The movie, True Grit, is the drama of a small but relentless coterie of citizens, instigated and led by Miss Mattie, to gain justice for the murder of her horse trading father, by the coward, Chaney, down in the Arkansas territory sometime after the ‘civil’ war.
It is fitting, I think, that the beginning of the movie incorporates a court scene where one, Rubin (Rooster) Cogburn, an officer of the court (a ‘marshall’) is questioned about his killing of a family of bushwhackers and murders out in the ‘nations’. Not long after the court scene we have a stark depiction of the abrupt and efficacious hanging of three ne’er-do-wells brought to Fort Smith for justice by the local authorities.
What we are seeing then, is the effort of the polis to restore order and while much has been made of Miss Mattie’s anti-Christian lust for vengeance the truth is Miss Mattie, quite correctly, sees herself as the instrument of God’s judgment on said murdering coward. She is a young woman raised up in the wisdom of the Word, in the love of God and family, in the concept of duty and honor and, apparently, the meaning of the knowledge gleaned in her upbringing and her familial obligations has not escaped her.
For me the relationships between the participants in the drama makes the movie. Primary among these ‘relationships’ is the one between the two men Miss Mattie becomes engaged with in her effort to bring her father’s murderer to justice; the ‘marshall,’ Rooster Cogburn, a debouched man, given to tobacco, liquor, and the occasional opium pipe, and the young, ebullient, but rather efficacious Sharp’s rifleman, the Texas Ranger.
It is the relationship between these two men that ground’s the story, first, in the experiences of the War of Northern Aggression and second, in the uniquely conservative Southern consciousness of these two men who will take up, for their own reasons, their weapons in defense of an innocent because, in the final analysis, that is what these people do.
It should be noted that these two protagonists are Confederate veterans. Rooster, a veteran of the Yell County Rifles served in Pat Cleburne’s regiment whose service was employed in the western theater of operations in the Army of the Tennessee and later as one of Quantril’s raiders. The Texas Ranger, on the other hand, was a veteran of Hood’s Texas Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia and at Antietam saved Jackson at the Miller cornfield when they drove two Yankee divisions from the field in what may have been the grandest assault of the war, a charge that left the cornfield littered with the mangled bodies of Texas’s bravest.
There is a scene where Rooster and the Ranger take to insulting each others civil war commands and service. During the exchange which included ‘vulgar words of language,’ it becomes apparent that both men are entertaining the idea of drawing down on the other. They don’t because of Mattie; both men, these Southern cavaliers/chevaliers, are now in the ‘service’ of this young lady’s ‘honor.’ This is one reason why this story could never be told from a Yankee or modern or progressivist perspective. True Grit may be last novel of the War of Northern Aggression and must be seen as such to understand the ingenious nuance written into this superb drama. In the end, I’m figurin’ Rooster got his redemption, at least Cole Younger implied that he may have, and that’s good enough for me.
By the end of the film, I’m trying to hide tears in as manly a way as possible. But when Miss Iris DeMent begins to sing, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, as Mattie walks into the sunset, all is lost. I know I’m toast and just go ahead and ask the wife for her tissues. This is a must see movie, the finest Western ever made.
What a fellowship, what a joy divine
leaning on the everlasting arms.”