by Mattie Ross, an elderly woman who is recounting her childhood adventure in the Old West. Mattie’s dad is murdered and she hires a tough, one-eyed, mildly sociopathic Federal Marshall named Rooster Cogburn to find the killer. She rides along, as does a vain Texas Ranger named LaBeauf (pronounced, by the way, “La Beef”). She slowly earns their grudging respect and the violent and often drunk Cogburn eventually gets to exhibit something close to real chivalry because of her.

And Mattie’s prim, pretentious style of storytelling is just beautiful, full of delightful prose and dialogue that’s so much pure joy to read it can send shivers down your spine. She tells the story in a more-or-less straightforward manner, though she can occasionally digress for a paragraph or two (telling us, for instance, the difference between a Cumberland Presbyterian church and the Southern Presbyterian church), but these digressions just help define Mattie for us. Even at fourteen, she’s smart, diligent, devout. a tad self-righteous, and something of a tightwad. And, it turns out, she has grit!

She needs grit, too. Especially during the book’s climax, involving a broken arm and a pit full of rattlesnakes.

True Grit is a tribute to the flexibility and beauty of the English language. I’ve re-read it maybe eight times and have as much fun with it as I did the first time with every successive reading.

He said, “I just received word that a young girl fell head first into a fifty-foot well on the Towson River. I though perhaps it was you.”

“Five hundred dollars is mightly little for a man that killed a senator.”
“Bibbs was a little senator,” said LaBeauf.

“Quincy was always square with me,” said Moon. “He never played me false until he killed me.”

“I want him to know he is being punished for killing my father. It’s nothing to me how many dogs and fat men he killed in Texas.”

Rooster said, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience! Which will you have?”

How can you not love dialogue like that?

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