To many, the words True Grit mean one thing: John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the classic western. But for Joel and Ethan Coen – whose film of the same name is out on Friday in the UK – Wayne is simply “an irrelevancy”.
Speaking in Berlin, where the Coens’ True Grit opened the city’s film festival, Ethan Coen said neither of the brothers had seen Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film since childhood, and they made their version with “a blithe disregard” for it.
He added: “John Wayne is more like Mount Rushmore than an actor for us. He was already an ageing actor – not part of my movie-going life – when we were growing up. We were the tail end of people for whom John Wayne meant something.”
His brother and co-director Joel Coen added: “I’m not sure if John Wayne means much to kids in America now. I’ve a 16-year-old son and I doubt if he knows who he is.”
Indeed, the young female lead of True Grit, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who is nominated for best supporting actress in the Oscars, confessed that she “actually didn’t know of” Wayne before becoming involved in the Coens’ project. In fact, it was only this year that she was “introduced to the whole genre of westerns”.
Jeff Bridges, who plays Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn – the part played by Wayne in 1969 said: “I didn’t want to impersonate John Wayne: I didn’t think about him and his interpretation at all.”
Josh Brolin – who plays the murderous Tom Chaney – remarked, sarcastically, of Wayne: “He was a great guy – I loved his political beliefs.” The actor was famously politically conservative, a supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee and of the Vietnam war.
It is not entirely out of the question that the Coens’ True Grit will eclipse the reputation of earlier film. Nominated for 10 Oscars – admittedly trailing by two nominations behind The King’s Speech – it has already done excellent business at the US box office.
The Coen’s True Grit is not a remake: rather it is a fresh adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, set in 19th-century Arkansas. It tells of how the young Mattie Ross – competent, steely and thrifty – sets out to avenge the murder of her father with the help of the drunk, one-eyed Cogburn and a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon in the Coens’ film. The novel, which reads, according to Bridges, “like a Coen brothers’ screenplay”, has become a bestseller in the US since the release of the movie. The Coens also denied that their work was a western. According to Joel Coen, “We weren’t consciously doing it as a western – in the sense that John Ford movies are. For us it was a much more prosaic thing: a story set in Arkansas in 1872.”
The 61st Berlin film festival continues with premieres including Margin Call, a thriller set on Wall Street during the financial crisis, starring Kevin Spacey; Wim Wenders’s Pina, a tribute in 3D to the great German choreographer; and Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, Coriolanus. The president of this year’s competition jury is Isabella Rossellini.