True Grit vs. The Wild Bunch: The Week of Peak Western

They opened one week apart 50 years ago. One featured the matchless giant of the genre; the other came from one of its great directors. True Grit opened first, followed just seven days later by The Wild Bunch. These two films reflected different views of the Western, but also proved how versatile and durable the form could be in the right hands.

Charles Portis’s True Grit first saw light as a novel serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968; the following year, it was adapted into a screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. John Wayne had campaigned for the lead role of Rooster Cogburn after reading the book, and championed Roberts as a writer despite her having been “blacklisted” during the Red Scare. Wayne would later recall the script as the best he’d ever read.

Wayne, of course, typified the Western genre in the American consciousness. Of the approximately 170 films he appeared in, over 80 of them were Westerns. Wayne was conservative politically and curated his reputation to the point where he declined to appear in the Western comedy film Blazing Saddles because he felt that the raunchy material went against his family-friendly image. That image actually made a for a good fit with the material of Grit, where Wayne’s cantankerous U.S. marshal develops a vaguely paternal relationship with young Mattie (played by Kim Darby), who hires him to track down her father’s killer.

The original trailer for True Grit (Uploaded to YouTube by Paramount Movies)

Despite pushing against the boundaries of the traditional Western by highlighting the fact that Cogburn is an aging protagonist, much of the plot fits within the confines of what people were expecting of the genre and Wayne. The curmudgeonly Cogburn is a decent and heroic man, as is the third member of his and Mattie’s group, Texas Ranger Le Boeuf (country star and occasional Beach Boy substitute Glen Campbell). Justice is served, evil is punished, and Mattie even promises to have Cogburn interred at her family plot when he dies. The film traffics in themes of “found family” as much as it does in the well-worn revenge and justice tropes of the Old West.

Released just one week later on June 18, 1969, The Wild Bunch leans into a very different sensibility. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, who rewrote the film from an original screenplay by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, The Wild Bunch captures the same ethos of the aging cowboy, but flips it from lawman to outlaw. The film taps into the idea of “honor among thieves,” challenging the audience to identify with a cast of hardened criminals while suggesting that they do indeed adhere to their own version of a code.

The original trailer for The Wild Bunch (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

The overall plot of The Wild Bunch, which involves a group of outlaws (led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine) chasing their last score, isn’t that unusual. Neither is the subplot of the group being pursued by a now-deputized former ally (played by Robert Ryan). What sets the story apart is the way in which the steady approach of the modern world is transforming the West. The characters are aging, and the country they knew is changing around them; they recognize their own mortality and the fact that they are, in a sense, outdated characters.

But the larger, and more shockingly revolutionary change, is the frank depiction of violence. Peckinpah leans into the brutality. His shoot-outs pull no punches. They are bloody, messy affairs that strip away the lie of the clean gunfights that filled earlier movies of the type. Civilians, including women and children, die in public crossfires. Bodies are riddled with bullets. And the blood doesn’t just flow; it bursts. This is the same frank depiction of violence that began in part with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and continued throughout Peckinpah’s own work, including Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron, signaling the beginning of what was called “the new Hollywood,” which placed a greater emphasis on realism and cinema as visceral experience.

The two films met with very different receptions. Wayne won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best actor for True Grit, while the title song (sung by Glen Campbell) was nominated for both distinctions, as well. The movie turned out to be a solid box-office performer, as well.

The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah and actor William Holden share a moment on set.
Director Sam Peckinpah and actor William Holden on the set of The Wild Bunch. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Wild Bunch was instantly polarizing; the late critic Roger Ebert recalled that, at the initial screening, he stood to defend the film against an attack from the critic for Reader’s Digest, who had questioned why such a film had even been made. A number of prominent critics did praise The Wild Bunch, including Vincent Canby of The New York Times; Time also weighed in with positive notices, offering unabashed praise of Holden and Ryan and going on to state that “[the film’s] accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belongs with the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.”

One person that wasn’t a fan of The Wild Bunch was, perhaps unsurprisingly, John Wayne. Wayne noted privately and in interviews that he felt that that film destroyed the myth of the Old West. The actor commented on Clint Eastwood’s similarly nihilistic High Plains Drifter in 1973; in a 1993 interview with Premiere magazine, Eastwood recalled that Wayne wrote him directly and said, “That isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.”

Over the years, True Grit continued to be held in high esteem, while The Wild Bunch grew in reputation among critics and film scholars. Peckinpah’s command of violent action and quick editing can be seen today in the work of directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. True Grit received an acclaimed remake in 2010, while The Wild Bunch has managed to avoid multiple efforts at a new version. It’s fair to say that Bunch helped usher in the age of the revisionist Western, seen in films like Unforgiven that take a more unflinching look at consequence of violence. It’s perhaps strange that two genre classics that were so different from one another were released in the same week, but it did seem to mark a tidal shift when the narratives of American film grew darker and the myth of the American West began to be resigned to just that: a myth.


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

"Movie poster for the film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

“Command” by James Warner Bellah was fist published by the Post in June of 1948 and tells the story of Capt. Nathan Brittles, who is forced to evacuate the commanding officer’s wife and their niece, Olivia Dandridge, from the fort after the fall of Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Olivia catches the eyes of two young officers, and when she starts to wear a yellow ribbon in her hair—a sign that she has a beau in the Cavalry—but refuses to reveal who she’s wearing it for, trouble ensues.

The story was adapted for the big screen in 1949 under the name She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Directed by John Ford, the film starred Joanne Dru, John Agar, Harry Carey Jr., and John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles. It has become one of the most popular westerns ever made, and on a $1.6 million budget, one of the most expensive. TCM’s Leonard Maltin rated it 3 and a half out of four stars.

It’s also one of Wayne’s most popular westerns, although ironically, Ford only cast John Wayne in the lead after seeing his performance in another western—and another Post original—1948’s Red River. Ribbon won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1950.

The Quiet Man (1952)

Movie Poster for the film The Quiet Man
©Republic Pictures

“The Quiet Man” originally appeared in the Post on February 11, 1933, and was written by Maurice Walsh.

Director John Ford tapped “River” castmate John Wayne to play Sean Thornton, an Irishman returned home to escape his past who falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher, played by Maureen O’Hara, earning the ire of her ill-tempered brother Will, whose antics to keep the lovers apart form the main plot.

Earning four stars from Leonard Maltin and TCM, it’s a fan favorite for its sweeping shots of the Irish countryside and an intense—although comical—fist fight between two principal characters. Little known is that O’Hara filmed most of the movie with a broken hand. During the wind-swept cottage scene, an indignant Mary Kate slaps Thornton for a brazen kiss, but O’Hara’s hand landed incorrectly against Wayne’s open palm, breaking a bone. Unlike most movies today, Quiet Man was being filmed in sequential order, and O’Hara was unable to wear a cast until after filming had finished.

The film grossed $3.8 million in its first year, and garnered two Golden Globe nominations and seven Oscar nods, including two Academy wins for Best Cinematography and Best Director. It’s even referenced in the 1982 movie E.T., when the eponymous alien discovers the television.

The Cowboy and the Columnist, or Joan Didion ♥ John Wayne

A recent Harris poll gave the names of America’s ten most popular movie stars. Every actor on the list was alive and working—except for the one who hadn’t made a movie since 1976: John Wayne. It didn’t surprise the pollsters; Wayne has made this Harris list every year since 1964. But it might surprise younger movie fans who wonder why the Duke’s popularity has outlived those of his contemporaries such as Bogart, Brando, Grant, and Gable.

Partly it was his roles. Wayne always played heroes who showed integrity, fairness, and courage—virtues prized by a generation that had confronted a depression, a world war, and a cold war. But it was also his talent for giving these roles credibility. His gestures, his walk, his speech—whether on- or off-screen—all seemed to intensify his heroic charisma.

No less a writer than Joan Didion (renowned “new journalist” and author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem) felt this charisma. She and Wayne had first met in 1943 when he was a cowboy in a black-and-white two-reeler and she was a nine-year-old kid on a sun-baked air base where movies were the only entertainment. She described their meeting for the Post in “John Wayne: A Love Song.”

In the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater… while the hot wind blew outside… I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.

In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders. “Let’s ride,” he said, and “Saddle up.” “Forward ho,” and “A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” “Hello, there,” he said when he first saw the girl, in a construction camp or on a train or just standing around on the front porch waiting for somebody to ride up through the tall grass.

Didion wrote those words in 1965 after visiting Wayne on a movie set. In person, he seemed larger than life while giving the impression of a decent, unassuming guy.

There was Wayne, in his 33-year-old spurs, his dusty neckerchief, his blue shirt.”You don’t have too many worries about what to wear in these things,” he said. “You can wear a blue shirt, or, if you’re down in Monument Valley, you can wear a yellow shirt.”

There was Wayne, in a relatively new hat, a hat which made him look curiously like William S. Hart. “I had this old cavalry hat I loved, but I lent it to Sammy Davis. I got it back, it was unwearable. I think they all pushed it down on his head and said, “O.K. John Wayne. You know, a joke…”

(That hat, and several others, went up for auction this past week in Los Angeles, as Wayne’s family finally acceded to fan’s request to purchase some of their father’s movie memorabilia.)

Didion also noted several moments of pure, unrehearsed “Duke.” For example, when Michael Anderson, a young member of the cast, was given his own chair with his name on the back, he hurriedly brought it to Wayne’s attention.

“You see that?” Anderson asked Wayne, suddenly too shy to look him in the eye. Wayne gave him the smile, the nod, the final accolade. “I saw it, kid.”

There was also the moment when the crew, during a lunchtime break, discussed what they’d do to anyone who threatened their lives.

[Director Henry] Hathaway removed the cigar from his mouth. “Some guy just tried to kill me he wouldn’t end up in jail. How about you. Duke?”

Very slowly, the object of Hathaway’s query wiped his mouth, pushed back his chair, and stood up. It was the real thing, the authentic article, the move which had climaxed 1,000 scenes on 165 flickering frontiers and battlefields, and it was about to climax this one, in the commissary at Estudio Churubusco outside Mexico City.

“Right,” John Wayne drawled. “I’d kill him.”

Later, when Didion and her husband had dinner with Wayne and his family, she felt how his charm could fill an entire restaurant.

For a while it was only a nice evening, an evening anywhere. We had a lot of drinks, and I lost the sense that the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband’s.

John Wayne, photographed in 1978, shortly before his death.

And then something happened. Suddenly the room seemed suffused with the dream, and I could not think why. Three men appeared out of nowhere, playing guitars. I watched Pilar Wayne lean slightly forward, and John Wayne lift his glass almost imperceptibly toward her… We all smiled, and drank… and all the while the men with the guitars kept playing, until finally I realized what they had been playing all along: “Red River Valley” and the theme from The High and the Mighty. They did not quite get the beat right, but even now I can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this…

In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever, but in any case existed no more—a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the sun.