Cowboy Thrill Rides Again In ‘True Grit’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mothers of America are heeding Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, not letting their babies grow up to be cowboys. Cub Scouts visited the newspaper this week, and the old editor quizzed them about their hopes and dreams and explained the wild, fast life of a newspaperman.

Not one wanted to be a cowboy. Four of seven now want to be newspaper editors.

I issued them all official reporter pads and made them deputy journalists. This newspaper’s future is secure.

As a boy, I wanted to be a cowboy. As an adult, I still do. My three sons all wore cowboy boots and hats and chaps. They crooned Willie Nelson songs with me, but I had to fudge a little to explain what “girls of the night” are.

Elizabeth and I went to see “True Grit” over the weekend. The theater was predominately gray-haired men; average age 60. Some men came alone, some with their buddies to see the remake of the John Wayne movie of their youth. Their prissy wives deigned to stay at home, no doubt indignant about the era when unwashed men roped cows and hanged rustlers. Not my Elizabeth. She liked the movie too.

Mine was the generation that dreamed of being cowboys, sleeping under the stars with the herd and riding in the saddle through the dust and mud.

“You get shot!” one of the Cub Scouts warned me.

Not if you’re faster on the draw …

Once there was nothing more glamorous, more exciting than being a cowboy. Then came NASA. The thrill of the Old West, like Sheriff Woody, was supplanted by Buzz Lightyear. Now spacemen are off the A-list too. Kids these days want to be billionaire bankers, investment brokers and inventors. That’s where the action is. They know far more about Bill Gates than Buffalo Bill Cody, more about Steve Jobs than Wild Bill Hickok.

Wyatt Earp would have peppered Bernie Madoff with lead.

The movie was wonderful. I may have to turn in my John Wayne Fan Club membership card. The “True Grit” remake is my new favorite Western, better than all the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne classics, better than “3:10 to Yuma” and in the class of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

The music, the scenery, all the actors were excellent. The original had John Wayne, but the remake is the complete deal.

Throughout the movie, the old gospel hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” wafted in background and finally emerged in full flower as the credits rolled. Arkansas native Iris Dement put words to the song in her nasal, mountain style. The man behind me sang along. Another fellow applauded.

It was a religious experience.

The movie was even more meaningful for us because of our trip through Arkansas last summer. We repeatedly heard landmarks such as Petit Jean pop up in the movie dialog. We stopped at Fort Smith and saw the federal courthouse and gallows that were central to the movie’s story. We went down to the river where young Mattie Ross had to cross on her horse into the Oklahoma territory.

We knew the general story from the original 1969 movie. I had seen the old movie replayed on TV many times. The remake is apparently truer to the novel by Charles Portis published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, Hailee Steifeld as Mattie, Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper … all were outstanding.

Like John Wayne, Jeff Bridges puts the reins in his mouth, fills his hands with pistols,  and spurs his horse headlong at four outlaws. He indeed showed true grit, as did others, especially Hailee Steinfeld, 14. She was wonderful.

Those were different times, an age so far removed from today that little boys now don’t get to play with pop guns and cap busters. Moms worry about their babies growing up to be serial killers instead of cowboys. Westerns once dominated the movies. Now they are a rarity. Generations behind me have been deprived of one of life’s pleasures. This new movie is a chance to live in the saddle one more time.

— Dwight Sparks