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The Cultural Context of True Grit

posted: 1.13.11 by Jack Solomon

One of the most important lessons to impart when teaching popular cultural semiotics is that the same phenomenon can mean something quite different when you change its historical context. This is why it is essential to situate a popular cultural topic within its own temporal framework, while at the same time comparing it to other relevant historical contexts to find the crucial differences that help mark out semiotic meaning.

Take the Coen brothers’ reprise of the 1960s classic True Grit.

While most of your students will be interested only in comparing Jeff Bridges’s interpretation of Rooster Cogburn to John Wayne’s, and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance to Kim Darby’s, that isn’t where the interesting cultural significance of the movie lies. To find that significance you need to look at the historical contexts of the two films. Let’s start with the original version.

That movie appeared in 1969, only a year after the publication of Charles Portis’s novel of the same title. Now, by the late 1960s America was fully engulfed in a cultural revolution that was effectively splitting the country apart. Resistance to the Vietnam War was a particularly volatile flash point, and it is highly significant that only a year before the release of True Grit, John Wayne had starred in and codirected The Green Berets, a movie that was clearly addressed to American traditionalists who resented the antiwar movement (Joe, released in 1970, was similarly addressed to conservative opponents of the cultural revolution).

In such a context, Portis’s novel, with its appeal to old-fashioned self-reliant individualism and law and order, not to mention its revival of a traditionalist mythology of the Old West that movies like Little Big Man (1970) would soon challenge, was a signifier of conservative reaction. (It is also significant that True Grit, both the novel and movie, revisits the fundamental material of Cat Ballou (1965), reconstituting that spoofing of the Old West as a serious homage to the frontier tradition.)

Thus the appearance of True Grit as a movie in 1969 was a clear signifier of conservative pushback. Should anyone have not gotten the point, John Wayne—popular culture’s leading standard-bearer of conservative values at the time—was cast in the lead role.

Fast forward to 2010. While there is still a sharp political and cultural divide in America, it does not loom so dramatically as it did in the late 1960s/early 1970s. (Can you imagine National Guard troops opening fire on an American college campus today?) The reprisal of True Grit in the current state of affairs just doesn’t have the same political force that it did the first time around.

The fact that the Coen brothers—who are hardly known as conservative standard-bearers—have made the movie, and that Jeff Bridges (rather than, say, Chuck Norris) is Rooster Cogburn, also plays an important role in the depoliticization of the film. Perhaps if Clint Eastwood had starred in and directed this version things might be different, but as it stands even liberal cinephiles can be content to debate such aesthetic matters as whose interpretation of Portis’s novel is more accurate and whether Bridges’s handling of John Wayne’s only Oscar-winning role measures up to the Duke. But politically, the return of True Grit is hardly a blip on the cultural radar.

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Categories: Popular Culture
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One Response to “The Cultural Context of True Grit”

  1. Nick D Says:

    As a fan of all things cinematic I found this post both poignant and fun. The notion of politicizing film is one I have always found interesting and the specific time frames in which these two films found there way to the screen are as different as they are similar.
    As I have seen both versions of the film, I feel that though there are certain larger themes that resonate with certain political idealogies, that the core message of both movies tends to be the same. I find politicization rampant in both film, though I must say on a much smaller scale than say The Green Berets. I find that there is much to be said in regards to individual politics in both films. The notion of what is “right” or “morally just” in both films both seem to be of the “conservative” mindset, a life for a life. However I find Steinfeld’s characterization to hold some idealogical belief in the framework of Westernized society. As much as she believes in corporal punishment, her constant threats of contacting her lawyer, as well as remarking about what is “fair”, in regards to horse trading, suggest to me that she is infused with a sense of liberal ideals, that the system should aid the less fortunate in a fair and honest manner.
    Though politicization of film can be intentional, unintentional, rampant, or nonexistent, it is the viewer who instills the values into characters, storylines, and dialogue. A film that reaks of political fare to me may very well be a simple three act story to another. Though I suspect the Coen’s may have, as one might expect, been far more concerned with the most important element in the medium of film making: The Story.