Recently I saw the re-make of True Grit and I enjoyed it but it set off a bunch of thoughts about Hollywood and the Western.

We think of the OldWest only from what we get from Hollywood. In so many cases, it is a place that never existed. As the saying goes, When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.

The real West wasn’t about good guys wearing white hats and cowboys kissing their horses. It was a dirty, dusty, unkempt place that was often brutal and harsh. Gunfights weren’t as frequent as you might think but when they did happen, they were often very bloody. The weapon of choice would be a .45 calibre revolver that could create an exit wound 6 inches wide in a human body. An expert on the Old West once told me that gunfighters often missed the vital organs and instead blew off the nose or ears of their target.

Can you imagine what a saloon must have smelled like? Back in the day, cowboys didn’t bathe regularly or change into fancy clean white shirts and dude pants too often. They hardly ever even carried a change of clothes. They mostly traveled by horseback, drank rotgut whiskey and stale warm beer. They probably didn’t notice the stench because they all smelled alike.

And what about the neat little kerchef they all wear in movies? They had them all right, but they weren’t used for decoration.They were often burlap rags worn knotted around the neck. Dipped in water, the neck rag would keep the cowboy cool on a journey or a long cattle drive. Believe it or not, the hat of the day was more likely to be a derby than it was that movie tradition, the tall ten-gallon hat.

They ate mostly beef jerky on the road, added to whatever they could shoot. What they ate at a saloon was usually a tough cut of buffalo meat or a slab of beef fried in hot grease.

They pulverized coffee beans by tying them up in their neck rags and smashing them with the butt end of a pistol or rifle.

Fun Fact: Levi Jeans

Levi Strauss came to the United States in the 1870s to expand his brother’s New York clothing business to the west coast. Settling in San Francisco, he started making jeans out of readily available canvas. They were tough and wore extremely well, an important feature for cowboys and miners who often wore the knees out of flimsy cotton or wool trousers.

Levi changed everything about trousers by adding tough metal rivets for extra strength. For a time, the jeans-wearing was confined to states west of the Mississippi but with the advent of the popular Western movie in the 1920s, they made their way East. Vacation dude ranches sprang up everywhere and popularized jeans. Returning vacationers started wearing these comfortable, stylish jeans that almost never wore out.


The original 1969 version of True Grit is dear to our hearts, mainly due to the popularity of JohnWayne, so it’s really unfair to compare the two. It’s a different time now; Hollywood has changed along with the audiences. Let’s just say the 1969 True Grit was a great picture that will always be a classic.

True Grit 2011 is also a great picture. In many ways the cast is better. In Jeff Bridges’ interpretation, Rooster Cogburn is tough and funny. Matt Damon is a fine LeBoeuf as a proud but not-too-brightTexas Ranger. Damon is an excellent actor with a good range.

The true revelation is Hailee Steinfeld, pitch perfect as the 14 year-old Mattie, a girl bent on revenge, determined to bring her father’s killer to justice—dead or alive.

The Coen brothers, who apparently can do good work in any genre, do a great job of evoking theWest of the late 1870s. Everything about this Western seems so right—almost. I must say the ending disappointed me. In the original, Duke whirls his horse around to impress Mattie and jumps the fence—one of the great moments in cinema history. In the 2011 version, faithful to the book, Mattie returns 25 years later, just two days after Cogburn’s off-screen death.

I felt cheated! I think the Coen brothers made a mistake here.

Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker. His latest film, Delilah Rose, is scheduled for release this year.