The scene in which an eyepatch-wearing John Wayne takes the reins of his horse in his mouth and charges at a group of good-for-nothin' outlaws - rifle in one hand, six-shooter in the other - is not only the most iconic image of the 1969 film True Grit, but possibly in the history of the western genre. The moment is made more incredible by the fact that Wayne's entire left lung had been removed four years earlier, to combat cancer. His ailing health undoubtedly helped the 61-year old to portray the cantankerous yet heroic US Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn, the part which would earn the Duke his only Oscar.
More than 40 years later and the Duke has been replaced by the Dude. Jeff Bridges has donned the eyepatch for the Coen brothers' remake of the revenge tale, which opens in Dubai today. The filmmakers, better known for oddball comedies than such ardent genre fare, promised their take would be closer to the author Charles Portis' 1968 novel than the Wayne picture, shot against the bleak agricultural landscapes mentioned in the story, rather than the Colorado Rockies.
It is the tale of 14-year old Presbyterian Mattie Ross, the daughter of a murdered Arkansas farm owner, who seeks the help of a trigger-happy US marshall (believing him to have "grit") to bring her father's killer to justice. When the dog-eared lawman accepts her cash to hunt drifter Tom Chaney, he does not expect the girl to attempt to join him on the quest into dangerous Indian territory, but the highly persuasive Mattie gets her way. Meanwhile a vain and arrogant Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, is also after Chaney for a separate crime: killing a senator and his dog.
The US writer Portis, a Korean War veteran, newspaper journalist and former London bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune, had never written a Western before and the genre was decades past its popular peak in both the literary and cinematic worlds at the time of release.
"You've got a young girl who's saved from the Wicked West by a hero, but the twist in True Grit is that she helps to save him, too," says Paul Simpson, the author of The Rough Guide to Westerns, which lists the film as one of the genre's 50 finest movies. "You get a real sense in both film and book of the fragility of life out west. Usually in Westerns the evils of the plot are focused on just one villain, but here it's a much broader portrait of society."
Just a year after the story first appeared (serialised in the Saturday Evening Post), True Grit was in cinemas. Wayne called the film's screenplay "the best [he'd] ever read" and Cogburn "my first decent role in 20 years... and my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne". But not everyone agrees.
"Part of the charm of it is that he discovered what was funny about his own on-screen persona and decided to ham it up in that way," says Simpson. "In some ways, he is the classic, iconic Wayne, but at the same time you can see him having a joke, which was at the time quite rare."
So loved was Wayne's turn as the one-eyed hero that he reprised the role in a 1975 film, titled simply, Rooster Cogburn, but despite also starring Katharine Hepburn it was poorly received. The character also briefly appeared in a 1978 TV movie, True Grit, played by The Wild Bunch actor Warren Oats, in what was intended to be the first episode of a TV series based around the story.
Some have claimed Bridges is an unusual choice to replace Wayne. The former is a notoriously laid-back Californian, with a knack for playing a wide variety of roles. The latter was a deeply conservative perennial cowboy, whose very name has become a synonym for typecasting.
"They might be very different politically, but they are both American originals and they're both pretty feisty," says Simpson.
Starring opposite the Duke were the actress Kim Darby as Ross, (who, at 21, was seven years older than her character) and the country singer Glen Campbell (who also sang the theme tune) as La Boeuf. The unusual choice continued a loose tradition of casting teen idols opposite the ageing Wayne, which included singers Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo and Frankie Avalon in The Alamo. Before Campbell took the role, the part of the hot-shot ranger was offered to a rather more famous singer: Elvis Presley.
"[That] would have been very interesting because Campbell definitely struggles a bit as an actor," says Simpson. In the remake, the Academy Award-nominated actor Matt Damon dons La Boeuf's boots. "He's got the easy job because anything he does will be better than the original."
Darby's portrayal of the precocious and determined Ross was highly praised, despite the age gap. The Coens, however, opted to cast a real 14-year old, the little-known Hailee Steinfeld, in the role. The part in the 1969 film also nearly went to another star. Producer Hal Wallis originally wanted to cast Mia Farrow, who had just appeared in Rosemary's Baby, as Mattie. After hearing that the film's director Henry Hathaway was difficult to work with, Farrow turned down the role, but not before trying to have Hathaway replaced with her friend Roman Polanksi.
Upon its release in the US last month, True Grit's box-office receipts vastly exceeded expectations and quickly became the highest-earning film of the Coens' career. Even more unbelievably, it currently ranks as the second highest-grossing Western ever (not adjusted for inflation), behind Kevin Costner's 1990 movie Dances With Wolves.
The film's domestic success has spurred some to question whether cowboys are likely to become a more regular fixture in cinemas.
"Westerns have been at the Last Chance Saloon since the 1970s when it became uneconomical to even keep the sets any more," says Simpson. "[True Grit] could revive the genre to some degree. It would be hard to imagine it becoming mainstream, like fantasy or sci-fi, but it would be nice if there were a few more made with original ideas and the right financial backing."
Ÿ True Grit opens at Reel Cinemas in Dubai today. For more details, visit www.reelcinemas.ae.