‘True Grit’ vs. modern morality

Hans Rollmann
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Year’s end brought several worthwhile new films, among them “The King’s Speech” and a remake of “True Grit,” the classic Western that earned the aging and ailing John Wayne an Oscar.

“True Grit,” totally ignored by the Golden Globe awards, has by now earned substantially more in the theatres than its moral opposite, “The Social Network.”

This gritty film by the Coen brothers confronts the most theological and religious issues among the current crop of movies — perhaps because, when compared to its 1969 predecessor, it comes closer to the spirit of Charles Portis’s novel.

Already, the opening of the film confronts the viewer with a biblical quote from Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion,” while the 19th-century hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” plays in the background.

A religious film

Several commentators have pointed out the “religious” and “ethical” character of the film, so much so that Stanley Fish, in a perceptive opinion piece in The New York Times, declared the remake “a truly religious movie.”

For him, divine grace is cast in its deeply mysterious character, by separating human ways from God’s purposes and any righteousness of works — or, as my mother used to say, Gottes Wege sind nicht unsere Wege, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

Mattie Ross’s stubborn reliance on what she thinks is the right thing to do because it has divine sanction gives her the strength of her convictions. In the face of inscrutable events, a disinterested justice system and wavering and fickle helpers, she sets out into Choctaw Nation territory (in the mountains of what is today southeastern Oklahoma).

Played by Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year-old girl seeks to avenge the senseless killing of her father by a man named Chaney.

In the words of Portis’s novel, Mattie’s father was “trying to do that short devil a good turn,” and died for simply wanting to be “his brother’s keeper.”

Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn, an aging and boozing federal marshal, who nevertheless retains a reputation for “true grit” and is played ably by Jeff Bridges.

They are joined by a self-important and cocky Texas Ranger, Le Boeuf (Matt Damon), who in the course of the film radically revises his opinion of Mattie.

No cheap grace

The novel and the recent film, in a manner that evokes Calvinism, resist not only the all-too-cheap grace in much of contemporary evangelicalism, but also many 20th-century humanistic ideas about crime and punishment (toward which I also lean).

A paragraph in the novel sets out that “hard doctrine” of divine election, which runs “contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play.”

In proof-texting support for such theological views, Mattie, a Southern Presbyterian, lists an array of classical biblical passages, drawn from the letters of the apostle Paul and 1 Peter. What “was good for Paul and Silas,” she preaches to the reader, “is good enough for me. It is good enough for you, too.”

The evocative music chosen by Carter Burwell for this movie underscores the steadfast reliance on a sense behind the apparent nonsense of this world and an ultimate trust in the face of so much earthly injustice.

Burwell’s selections chiefly come from 19th-century Protestant hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” sung by Iris DeMent.

The hymn was a joint production in 1888 of the music teacher and Presbyterian elder Anthony Showalter and his prolific collaborator, the evangelist Elisha Hoffman.

Based on a biblical text — Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms …” — the hymn originally sought to comfort two men whose wives had recently died.

When Carter Burwell, who had previously arranged the music for the movies of the Coen brothers, looked for appropriate music that would be suitable for “True Grit,” he found “contemporary recordings distinctly uninspiring” since they were too “warm, comforting, uplifting.”

The hymnic repertoire of another time more truly expressed the mood of this stark film about 19th-century justice.

I left the theatre thinking about the ethical choices “True Grit” presents. While one may rightfully question self-righteous 19th-century morality, with its unyielding notions of retribution, I could only be impressed by the strength of Mattie’s internal reliance on religious authority and singleness of purpose with which she pursued her goal.

Even at the end of the story, when she has reburied Rooster Cogburn in the family plot, she makes no concessions to the ridicule of the people and the charge that she never married because she loved only money and the Presbyterian Church.

“It is true that I love my church and my bank. What is wrong with that?”

Her austere resolve contrasts with the ethical relativism of much of today’s amoral universe. Perhaps the popular success of the movie indicates a contemporary longing to regain lost certainties and strength of character.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by email at hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: The King, New York Times, Presbyterian Church

Geographic location: Choctaw Nation, Southeastern Oklahoma, Southern Presbyterian

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Recent comments

  • Polly Pickford
    January 29, 2011 - 19:17

    The simple "remake" of a movie as a source of "Revenue" , nothing more, nothing less . Commerce at its crassest .

  • Dougf
    January 29, 2011 - 09:42

    Well speaking as one who has lived through the advent of the current age of almost complete 'relativism' , I find myself increasingly in favour of a more 'absolutist' cast of mind. And even moral absolutism as portrayed in the Coen film has clear boundaries and distinctions as indicated by a scene near the end of the film in which Mattie meets up with Cole Younger and Frank James. She treats Mr. Younger with clear civility and human 'respect' because he shows the same qualities to her, but she is completely disdainful of Mr James as he is 'scum' to her. And why ? Because Younger stood for her and James oafishly remained seated, earning him the withering retort " stay seated, scum'. And yet both were outlaws back in the day. Nor does she turn from Rooster when he confesses to her that he too was an outlaw way back in the day in new Mexico. She's not a prig, and she does contextualize. She's just clearly on the side of 'right' . Nowadays, we look for the good in the bad at all costs and where has it got us. A veritable morass of moral equivalence, in which we cannot even call anyone a 'terrorist' because they have their reasons. An economic World in which the few can ruin the lives of the many and profit from it and NOTHING happens to them except they become richer. Yes people are fed up with 'modern morality'. Because it's NOT moral at all. It has no central core and therefore no guideposts along the way for people to at least take notice of, even if they don't always manage to head in the 'right' direction. I take note of another small 'modern' anecdote which i think sums up the issue. A recently retired Gurka soldier in India fought off a hoard of dacoits on a train to defend the other passengers and evidently killed 3 and wounded 8 of the gang before they fled. In hand to hand combat with only his kukri against all their weapons. In India he is to be honoured and rewarded for his courage and steadfastness. As others have pointed out (and not with ANY respect) in the effete, decayed, and moribund, West, that man would be under arrest for possessing a concealed weapon and for abusing the criminals. Victims don''t matter here any more since everyone is a victim of something now. Yes we need 'understanding' of human frailties and some compassion for SOME of the 'evil-doers', but in the end we have to be able to draw distinctions between 'good' and 'bad' behaviour, and the current 'morality' has proved itself incapable of doing that in the final analysis. It gets 'confused' easily and people are getting increasingly fed-up with it. They want some form of moral 'arc' , especially since they have discovered that relative morality ALWAYS ends up in a bad place, because humans given the option will inevitably head off the rails in numbers sufficient enough to derail the entire system and bring it into disrespect and disrepute. Yes we do need a 'balanced' outlook but the 'modern' system is completely out-of-balance. It excuses the Cheneys and punishes the Cogburns as a default position. It's the triumph of the pencil-necks. And it has failed. In the end, it too will pass from history as a failed experiment. As it should . Nothing lasts forever ---- especially failed things.

    • Aidan
      February 26, 2011 - 00:53

      Jeff bridges plays mr James at the end! I haven't read the book so I'm not sure if this is just the coen's spin on the story. Is it supposed to be cogburn just wanting to get a look at mattie one last time to see how she ended up? Weird!