04 November 2012

Truly Gritty-- St. Guy Takes on Calvinism and Its Consequences at the Movies

Last week I posted a pithy but (I thought) enlightening quote from Charles Portis' novel, True Grit. This novel inspired two excellent cinematic versions, starring John Wayne and Jeff Bridges, respectively, as Rooster Cogburn. Regular commenter St. Guy Fawkes weighed in with a pretty insightful comment touching on Calvinism, the Electra complex, residual Catholicism by Jewish directors, and more-- in short, everything you'd expect by the man famous for linking the Eads bridge with Hegelianism.

St. Guy was kind enough to write out this essay, which I think is a fantastic insight into the two films. Because it is my firm belief, made clear by my brother (also a fan of the film), that it is about Grace, pure and simple. I hope you enjoy it.
“TRUE GRIT”: The End of Mattie’s Trail

Both “True Grit” as directed by Henry Hathaway (1969) and the Coen brothers’ remake explore issues of salvation and romance; and, both film interpretations of Charles Portis’ novel complement each other. Both end with Mattie finding in Rooster Cogburn an ideal male having “True Grit” perseverance. However, the two films secede over the question of whether Rooster’s ideal male isn’t, in fact, Mattie’s dark tragedy. Ultimately, the Coen version underscores Mattie’s deeper romantic and religious tragedy, and highlights a deeper religious truth.

We begin each film by following the attraction of a young girl for an untrustworthy man who seems, nevertheless, to have the Calvinist credentials to restore her belief in order and justice: Rooster Cogburn. We see that her Calvinism motivates her opinion of males as she brushes aside the more suitable and handsome LeBoeuf while dining with Rooster and LeBoeuf at the Bagby’s ranch.

Mattie (To Mrs. Bagsby): Presbyterian, huh? Southern or Cumberland?

Mrs. Bagby: Southern.

Mattie: My folks are Cumberland and proud of it.

LaBoeuf: (To all) I was raised in the Episcopal Church, myself.

Mattie: (To LeBoeuf) I figured you for some kind of kneeler!

With one crack, she tells LeBoeuf she’ll be “washing her hair” every Saturday night until the Second Coming where he’s concerned. Why? He belongs to a faith she associates with Catholics and the unredeemed protestants: “The Kneelers.”

Mattie’s man-search is for a man with “True Grit” and she wonders if one as good as her father even exists. She is seeking one of Calvin’s elect: a man whose character surpasses the ordinary standards of virtue. LeBoeuf is every bit as strong as Rooster. And he shares few of Rooster’s vices. Yet, Mattie prefers Rooster. She finds in Rooster a man whose sinning without consequence is evidence of his having gained the undeserved merits of Salvation. His success in killing reprobate “trash” -- a success that triumphs over courtrooms and law – show him to be in God’s favor. The way her eyes swim in admiration of Rooster when she hears his court testimony of mayhem struck against lowlifes tells all.

Nonetheless, Mattie displays a proper Calvinist’s concern not to “presume upon election” with regards to Rooster, or anyone. So, it is initially hard for her to believe that in Rooster she has a man of “True Grit.” This is evident as she criticizes and derides Rooster (and LeBoeuf) on the trail for their lack of character. What she is seeking, in her movie-long quest, is a man of “True Grit” who resolves both a theological, and subliminally, a romantic problem.

The theological problem is that for John Calvin, salvation and goodness are not an outward affair of works, but of pre-ordained fact. A Calvinist cannot tell who is redeemed and who is not. He can however find hints of our soul’s final disposal by marking those who are pious, and see if they triumph in the world.

Mattie’s initial problem with Rooster is that he is not godly or pious. However, the journey and its dangers -- not to mention comparing Rooster to Ned Pepper and his gang -- allows Mattie to relax her standards and take Rooster’s victories over the depraved as evidence of Rooster’s “grit.” Both Roosters (Wayne and Bridges) set Mattie’s theological problem aright. Each does so by riding into a hail of bullets and yelling “Fill your hands you son of a bitch.” In both films Calvin’s “reprobate souls” end dead, while Rooster remains alive and crowing. Actress Kim Darby’s Mattie bounces behind Glen Campbell glowing like a schoolgirl as Rooster rides through the valley of death, killing and not being killed. She screams, “True Grit? Rooster Cogburn! Not much!” His survival in such unlikely circumstances reveals to Mattie both Rooster’s absolute confidence in himself, and, his confidence in his “unconditional election” as someone predestined to succeed in any battle with evil. Moreover his indomitable grip on his mission makes him seem like a model of a man with “the perseverance
of the saints” as Calvinists proclaim it.

However, Mattie’s high estimation of Rooster’s worth presents a romantic problem. The triumph of her fat-in-saddle cavalier seems to redeem him from depravity. However, his victory complicates the social objective of finding a “True Grit” man. Here each film follows different tracks down different trails. The split up occurs when each film resolves Mattie’s romantic dilemma by an approach that comes from each reflecting a different period in America’s cultural history.

John Wayne’s “True Grit” was made in 1969. The late Sixties were still awash with Freudianism: a doctrine which started to germinate in the pages of “The Partisan Review” and from there proceeded to drop so many seeds into the popular culture that finally, even Marilyn Monroe knew that if she wanted to make pillow talk with her Jewish, playwright husband she’d have to pick up the vocabulary of the Freudians.

By contrast in 2010 we discover a “True Grit” which cares nothing for rusty old Freudian constructs like “the Oedipus / Electra complex.” The Coens’ intellectual milieu, by 2010, had become utterly de-sublimated by prurient doses of HBO and VH1. Thus, the Coen work finds sex boring and religion the more lurid adventure. The different intellectual setting of each film allows each to take Mattie’s love life down a different path.

At the end of the 1969 film, Rooster’s lethal virility leads Mattie to ask Rooster to consummate some kind of after death marriage with her. She says near her family cemetery, “I would like you to rest beside me Rooster.” Her face is hidden from Rooster’s view but it is alight with the prospect that in death they would share some special intimacy. Rooster demurs, saying, “Now Sis, that place should be for your family, husband, kids.”

He rejects the proposal and makes the door stand open for her to grow out of her girlish fascination for Rooster as her father figure. The 1969 version leaves us with the hope that Kim Darby’s much more openly attractive and girlish Mattie will find marriage. We feel that she might grow up if only because John Wayne has told her to go find another man and have children.

By contrast at the end of the 2010 Coen movie, the trail to love, marriage and family abruptly ends.

In the 2010 film, Rooster’s deadly charge in the valley restores to Mattie a Calvinist “City on a Hill” where sinners and saints are separated, and life is colored in black and white. But the effect of this on Mattie’s character development is to make her retreat to girlhood pieties. Even after twenty five years she still divides the world into “trash” and real men. Thus, her last words are to insult one old circus fraud as “trash” who won’t stand up in the presence of a lady. She tells us that after the snakebite incident she never married because “She had no time for such foolishness.” Then she walks into the horizon at film’s end after saying that she and Rooster had “high old times.”

That Mattie’s romantic life, in fact her whole life, has reached a dismal trail’s end is emphasized in three ways. In the 1969 version, soon after Rooster’s hair-raising victory in the valley, where he kills all the reprobates, LeBoeuf, conveniently dies. This removes the flawed, half-catholic “kneeler” of a suitor. In the Coen version LeBoeuf lives, but tellingly, although he is the younger, abler and more attractive man, who has fewer vices, the wily Coens make Rooster be the one to save her in a night long journey; and they make that journey include a Freudian parody of a wedding night, in which Rooster tussles with Mattie on the grass as she grows demented, only to finally, carry his child bride over a neighbor’s threshold to safety. All of this takes place to the protestant tune of “Leaning on His Everlasting Arms.”

Each film takes the snakebite episode, and its aftermath, in entirely different directions. One opens up her character to life. The Coens’ film puts her in foreclosure and as such offers a rebuke to the 1969 version.

The 1969 version for all its overt sensuality (by comparison) obscures the tragedy of Calvinism and Mattie’s subsequent spinsterhood. The 1969 version leaves us with the hope that Kim Darby’s much more openly attractive, and girlish Mattie will find marriage. But the Coen version takes Mattie Ross, the “persevering saint” of pre-destination to a grimmer end.

The Coens’ Mattie ends a scolding spinster. She walks off the film alone and bloodless. But she has a kind of heroic self-possession. She reminds us of another famous cinematic walker into darkness: John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards who, at the end of John Ford’s “The Searchers”, walks off into the dusty wind. At the end of “The Searchers” a half-god-half-human mercenary with a Puritan theologian’s name walks off and away from family and marriage, just after taking Natalie Wood – another child bride -- across the threshold to safety. It is a remarkable comment on our inter-religious culture that here we find the Jewish Coen brothers as the poets of “residual Catholicism.” They end their film in a homage to the Catholic auteur John Ford, and remind us that women (and men) who take Calvin as a guide to dating will end up old maids, or worse, end up like Ethan Edwards, or Rooster, men pre-destined to “wander between the winds.”


Clothilde said...

I cannot recall a comment of Guy Fawkes' with which I agree, and this is no exception. His main assertion seems to be that the story of True Grit is one of Calvinism because the character Rooster Cogburn lives his life a sinner, and yet proves that he is one of the elect by taking his place among them through his heroic act. However, one could just as easily say that this is a Catholic tale with the same argument: do we not believe that the life of a sinner can be redeemed through one glorious act at the end of it? And as for the "Electra Complex," why does Guy find it necessary to soil this beautiful tale with a forced neo-Freudian interpretation? I would accept the idea that Mattie is searching for a father-figure, but to shoehorn a completely chaste relationship into a bizarre search for sexual satisfaction has no point and ignores the higher themes of friendship, faith, and sacrifice. Further, Guy seems completely unaware that both movies are based on the excellent book by Charles Portis; or if he is aware, it seems he has not read it. Most of the differences in the two movies are due simply to the Coen brothers being more faithful to the book. In the 2010 version, LaBouef remains alive and Cogburn dies, but all three are separated in this life, as was Portis's original intent. The silly feel-good version of '69 ruins the book's bittersweet conclusion. The sorrow of their final separation serves only to emphasize the beauty of their friendship, as well as to intimate the reunion they may all have after this life. Ultimately, the story is about three people who unexpectedly transcend their previous selves on a quest for justice, and are thereafter united in this one act. And, yes, there is a dividing line between the trash and the good men--does not Our Lord distinguish between the sheep and the goats? Guy Fawkes seems uncomfortable with such a "black-and-white" view of life, which is one clue as to why he misunderstands this movie so badly. There are so many other things I could say, but I don't have the time: I just couldn't leave this absurd essay unchallenged.

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Clothilde,

I agree most robustly that the essence of Mattie's story is one of friendship and sacrifice. I also agree that the sacrifices of all three heroes take them beyond themselves.

I just happen to think other things are going on in the story which are worth talking about.

The point of my essay was that "True Grit" while being about courage and sacrifice, is also a "coming of age story" about a young woman who has lost a father and who must depend on men, or rather, compete with men to carry out her mission.

In the course of her adventure she comes to a fixed opinion about Rooster's worth and it changes their relationship. To define their connection by means of Freud doesn't mean I endorse Freud.It means I think Freud's role in American culture circa 1969 may shine light on Hathaway's decision to end the film the way he did.

My point was that some construct -- you can give it any name you want -- must be invoked to explain Mattie's highly unconventional decision to abjure marriage just because of her recent adventure in Choctaw country with a "one eyed fat man."

True, Mattie is an unconventional young woman. She has an independence and "grit" which makes her very unconventional. But that doesn't explain her decision to make Rooster the end of her career as a woman.

Worse, it doesn't explain her rejection of LeBoeuf whose clean habits and good looks make him a literary foil for Rooster. Foils are put in narratives for a reason! They underscore the main features of their opposites. Her decision to bond with Rooster when LeBoeuf has already declared he might want to kiss her is -- over the course of the tale -- passing strange, or at least unique. It cannot be avoided.

Clothilde, get on YouTUbe and look at Kim Darby's face as she places the flowers on her father's grave. It is at the very moment that she does this that she asks Rooster to "rest beside" her. Look at her face! A sort of wild ecstasy passes over it. She is clearly hoping for a kind of spiritual intimacy with Rooster in death.

The beauty of the Hathaway version is that Rooster sees though her father worship and steers her in a different direction.

The greatness of the Coen version is that it wrestles honestly with the tragedy of a wasted woman who -- against Rooster's direction -- decides she has seen all that is worth seeing in men and finds foolishness in all men, except for Rooster, and J. Noble Daggett.

As for my central assertion about Mattie's Calvinism, I must have put my argument badly.

What I assert is that Mattie by her own declaration is a Calvinist. What I suggest by the evidence of the film-texts is that almost every big decision she makes is consistent with the Puritan belief in a pre-destined elect who are redeemed not by works but by faith, and who escape the "utter depravity" of their beings only through the intervention of a God who picks the elect for reasons of his own, and who, ironically, may choose someone like Rooster.

As for being redeemed by "one glorious act", unless that act is Penance I don't think Catholics believe that.

The confrontation with Ned Pepper, in the "valley of death" episode, as I call it, doesn't redeem Rooster anywhere but in Mattie's mind. That redemption in a young girl's heart is in part what the story is about.

Thanks by the way for the time you have given to my essay and for the time you have taken to comment. I appreciate it.

St. Guy

True Spit said...

I agree with Clothilde. Rather than tilting at windmills, St. Guy eloquently blogs about them. But they're still just windmills.

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear All,

After Clothilde's challenge to my interpretation of "True Grit" I became concerned that I was about to saddle this blog with another "Eads Bridge and Hegel" thread.

I googled "Charles Portis+Calvinism" and found so many other comments and essays on the same theme that a new fear began: Plagiarism.

The view that "True Grit" partakes of Calvin's theory of Grace in generous portions can be found at the following sites.

Veteran critic Stanley Fish discusses Mattie's Calvinism at:


Other takes which follow Fish's lead can be found at:



I'd like to add that even in the movie there are other things that show Mattie's calvinism: her emphasis on contracts or "covenants" is apiece with Puritan "Covenant Theology." I could go on but I'm done.

St. Guy

Alison said...

I love the book and both movies. I didn't mind the comments by St. Guy. They are interesting. It is always worthwhile to have a good and respectful conversation about books. Thanks St. Guy. We'd let you in our book club. I have to say I love this book because it is a girl having an adventure and the dialogue is witty. I also understand the Coen brothers were influenced by Howard Pyle's illustrations for some of their sets.

Jane Chantal said...

Well, St. Guy, I just want to chime in to say that because of your wonderfully illuminating analysis of "Brideshead Revisited" some time back, I can't but think that your comments on "True Grit" merit serious thought, consideration and appreciation.

As for me, I can't offer an educated "take" on "True Grit", the book or the movies, because I've neither read the former nor seen the latter. As for Calvinism, I've been struggling for years -- without success -- to understand it.

dulac90 said...

Now you want to bring Pelagianism into this?!?

...oops...never mind.

Anonymous said...

The old circus fraud that the 2010 Mattie deems "trash" is Frank James, the elder brother of Jesse James, who was appearing with former outlaw, Cole Younger. Because Frank was a part of the most notorious gang in the West, it's not surprising to see Mattie give him a quick dismissal.