“True Grit” and Confederate Irregular Warfare

Hello all,

So, yesterday I went to the movies and saw “True Grit,” a remake of a 1969 movie of the same name starring John Wayne. The movie was based on a 1968 novel also called True Grit by Charles Portis. Information on the 1969 movie can be found here and for the 2010 remake, look here. I’m not going to get into a detailed synopsis of the plot, but I will focus on two prominent characters from the book/movies, Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn and LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”). In the 1969 movie, John Wayne played Cogburn and Glen Campbell of country music fame played LaBoeuf. For the 2010 remake, Jeff Bridges portrayed Cogburn and Matt Damon took on the role of LaBoeuf. The movie was directed by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, and I have been a fan of a number of their movies including “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Since I work at the movie theater and get to see movies for free, this one was a no-brainer…

I loved the movie, and I made that fact known on Facebook. Within a few hours, I was bombarded with questions on the movie and whether or not it was better than the original. I personally have not seen the original, but I will attempt to rectify that situation as soon as possible. Although I do not have much to say on which film was better, I can provide an opinion on the comparison between John Wayne and Jeff Bridges…

Some of my colleagues study the history of film here at Texas A&M, and I have heard from them that John Wayne more or less played himself in many of his roles and not an assigned character. This means that Wayne was not a very versatile actor and that the movie directors and producers had to fit Wayne’s personality into a given role.

Now, far be it from me to besmirch the Duke, for he is undoubtedly a Hollywood legend, but seriously, whenever any of us think of the name John Wayne, a particular image immediately comes to mind, and it probably looks something like this…

That’s a pretty classic John Wayne image, and it’s also an excellent example of typecasting. In the 1960’s, whenever a screenwriter needed a man to portray a Western hero, John Wayne was probably one of the first men to get the call. Naturally, he was a great choice to play Rooster Cogburn, and I’m sure his performance will live up to my expectations.

On the other hand, when one thinks of Jeff Bridges, it’s not as easy to come up with a clear-cut image. Many people might see the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” or Kevin Flynn from “Tron” or “Tron: Legacy” or maybe even as Bad Blake from “Crazy Heart,” a role that won him an Academy Award. His performance as Cogburn was excellent, and although I have no comparison to John Wayne’s portrayal, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bridges excel in a Western film. My final verdict is….John Wayne was a better fit to play Rooster Cogburn, but Jeff Bridges is a much better actor. Feel free to send your hate mail my way ;)

But Colt, how does a Western film fit in with the Civil War? I’m glad you asked…

For those of you that don’t know, Rooster Cogburn is a U.S. Marshall and LaBoeuf is a Texas Ranger. In the film, the two men have a dispute over their respective roles in the Civil War. Cogburn served in the Trans-Mississippi Theater under William Clarke Quantrill as a member of an irregular fighting unit that claimed to support the Confederacy. LaBoeuf on the other hand served with the regular Confederate army in the Eastern Theater in the Army of Northern Virginia, famously commanded by Robert E. Lee. Quantrill and his men conducted small-scale raiding operations against Union forces in Missouri and Kansas, but their brutal tactics and disregard for military discipline drew the ire of many Confederate military leaders. LaBoeuf argues in the film that his role in the Civil War was justified because he was a regular soldier, while Cogburn was nothing more than a bushwhacker. Cogburn defends his role in the war and his leader, going so far as to refer to him as “Captain” Quantrill, even though his rank in the Confederate military is disputed.

If you love Western films, you have probably realized that many characters in these movies fought during the Civil War. It was in the war that men like Cogburn and LaBoeuf learned to fight and shoot effectively on horseback. Real-life Wild West men like Cole Younger and Frank & Jesse James rode with Quantrill, and it was during that time that they honed their riding and shooting skills. Quantrill’s men regularly practiced when not in combat, and as a result they were able to achieve success over superior forces. The end of the Civil War was not necessarily the end for these former guerrilla fighters. Jesse James and his gang in particular carried on their raiding style and helped to define the Wild West period. These men did not simply turn up in the West and start robbing at will; they were former soldiers who had extensive combat training.

The exchange between Cogburn and LaBoeuf was probably a lot more entertaining for me than it was for the rest of the audience, but it was a nice touch that added a great deal of historical context to an already impressive film. The more I study the Civil War, the more I find out just how many elements are connected to the war and its legacy. “True Grit” serves as another link between the Wild West and the Civil War and how modern Americans choose to portray the people of that time period. Hopefully the success of “True Grit” will inspire a resurgence of Western films, and the public can see just how connected the American West and the Civil War truly are.

Thanks for stopping by,


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2 comments on ““True Grit” and Confederate Irregular Warfare

  1. Jeff Crean says:

    Though all its participants were too young to have fought in Civil War, the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona was in many ways a continuation of that conflict. Wyatt Earp and his brothers were from a family of Kansas abolitionists, and the Clantons, who led the gang they fought, were from a Missouri family that fled to Texas early in the War. Granted, other local factors were involved, but the lingering sectional animosities should not be overlooked.

  2. […] (The usually other actor I’d have play Chamberlain would be a other good Jeff, Jeff Bridges, but as he rode with Quantrill we’ll count him out for […]

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