1969 saw an explosion of liberal hippies, what with all that Woodstockin' and what have you, so it's only that real men got quite the collection of nitty gritty westerns, with this one being the grittiest, as it tells you in the title. Seriously though, 1969 was a particularly important year for westerns, because "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" united Paul Newman and Robert Redford, while "The Wild Bunch" broke boundaries with western violence and anti-heroism, and John Wayne finally got his Oscar, you know, for his remarkable diversity on display here. Yeah, Wayne is good in here and all, because, come on, he's John Wayne, pilgrims, but he doesn't have much to do at all, let alone much to do that's different from usual, so maybe the real cowboy who deserved Best Actor was of the midnight persuasion. Yeah, nevermind about "The Wild Bunch" being the cowboy film which tested censorship boundaries in 1969, but it's still a little grittier than this film, which is so commercialized that Glen Campbell shows up, further convoluting the difference between southern country and the old south. Come to think of it, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper show up, too, so this film seemed to be great for the early stages of notorious performers' careers, with the exception of Kim Darby. Well, in all fairness, even though Darby is the real lead of this film, I mean, how could you possibly be remembered when you work with John Wayne delivering a mighty and totally distinct, Oscar-winning performance? Sarcasm aside, Wayne is good in this film, and the film itself isn't too shabby, even though, also like Wayne's performance, it tends to slip into formula.
I suppose familiarity is among the bigger issues of the film, but by no means the biggest, as the film seems to be making attempts at freshening things up in some places, it's just that it generally falls into trope, upon trope as a traditional, 1960s western, complete, unfortunately, with certain dated aspects. The usual '60s Hollywood stuff that has since failed to fair especially well against the tests of time, whether it be cheesy lines or sentimentality, if not melodramatic, all of which reflect the film's finding difficulty in gaining a great grip on weight, as surely as it finds difficulty in gaining a great grip on scale. A dramatic adventure affair, this film alternates between intimacy and sweep a little unevenly, and while that is hardly a huge issue, it does result in some heavy blows to a sense of urgency that, quite frankly, isn't exactly helped by the pacing of the film. Clocking in at a fair ways over two hours, the film tends to wander around more than it ought to, with near-monotonously overdrawn set-ups, followed by expendable filler during the body so plentiful in quantity that storytelling often devolves into aimlessness, exacerbated by some limp-feeling direction. The film is generally very entertaining, but honestly, there are some cold spells to Henry Hathaway's directorial atmosphere which aren't so much bland, or even all that problematic at all, yet still carry a disconcerting laziness to their feel. There's really not much to complain about here, and what criticisms you can make are rarely that big of an issue, but there are subtle missteps here and there throughout the course of the final product, and when they fall behind a certain sense of self-consciousness to Hathaway's direction, entertainment value, maybe even reward value is threatened. Of course, in the end, the entertainment value is firmly secured on the whole, anchored by generally inspired storytelling, and flavored up by some nice scoring.
As you can imagine, if there's barely anything new to this 1960s western's narrative formula, then there's just about nothing new to Elmer Bernstein's score, which still at least takes worthy notes from typical western film formulas, with a subtle sweep that compliments a sense of adventure almost as much as the film's production value. While not especially extensive, this film's art direction does a decent job of capturing the time portrayed in this portrait on post-Civil War south-central America's land, well enough to immerse, but not as much as that aforementioned sense of adventure that is further complimented by the art direction, and anchored by Henry Hathaway's direction. Like I said, there's a certain sense of laziness, or at least a sense of nervousness to Hathaway's directorial storytelling, but he doesn't slip so far that compelling momentum is lost, as he sustains it enough with subtle entertainment value, as well as with subtle dramatic highlights, to endear the patient towards the heart of this adventure drama's story. A potentially fun and tense study on the dynamics of three unique characters on an adventure to claim, if not exact vengeance on a murderer on the run, this story is conceptually dynamic with its structure and tone, and if no one else does justice to such potential, it's Marguerite Roberts, whose script is overdrawn and a little melodramatic, but highlighted by plenty clever dialogue, amusing lighter set pieces, and memorable characterization. Particularly as a coming-of-age drama, this film is thematically worthy, drawing parallels between adult adventure's genuine fun and dangerous realities, all on a path to coming into your own as an independent individual, with a certain intimacy that is done justice by Roberts and, to a lesser extent, Hathaway, but still not as much as it is done justice by some endearing performances. Glen Campbell is charismatic, with some sharp chemistry with his peers, and Kim Darby does a perfectly decent job of capturing both the formal attitude and emotional sensitivity of a young woman who is wise, but not strong beyond her years, while John Wayne steals the show, playing himself, make no mistake, but therefore coming well-versed with a high charisma that is controlled in a way which sells Rooster Cogburn's grimy charm and heroic stance. The film's strengths are subtle, and as the flaws gradually bear down on the drama as it progresses, momentum slips, almost into underwhelmingness, but through it all is a classic adventure opus that entertains and compels enough to reward the patient.
When the chase is done, the many conventions of this film include a fair deal of cheesily dated dramatic aspects, while an unevenness in a sense of scope, structural tightness and directorial pace shake momentum almost enough for the final product to collapse as underwhelming, but on the backs of lively scoring, immersive production value, some colorful direction, sharp scripting and charismatic performances by Glen Campbell, Kim Darby and, of course, John Wayne, Henry Hathaway's "True Grit" is secured as a rewardingly fun and often compelling classic western.
3/5 - Good