True Grit

Sam Schulman | Posted on 03/01/09

A hobo wearing a beaten-up farmer’s hat lounges uneasily on a dusty Old West main street outside the saloon. He’s out of place. Two hard-faced cowboys ride up to the saloon. As the first of them walks past him toward the swinging doors, the hobo mutters a question in a Mexican accent (no wonder he looks out of place). “Are you Dan Ritchy?” When the cowboy turns to answer yes, his coat falls open. He’s wearing a sharp-looking suit and a gaudily tooled gun belt. He’s a gunfighter. Has he ever been in Del Rio, the Mexican asks. A long time ago, says the gunfighter, exasperated because these challenges from nobodies are tedious. “Five years ago,” the Mexican corrects him; that was when the gunslinger killed his friends. Ritchy is more amused than sorry or frightened: “You waited a long time!” “It took me five years to learn to use a gun,” says the Mexican. Sighing, the gunfighter tells his sidekick to count to three so he can get this killing over with — a busman’s holiday. But the Mexican easily outdraws Ritchy and kills him. In the intervening five years, Anthony Quinn (for it is he), must have spent thousands of hours practicing alone. Malcolm Gladwell would have been proud.

Grit emerges in this particular Western — Harry Horner’s underappreciated Man from Del Rio (1956) — in an unusual way. Quinn’s character triumphs because he has it, not because his heroism protects the grit of others. Grit is ubiquitous in the Western but usually relegated to the background. Minor characters, the little people, have it. Reviewing Dodge City (1939), Graham Greene beautifully encapsulated the usual relationship between grit and the Western hero whose actions allow it to triumph:

Pioneers build their city, racketeers build gambling halls; pioneers though outnumbering gunmen a hundred to one, are all old men with Bibles, old ladies sewing shirts for the little ones, the little ones themselves, poor widows, and a few mortality types; straight-shooting cowboy is asked to become sheriff, refuses, sees child killed, accepts, cleans up.

The people with grit are the ones who need protection from the hero, who can be a murderer himself, like Jim Davis in The Badge of Marshall Brennan; an ingenuous and tidy cowboy like William Elliott; gun-hating men you pushed just a bit too far, like Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart in Shane or High Noon or Destry Rides Again; hardened ex-soldiers like Glenn Ford or John Wayne in dozens of roles. The heroes have grit, but theirs is nothing like that of the people they protect: the builders of the towns, the schoolteachers, the farmers whose sons are killed one by one, the small ranchers forced to sell out to the cattle barons, even the Indian tribes who are willing to smoke the peace pipe.

Like violence in ancient Greek tragedy, grit in Westerns takes place mostly offstage. Breaking the prairie sod, plowing, sowing, reaping, starving, losing children, losing wives and husbands, churchgoing, burying — it’s all so un-cinematic and dull that Westerns tell us about it instead of show it. In Red River, Howard Hawks’s masterpiece, we hear about “grit to come” in John Wayne’s prophecy:

Ten years and I’ll have the Red River D on more cattle than you’ve looked at anywhere. I’ll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make ’em strong and make ’em grow. But it takes work and it takes sweat and it takes time. Lots of time. It takes years.

And we encounter “grit past” in the apology for John Wayne’s character his adopted son (played by Montgomery Clift, of all people) makes to the ingenue who will settle the conflict in the end — one of those characters whom Greene invariably described as “the girl in gingham”:

Because he got to a place where, see, he’d taken empty land used for nothin’, made it the biggest ranch in the state of Texas. Fought to keep it ... one bull and one cow, that’s all he started with ... After he’d done all that, gotten what he’d been after for so long, it wasn’t worth anything ... So he started this drive. Everybody said, “You can’t make it. You’ll never get there.” He was the only one believed we could. He had to believe it. So he started thinking one way, his way. He told men what to do and made ’em do it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have got as far as we did. He started ’em for Missouri and all he knew was he had to get there. I took his herd away from him.

Villains, too, can have grit. In The Violent Men, Barbara Stanwyck, the refined chatelaine of the vast Anchor Ranch, a ranch built by her husband’s fraud and violence, suspects that the now paraplegic old man (Edward G. Robinson) has lost his appetite for more land. To spur him on, she drops her great-lady act and rehearses his history of grit:

You fought your way into this valley when it was crawling with Indians — you didn’t let anything stand in your way then. You didn’t build Anchor by depending on others — you fought and struggled! It’s weight, strength, and endurance — and purpose — to know what you want and not let anyone or anything stop you!

To compensate for grit’s undramatic quality, its recitation is seldom under-acted. Stanwyck shrieks this speech so emphatically that her native Brooklyn accent breaks through when she tries to say the word purpose. But unpicturesque as it is, grit explains why the Western became almost immediately the most popular genre around the world, from the very beginning of commercial cinema to the 1980s.

It’s remarkable that a worldwide audience should seize so decisively upon a particular set of stories that take place in one geographical sector of a relatively unimportant colonial society during a rather brief period in that country’s history: a single generation beginning in 1865. Moreover, the period 1865–1890 didn’t even include the great events, such as they were, in American history: the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Even more remarkable is how such a masculine subject matter — a subject matter that seldom depicted women, marriage, family, religious belief, or even sex and courtship — could attract such a wide audience, men and women, adults and children.

But these male-oriented, sexless stories appeal precisely because they reenact the prehistory of every civilization in the modern world, as it saw itself at the end of the nineteenth century — from Europe to Japan, from South America to Sweden. Every modern society began with a generation of farmers, herders, priests, and administrators settling down and crowding out, absorbing, or killing the dramatic predecessors to their comparatively dull civilization: bandits, local tyrants, shamans, or the despised and feared indigenous peoples who stood in the way of modernity. The Western appreciates the grit of the founding class that built the world so comparatively secure and comfortable that it seemed to mark the end of history. The Western succeeded because it made the ancestors of its audience seem heroic — whether they were the dull farmers, merchants, bankers, or laborers who built modern society — and also invented a race of heroes who protected the ordinary folk, and who sacrificed themselves for the community as sheriffs and good guys, cavalrymen and wagon-train guides. Not least, the Western also placed the sacrificial heroes safely in the historic past, or planted on Boot Hill. The audiences for Westerns wanted to believe that heroes weren’t necessary anymore.

But the fundamental “scene of grit” is the opening of the frontier, and the movement of ordinary people into new landscapes to tame and settle. In this sense the Western is as full of grit as it is as empty of sex. John Wayne, as usual, says it best, as he does in Raoul Walsh’s early super-Western The Big Trail (1930). When the folks in the wagon train he’s shepherding across the Rockies begin to lose heart, he reaches back to the Pilgrims — and forward to Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a savage, sacrificial war to end all wars — to urge them forward:

We can’t turn back! We’re blazing a trail that started in England. Not even the storms of the sea could turn back those first settlers. And they carried on further. They blazed it on through the wilderness of Kentucky. Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them! And now we’ve picked up the trail again. And nothing can stop us — not even the snows of winter, not the peaks of the highest mountains! We’re building a nation! But we’ve got to suffer! No great trail was ever blazed without hardship. And you gotta fight! That’s life! And when you stop fightin’, that’s death! What’re you going to do? Lie down and die? Not in a thousand years! You’re going on with me!

Grit is boring but necessary. But so are the sacrifice and heroism that allow grit to live. On the other hand, when sacrifice and heroism do occur, it is the aesthetic of the Western to reduce them to mere grit. In Henry Hathaway’s Rawhide (1951), Tyrone Power is left in charge of a lonely relay station for the first time. He saves the stagecoach company payroll, keeps himself alive through a twenty-four-hour siege, impotently watches the cruel murder of his partners, and engineers the killing of each bandit — all while controlling and ultimately taming the ferocious Susan Hayward. When the eastbound stage finally arrives safely at the end of the movie, the driver, surveying the bloody scene, asks Power what in Jerusalem he’s been doing. “Learning the business, Jim,” he answers, “just learning the business.”

Grit is the business of the task of civilization — delaying gratification, defending something bigger than your own family, building a community rather than a household or a campfire. José Ortega y Gasset thought that ingratitude toward one’s ancestors was the identifying mark of modern culture: modern man could be identified because he was the first to regard the comparatively comfortable world in which he lived as a fact of nature, not the hard-won artifact of centuries of culture. For a long time, the Western movie fought against this sense of ingratitude — and may have been popular for that reason — by giving its mass audience a fleeting moment of contact with the roots of its own good fortune. The power of the Western to communicate this feeling for grit, and to cultivate an appreciation for it, depended on a tenuous bargain with its public. So long as its audience was willing to cooperate with the Western’s many tenuous assumptions and absurd conventions, the Western movie was the Plutarch of grit. But when the spell was broken and disenchantment set in — I’d say the date was November 22, 1963 — the Western became just another costume drama. Grit became something that was comic or cute, sometimes sexy in a girl. It had nothing to do with ourselves.

So it was in True Grit (1969), in which a spunky, sexy preadolescent teaches the aging John Wayne a lesson or two about grit. It was also Henry Hathaway’s last movie. A young Roger Ebert’s review describes a Western from which grit has passed. To compensate, Ebert offers aesthetic knowingness (wonderful in a Chicago newspaper movie reviewer, I thought at the time) and a sense of superiority, deeply unearned, to what we see:

Director Henry Hathaway pulls his telephoto lens high up in the sky, and we see the meadow isolated there, dreamlike and fantastic. And then we’re back down on the ground, and with a growl Wayne puts his horse’s reins in his teeth, takes his rifle in one of his hands and a six-shooter in the other, and charges those bad guys with all barrels blazing. As a scene, it is not meant to be taken seriously. The night I saw a sneak preview, the audience laughed and even applauded. This was the essence of Wayne, the distillation.

Even forty years ago, Ebert was wrong. True Grit wasn’t the essence of Wayne — it was a ghost. In True Grit, Wayne ended his cowboy career by clowning about something he once took seriously enough to teach his audience. The laughter and applause Ebert heard marked the sound of grit departing from the world.