John Wayne won the Oscar – from his only nomination – as hard-drinking gunslinger Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version of True Grit, adapted from the novel by Charles Portis.
It became a signature role for the actor known affectionately as The Duke, sharing the screen with a young Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper.
Almost 40 years later, Jeff Bridges is nominated for the Oscar for the very same role in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterful reworking, that layers this bloody tale of retribution with the brothers’ trademark black humour.
It’s clear from his first appearance, shifting nervously in a courtroom witness stand, that Bridges is not paying homage to his predecessor.
He mumbles words as if he is permanently chewing on a ball of tobacco, spitting out polished one-liners like bullets.
After a chaotic gunfight, he reneges on a promise to bury the fallen because the ‘ground is too hard.
‘If these men wanted a decent burial they should have got themselves killed in summer.’
So that’s how the West was won.
‘I was just 14 years of age when a coward by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down and robbed him of his life,’ explains Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in her opening voiceover.
‘You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God,’ she adds.
And so Mattie seeks out marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) and hires him to help her track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang.
A tenacious Texas Ranger called LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been on Chaney’s trail for some time, joins the hunting party.
‘I know Chaney,’ he tells Mattie, ‘it is at least a two-man job taking him alive.’
True Grit has an impressive 10 Oscar nominations and deserves every single one.
Production design is impeccable, beautifully evoking the era when a gun spoke just as loudly as words.
Steinfeld, who was 13 years old when the film was made, is a revelation as the plucky daughter on a quest for vengeance.
She is utterly believable in the role, holding her own against seasoned co-stars, like when Ned captures Mattie and makes fun of her friend Rooster.
‘He is not my friend. He has abandoned me to a congress of louts,’ snarls Mattie.
‘You do not varnish your opinions,’ responds Ned, impressed.
Bridges is a hoot but some of his best lines are impossible to understand on the open plains through his garbled delivery, and Damon, Pepper and Brolin offer strong support.
The Coens canter through the brilliantly orchestrated gun fights but always remain tightly focused on the characters and the delightful if somewhat fractious relationship between Mattie and Rooster.