Film preview: Coen brothers' True Grit

Novel version of John Wayne's Oscar-winning classic western by the Coen brothers takes a harder, and more leftfield view than its arguably one-eyed predecessor

• Jeff Bridges, with patch on right eye, and Hailee Steinfeld in the Coen brothers' True Grit

WITH a sly hipness that is the trademark of Joel and Ethan Coen, a billboard at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles promotes their next film, True Grit, with a promise: "Retribution. This Christmas." Maybe the film will also settle some old business in the film world.

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A western with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin in leading roles, the new True Grit is adapted by the Coen brothers from the 1968 novel of the same title by Charles Portis. It is a revenge story — with heart — telling of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old Arkansas girl, played by a newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld. She hires a gritty federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn, played by Bridges, to pursue her father's killer (Brolin as the no-good Tom Chaney).

True Grit, released in the US on 22 December, is the last major entry in a crowded Oscar race that already includes contenders such as The Social Network, The King's Speech and 127 Hours.

But that is counting chickens. There is an old Rooster to fry. The Coen brothers' film is bound to rouse memories of the earlier picture, and another Oscar race. The legendary John Wayne, well past his prime, won his only Academy Award for portraying Rooster Cogburn. His selection fiercely split those who felt justice was thus served from those who viewed this original True Grit, released in June 1969, as the last gasp of a Hollywood stuck in its own past.

"It was a token Oscar," says the producer Robert Evans when queried about the best-actor trophy that went to Wayne on 7 April, 1970. Evans was head of production at Paramount at the time, but while Paramount released True Grit, it was produced independently by Hal B Wallis, and Evans reckons his own creative input to have been "zero". (He does say he was happy with the film.)

The original True Grit received only one Oscar nomination besides the one for best actor, for a song by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black. But that prize went to Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — just one among a dozen hipper movies that were turning the film scene on its head while Hollywood was still fixed on Wayne and his era.

The best picture of 1969 was Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger's graphic study of Manhattan street life.Both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight received best actor nominations for their roles. It was also the year of countercultural statements, such as Easy Rider, Medium Cool, Alice's Restaurant, The Sterile Cuckoo and If, of the European flair of Stolen Kisses and Z and the retro sophistication of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Wild Bunch and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Maggie Smith.

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In the face of all that, Paramount studio bosses made what many saw as a clumsy attempt to position True Grit as part of the revolution. One programme for an early studio screening, now preserved at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, called it a "Brand New Brand of American Frontier Story".

That was apparently an allusion to the feminist determination displayed by Mattie Ross, as portrayed by the television actor Kim Darby. Studio production notes, also on file at the academy library, described her as "perky". In their leaner, meaner new movie, the Coens deliver a fiercer young heroine — and one rooted in what they describe in a phone interview as a stiff, old-time Protestantism.

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"The wicked flee when none pursueth," reads an opening on-screen quotation from Proverbs, which sets the new film's tone.

Inevitably, however, a craggy, overweight Wayne subsumed the original True Grit. He wore an eye patch and played the role with a bluster that was likened to Wallace Beery's performance as Long John Silver in Treasure Island. If Beery hit the top, Wayne went over it.

Promoting the premiere of True Grit on a studio-sponsored antique-train ride from Denver to Salt Lake City, Wayne - the Duke - drank freely while holding court with reporters. By the time a band of Indians staged a prearranged ambush, "he was loaded," recalls the producer Robert Rehme, who was then an advertising and publicity manager for Paramount. Hollywood ate it up.

On 18 May, 1969, almost 11 months before the Oscar ceremony, a review in a Hollywood newspaper telegraphed to an attentive film business that the picture was a "massive bid to cap John Wayne's 40th year of stardom with the Academy Award". Two days earlier — lest anyone miss the message — a 40th-anniversary tribute to Wayne at the Directors Guild Theatre had gathered potential Oscar voters such as James Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Ernest Borgnine and Edward G Robinson.

By the time the Oscar was awarded, Wayne was being described as a "sentimental favourite". But other film devotees were less charmed, particularly when they viewed True Grit through the filter of Vietnam-era politics and Wayne's right-wing principles — which he had said were illustrated by a scene in which Cogburn shoots a rat after demonstrating the futility of trying to treat it under due process of law. (The new film has no such moment.)

Critic Penelope Gilliatt complained of the movie's "very right-wing and authoritarian tang".She was particularly put off by the frontier stoicism, which she described as "near-Fascist admiration for a simplified physical endurance of pain".

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Another commentator, Stanley Kaufman, said of Portis's novel, "Although it was short it was overlong by about a third." The film's director, Henry Hathaway, he described as "an old workhorse" who "hasn't had a new idea since the beginning of his career".

President Richard Nixon, for whom Wayne had campaigned, apparently felt otherwise, if a snippet of conversation caught by his Oval Office taping system in February 1971 is any measure. Greg Cumming, an archivist with the Nixon Library, said that the audio quality of the tape was bad, but that he could make out Nixon's discussing True Grit with his chief of staff, HR Haldeman. They talk of someone having gone "out in a blaze of glory," according to Cumming.

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Of course, Wayne went on to make about ten or so more films, including the 1975 sequel Rooster Cogburn, before his death in 1979.

The Coens say they only dimly recalled having seen the earlier movie when they were young, and they did not watch it in preparing their own. "We didn't do our homework," Ethan Coen says. Joel Coen says they were drawn to the underlying book a few years ago after he had "re-read it out loud to my kid".

No John Wayne movie, the brothers figured, according to Joel, "would possibly reflect the very acid sensibility" they found in Portis's work. So the Coens, writer-directors who turned Cormac McCarthy's arch story of a psychotic killer, No Country for Old Men, into the Oscar-winning best picture of 2008, turned to True Grit. And by drilling into the tale's harsh western core, they may have found a cool that eluded it for 42 years.

• True Grit is released in the UK on 14 January