Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Last week during the holiday week, me and my two brothers went to see “True Grit.” I am a big fan of both the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis and of course the 1969 version featuring the great John Wayne, and Glen Campbell and Kim Darby.

Almost everyone in the free world is at least somewhat familiar with the storyline. A 14 year old girl leaves home to track down her father’s killer, a former hired man named Tom Chaney, who has since joined up with a gang of thieves lead by Lucky Ned Pepper. To aid her, she hires a US deputy marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, becomes the third of their party. The story covers the elements of this adventure.

First of all, let's get this out of the way right now: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld own this film, every inch of it. The entire cast is fantastic, but there's not a moment that goes by in the film when you're not itching to see Bridges' Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn and Steinfeld's Mattie Ross share the screen. Every scene they share is one we’re going to want to watch again for years to come.

While thoroughly entertaining, “True Grit” also plumbs deeper spiritually. It opens with a quotation from the King James translation of the Book of Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth,” the first of several biblical and religious references scattered through the script. And the music in the background was old Christian hymns: “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” “Gloryland Way,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

But, clearly the theme song and a major idea of the movie is, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The film begins, as a now adult Mattie does her voiceover setting the story, with a piano playing this beautiful old gospel hymn. And once again, the movie plays an instrumental version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” at varying tempos throughout the film is a subtle reminder that not only is Hattie relying on God’s providence to help her bring about justice and avenge her father’s death legally, but that we all are, whether we realize it or not, leaning on those same everlasting arms. There is a powerful scene in the climax where this comes into full view under a starlit sky—a scene that won’t leave my memory anytime soon.

At one point in the film the narrator says: “You pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”

This is also a central theme to the film as characterized by Hattie’s measuring out the cost of every transaction in life with such meticulous detail. But there is no hiding the grace of God. Even a criminal about to be hanged repents aloud to the crowd and asks for mercy and grace to be extended to his family after his death.

Mattie later writes her mother not to worry when she's on her quest to avenge her father's death: "The author of all things watches over me." When a mortician asks her whether she'd like to kiss her father's dead face, she says, "Thank you, his spirit is flown." In town without money, she's forced to sleep in a coffin at the mortuary, telling someone later that she "felt like Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones." A dying criminal makes Rooster promise to tell his brother, a Methodist pastor, of his fate, adding, "I will meet him later, walking the streets of glory."

Now, keep in mind that the storyline cannot be separated from either its period in U.S. History or its reliance upon Christian virtue as the order of the day in that society.

But these allusions draw attention to the film’s serious reflections on the violent undertow of frontier life. Witnessed from Mattie’s sensitive perspective, the shootouts and other death-dealing confrontations that take place here are never glossed over, but are shown instead to be unnatural and difficult to absorb.

True Grit is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including a few disturbing violent images and some mildly salty language. Gunfights and a scary sequence involving some snakes make for some intense, although not horribly graphic PG-13 moments. This is not a film for children, by any means. Mature teens or adults are the only ones I could recommend seeing the film.

In conclusion, I did enjoy the many Biblical themes and ideas raised in this Coen brother’s movie. This movie unlike say their movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? where the underlying faith message was far more tongue in cheek than something worth regarding seriously. But the deeper spiritual truths in True Grit are ultimately the basis for what's an engaging tale of a man who learns the meaning of sacrifice from a much younger woman who wasn't afraid to stand up for what's right—even if it meant endangering her own life in the process.

So if you can’t tell from my review, I thoroughly enjoyed True Grit. It has an old-fashioned fighting spirit in this classic quest for wrongs being made right. And truth be told, it takes some "true grit" to remake a beloved classic movie where John Wayne won his first Oscar and do it as well as they did.

Check out the trailer below which really captures the spiritual overtones of the movie:

Now, speaking of the Duke, check out the following YouTube link:


This video shows John Wayne winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in “True Grit” in 1970. Of course we know this really wasn’t just for “True Grit.” It was for a lifetime’s worth of great films. His speech was thoughtful, heartfelt and humble, paying homage to everyone before himself, obviously a deeply moving moment for him. (You can tell I'm a BIG fan hopefully).

It makes me wonder just a bit where have men like John Wayne and the values and “true grit” he represented have gone today…..Lord knows we sure need them today……the Duke had class you just don’t see today!

His Congressional Medal says it all: John Wayne – American.


Anonymous said...

You have got to be kidding!!??

While this was a well made movie and the acting very good, you can in no way attribute any spirituality to this film. There's nothing in any of the characters that is really worth mentioning as a good quality, with the exception of the tenacity of the young girl.

I'm really getting tired of Christian reviews trying to make something out of movies that isn't there and most likely is not intended.

Anonymous said...

Well I guess we are just going to have to respectfully agree to disagree on this one my Anonymous friend.

It is true that in True Grit, there is no relationship between heroism and virtue of character. I did enjoy how Rooster Cogburn changes over the course of the new movie, from a I don't care about anything or anyone old drunkard into someone whose arms carry Mattie the rest of the way because he will do all he can to keep her alive. There was virtue in that moment. Maybe even some earthly redemption??

I’m just glad when anytime Hollywood deals with any Christian themes and values in an intelligent or respectful way. Movies like A Walk to Remember, The Polar Express, Flicka Rocky Balboa, The Blind Side, The Chronicles of Narnia, Evan Almighty, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Bucket List, to name a few recent ones, contained strong redemptive content with positive Christian themes.

And setting aside the violence and language of the movies, what about The Book of Eli which is a story of a man of faith on a mission to protect the last copy of the Bible. Doesn’t this make anyone watching consider what they would protect with their life? What is worth living and drying for?

Same with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino where a priest teaches a gruff atheist that love and sacrifice are better than revenge.

I believe True Grit is a film that has a theme about redemption. (I hear it’s also a theme in the new movie Country Strong)

You say you are getting tired of Christian reviews trying to make something out of movies, but I submit it’s not just “Christian reviewers.”

Stanley Fish who is an opinion writer for The New York Times and is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami, recently wrote about the new True Grit film:

“Coens deprive us of the heroism Gagliasso and others look for, they give us a better heroism in the person of Mattie, who maintains the confidence of her convictions even when the world continues to provide no support for them. In the end, when she is a spinster with one arm who arrives too late to see Rooster once more, she remains as judgmental, single-minded and resolute as ever. She goes forward not because she has faith in a better worldly future — her last words to us are “Time just gets away from us” — but because she has faith in the righteousness of her path, a path that is sure (because it is not hers) despite the absence of external guideposts. That is the message Iris Dement proclaims at the movie’s close when she sings “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms"

Personally, I want to support filmmakers who explore questions of faith in their films. For me, choosing to see this film is casting a vote for Hollywood filmmakers to keep making films about faith and Christian values.

Will I always agree with their conclusions and their methods? No, of course not.

But I do get excited about opportunites these movies might give us to engage in healthy open discussions about the Bible, faith, Christian values and Jesus Christ.

So Anonymous, instead of directing your frustrations toward "Christian reviews trying ot make something out of movies" that might explore faith and Christian values, why don't we as Christians get ready to use them to point the Way and Truth and Life of Jesus Christ and the answers found in God's Word.

Think about it.

Robert Prater