Charles Portis–A Writer With Grit

The more recent, more gritty movie version of True Grit, staring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn.

The legendary John Wayne version of True Grit.

First, to settle the on-going debate.  By the way, it is recommended that relationships be ended, marriages annuled, neighborhoods disbanded, and churches split if all sides are not agreed on the matter being debated.

TRUE GRIT:  The 1969 movie and the 2010 movie.

Which movie version was better?  The old version, starring, as in dominated by, John Wayne, who could fill any screen, and play any role as long as the character had the same personality as every other John Wayne character?

Or the more recent, more earthly, graphic, violent, frontierish version where Jeff Bridges grumbles, mumbles, curses, and stumbles his way to frontier knighthood?

The answer as to which movie is best is…both.  And NEITHER.  (To be explained a bit later.)

Both movies are defining examples of their genres with great casts, directing, camera work, and action.  Both were reflections of the culural needs and expectations of their times.   But above all, both movies succeeded because of this feature:  a great story. 

The older 1969 version was a capstone of the career of the swaggering, tough talking, “tip the hat to the ladies” and be ready to kill anyone who looked at him wrong man-on-horseback, icon of American culture and cinematography, and great patriot John Wayne himself.  John Wayne could have never played Hamlet, but he could have played Shakespeare, ordering Hamlet, Macbeth, and Henry V around, drinking with Falstaff, cuffing a few rogues, quarreling with Katarina the Shrew, and bringing law and order to the Globe Theatre. 

The JW version of True Grit was among a few last great screen westerns.  In 1969, when it appeared, America needed every ounce of John Wayne’s personification of True Grit it could find.  Along with Wayne’s award winning performance, you had Glen Campbell’s defining role; that is, defining him as an incredible singer and guitar player who needed to avoid the silver screen.  And you had an obnoxious mouthy girl. Robert Duvall played the rotten scoundrel who got his just desserts.

The 2010 True Grit movie was produced by the Coen Brothers, who often get things right.  The world, as we have sadly had to admit, is a little dirtier, rougher, more edgy, and less scripted than the old western would let us believe.  But the world is filled with both special grace (being saved by Jesus) and common grace (people doing what is right).  The defining character of the 2010 movie was Mattie, played by Hallie Steinfield.  She was in the position of a Medieval maiden in distress.  But she was the spittin’ image of Genevan Calvinism, whetted against the flint of Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and then pushed along the edges of the Manifest Destiny of American frontier.  The hymn that provided the background music to the 2010 movie reinforced the theme.

Mattie needed a knight in shining armor to bring her father’s murderer to justice.  She got Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, to take on that task. He was aided by a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf, played by Matt Damon.  Let us say, the chivalry of these two knights errant was lacking at times, but they did what needed to be done.  In this case, the villian, criminal, murderer was played by Josh Brolin.

The latter day movie tipped its hat to John Wayne in the scene where Rooster Cogburn rides “hell bent for leather,” as the saying goes, toward the outlaws with two Winchesters blazing and with the reins of the horse’s bridle in his mouth.

In the Christian sub-sense of reality, evil is defeated, justice is done, and the fallen world limps along painfully.  Mattie, in the 2010 movie, nearly dies and does lose her arm. She would have died had it not been for the common grace goodness of Rooster Cogburn, an unlikely agent of grace.  (But then, aren’t we all?)

All in all, I favor the 2010 version of the movie.  I think the theme of Godly justice and Christian character trumps John Wayne’s secularized western ethic.  Along with Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies,  Amazing Grace, and Signs, True Grit earns a position in the Calvinist Movie Hall of Fame.

But there is a version of the story that trumps both movies:  The novel True Grit by Arkansas writer Charles Portis.

The basic for both movies and a great novel. Read this for proof of the 2010 movie’s superiority in telling the real tale.

Confession Time:  I saw this novel off and on for years at book stores, new and used.  I never gave it a thought.  “It is just a western,” I would say to myself, and I had no idea of who the author was. 

First of all, slapping down a novel because it is “just a western” is an effete, snobby, stuffy, ill-informed assertion worthy only of east coast types who personify east coast types.  What was I thinking?  James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner were writing “westerns.”  So was Virgil (in the Aeneid).  So was Tolkien who modeled his books after Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.  And Louis L’Amour was no slouch with the pen.

Secondly, I did not realize or think about who Charles Portis is.  I went to college in Arkansas and have lived, worked, and taught in Arkansas and I didn’t even recognize the man who is probably the greatest living novelist in Arkansas today.  He has written five novels, all highly praised, and I…I…I have only read one of them.  And I only own one of them.  This is abject intellectual poverty, literary pretension, and just plain dumb.

Step one on the road to recovery:  Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings.  This book came out last fall and is published by Butler Center Books in Little Rock, Arkansas. (

A collection of stories and essays by the author of True Grit and other fine novels: the Arkansas writer Charles Portis.

This nice hardback book contains a host of stories, newspaper articles, and magazine articles by Portis.  At one time, Portis was a successful newspaperman in New York.  But he came back to Arkansas where he still lives quietly and obscurely.  In his writings, he displays an ear for the way folks talk and a sense of what interests people. 

I have only read a few portions of this book, but I am already convinced that this year will have to be one where Charles Portis’ writings became part of a nutritional reading diet for me.

3 thoughts on “Charles Portis–A Writer With Grit

  1. I think it’s typical Reformed ego to assume that movies such as Signs or True Grit are somehow Calvinist. It’s easy to find similarities to your own narrowed worldview. They might happen to…just be good movies.

    • Thanks for the comment Aaron. It is true that Reformed people see the world through a particular worldview that is by definition narrow, and it is true that Calvinists can and do suffer from ego problems. That being said, in the novel, pages 114 to115, Mattie explains that she holds to the doctrine of election and cites verses to support it. The movie did not include that portion, but the nature of the character Mattie in the movie and book are the same. The girl is a Presbyterian with a firm belief in election and justice. In regard to Signs, the story is built around a man who has lost faith and thinks back to a supposed meaningless statement his wife made while dying. The movie overwhelmingly shows a purpose to everything that happens: the son’s asthma, the brother’s bat swinging ability, the daughter’s random glasses of water, and so on. These movies do not belong to Calvinists, Calvinism, or Reformed theology. Neither does John Calvin for that matter. All movies reflect philosophies and worldviews. The movies named reflect philosophies and worldview congenial to Calvinists…and others. I don’t think there is any such thing as “just a good movie.” Even when we say, just a good story or plot, that story or plot is reflecting some basic archetypal human story, and that story usually reflects redemption–either falsely or correctly or in part.

  2. Well, the cat’s out of the bad, you ego-driven slug you! We all know you see the face of John Calvin in your dirty sink dishwater! And don’t you DARE deny you hear your TV broadcasting the Institutes (when it’s unplugged!) ‘Fess up! ‘Fess up ya old mean Calvinist!

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