I became interested in John Wayne movies when my mom and I watched one of his first films, called “Angel and the Badman”. He was pretty cocky and cute, back in the day: a true western thug, if there ever was one. Next, I saw his good side in “Rio Bravo” and “3 Godfathers”. To be honest, there hasn't been one movie that I haven't enjoyed with “The Duke” in it, even though I've seen some films out of sequence (and I have yet to see them all). Because I intend to treat this movie review like a boxing match, John Wayne is similar to a heavyweight champion and the Coen Brothers’ remake is a well-matched contender. Both movies are based on a novel of the same title by Charles Portis from 1968.
Both films come out strong by justifying their unique, individual tones: the old version opens up with a sweeping view of lush, natural scenery accompanied by a musical selection from Glen Campbell, who is also a major character in the plot. This gives the average viewer a perception of the young, untamed nation of Pioneer America. In other words, it's a pleasant, hippy perspective. The new version shows a Bible verse that justifies the hunt for a murderer to be found and punished. It was a verse that wasn't familiar with me, so that was enlightening. A subtle, authentic western film score coupled with fantastic cinematography fits this tone very nicely.
The Coen Brothers decided to leave out the scenes of Mattie’s father being murdered while the John Wayne version was very explicit and even proceeded to give the audience an idea of the family life before tragedy struck. This both shocked me and raised my sympathies for the strong-willed tomboy. Furthermore, it reminded me that as serene as some parts are, the Wild West was truly a dangerous place to live. However, the new movie gave some powerful blows of authenticity when Mattie headed straight to town in order to seek justice despite some major financial setbacks. In fact, the old film didn't take her finances seriously because she automatically spent all of her nights in town at the local hotel. The new movie forced the poor girl to sleep with her father's coffin for one night as a result of the lack of funds to stay in the hotel. Bravery was truly an understatement at this point. Both girls displayed considerable amounts of expertise in running a business, computing facts/figures and bargaining with potential clients. In other words, mama definitely didn't raise any fool.
Both girls also bond nicely with the horses that would be accompanying them on their quest for justice. The Coen Brothers’ version managed to squeeze in another minority character to help Mattie train the horse. This was in addition to the African-American man that escorted her into town. The hangings were both a typical way of life among westerners and pioneers, in general. The new movie was more sympathetic than the old one because John Wayne's version had kids playing in a playground setting during the entire process. Talk about the desensitization of violence! The introductions to LaBoeuf (amusingly pronounced “La Beef”) were entertaining, to say the least. There was almost a hint of romantic/sexual frustration or aggression in the new version, which was probably typical during that time. Both girls were impressive when it came to tracking down the whereabouts of marshall Rooster Cogburn. Both marshals were funny in court, but John Wayne was clearly generating more belly laughs for me.
Jeff Bridges did a good job of trying to establish how drunk and pathetic Rooster Cogburn’s life actually was. Truthfully, it's very hard to fill John Wayne's shoes. I know that he wasn't setting out to replace such a memorable character, but lend his unique talent over to breathing new life into an old legend. Both films did a good job of establishing the blatant competition between marshall and ranger, but the new movie scene that involved shooting cornbread in the air was hilarious: boys will truly be boys, and girls do mature faster.
The casting ideas for the villains were perfectly matched for each timeframe: Brolin as Chaney was a formidable opponent and a well-known actor. However, Ned Pepper and Moon from the old movie had more star-power, as the audience is introduced to a young Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. Both movies established grisly shootouts and bloody violence. Mattie’s point of view is displayed more with the Coen Brothers’ version. When the young teenager dies as a result of some unnecessary wound inflictions, the Mattie from the old version seemed more sympathetic to his plight and helped to look after the care of his final expenses. John Wayne was the best sharpshooter, hands down, even when he was intoxicated. I was secretly relieved when the Coen Brothers decided not to take the life of the Texas Ranger, played perfectly by the charming and distinguished Matt Damon. In fact, I almost agreed with Mattie when she admitted to hiring the wrong man to hunt down her father’s killer. The final scene where Chaney dies and the girls fall into the snake pit were equally impressive. I must also admit to crying when both horses died in servicing to rush poor Mattie to the nearest medical attention.
Finally, the John Wayne version had a happier ending and even prompted me to consider renting the sequel film. However, the new movie was more realistic (and probably truer to the book), even if sad: Mattie ends up as a one-armed spinster, but that is not really surprising, considering the development of her character throughout the plot. Who should be declared the winner? I happen to be a sappy little sucker for happy endings, so my vote goes to the John Wayne version by way of a TKO. The new version was useful in that it seemed to teach more than entertain. I also have a new respect for the contender of Jeff Bridges for showcasing more of Rooster's history as a passionate man of the West. Passion is what fueled such a brutal society and that quality still persists today.