Rich recalls that the first version of the film appeared in the midst of anti-Vietnam sentiment, writing that even "the Times critic, Vincent Canby ... put it in a year-end list of bests dominated by such antiestablishment fare as “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” (that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner) and the ultimate anti-Western, Andy Warhol’s sexually transgressive “Lonesome Cowboys.”
Canby called the film “a classic frontier fable that manages to be most entertaining even when it’s being most reactionary.” Rich goes on to re-characterize reactionary as "retrograde," describing the plot as involving a 14-year-old girl (Mattie Ross) who hires a retired federal marshal (Rooster Cogburn) to avenge the death of her father by tracking down the man who killed him. (Incidentally, young Mattie Ross is from Yell County, Arkansas, in the Arkansas River Valley, which today has a population of only about 20,000. She goes to Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma--then Indian territory--border, to settle her father's affairs).
I'm not sure what's so reactionary or retrograde about it. Obviously it is a period piece, set in the late 1800s. But here's what Rich says:
Like classic Hollywood Westerns before it, “True Grit” in all its iterations has an elegiac lilt. Uncivilized hired guns like Rooster may have helped tame the West and dispatched bad guys, but they were also capable of lawlessness and atrocities. ... Ultimately, law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage — which Rooster failed at — had to prevail if America was to grow up. For a weary mainstream 1969 audience, and not just a reactionary one, the restoration of order in “True Grit,” inevitably to be followed by Rooster’s ride off into the sunset, was a heartening two-hour escape from the near-civil-war raging beyond the theater’s walls.As for the popularity of the remake, Rich attributes it to what he believes is America's current need for an escape. But he also opines that one of the "most stirring" things about the new “True Grit” is "its unalloyed faith in values antithetical to those of the 21st century America so deftly skewered, as it happens, in 'The Social Network.'"
The rest of the column compares "True Grit" with "The Social Network" in terms of values, specifically the rule of law, along with issues like elitism and corruption. I'm not sure I clearly grasp what Rich is trying to convey, though he writes of the appeal of loyalty and a "clear cut sense of morality and justice." He implies that these are lacking in the tale depicted by "The Social Network."
In the end, Rich's column leaves me wondering if he is suggesting some appeal to the simplicity of earlier times--and of rurality itself, even though he has mocked these in his own earlier columns.
I am also reminded of this NY Times item from the magazine this week, "Only Cowgirls Run for Office." In it, Rebecca Traister suggests that the cowgirl ideal or type is peculiarly American and one on which female politicians in the U.S., have often drawn--or at least reflect. She lists Hattie Caraway, Jeanette Rankin, and Ann Richards as examples, and she notes that while states like Kansas, Arizona, and Texas have had multiple female governors, eastern states have rarely elected women to the post. An excerpt from Traister's story follows:
What we do have, to serve as the foundational fantasy of female strength and individualism we’ve agreed upon as embodying American power, are cowgirls: Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, the outlaws, frontier women and pioneers who pushed West, shot sharp, talked tough and sometimes drew blood. Frontier womanhood has emerged as one of the only historically American models of aspirational femininity available to girls — passive princesses and graceful ballerinas not being native to this land — and one of the only blueprints for commanding female comportment in which they are regularly encouraged to invest or to mimic.So, there you have it: Part of the appeal of Mattie Ross and "True Grit" may be the same frontierswoman icon that also draws us to the Gabrielle Giffords and Sarah Palins of our fair country.