Too often we seem to revel in the gritty and forget to honor our grit, but we shouldn’t.
When I was young, an uncle came to live with us while getting back on his feet after a stint in the army. He was a returned veteran of the Vietnam war — young, handsome and little wild. James Dean with a thick mane of sandy blond hair, a cocky grin and always, his comb at the ready.
To my young eyes he was a real life rebel with a huge heart and a love of sports cars and fast driving. That he also had a habit of using sports cars to hit telephone poles at high speeds seemed to add the required dark edge to his rebel mystique.
But when it came to Westerns — movies, TV programs or characters — my oh-so-cool uncle was like a kid in a candy shop. He watched anything and everything western and as many times as possible. Bonanza, Wagon Train, Gun Smoke… you name it, if it had cowboys and particularly John Wayne in it, he was watching and in the days of only one TV per household, so were we.
I didn’t really get my uncle’s obsession with westerns until he took us to see “True Grit” at a local movie theater. This was back in 1969. I was a kid. I had never thought of grit as a personality trait. I simply knew it as the coarse, abrasive side of sand paper. So I was intrigued by the title.
As it turned out, “True Grit” wasn’t the standard he-man saves the pretty little woman kind of western I was used to watching on TV. It showed a gritty kind of reality. Unclean (as in dirty) people, grim living conditions, harsh enviornments, and a whole cast of unpleasant characters. Even the main characters weren’t an easy like.
The young damsel Mattie (Kim Darby) was not only more determined than distressed, she was downright rude. That she didn’t wear enough make-up and eyeliner to sink the titanic was a surprising if welcome relief. (Remember this was the late 60’s when it was hip to wear eyeliner applied with a trowel.) And, shockingly, she didn’t use sex or romance to get her way.
Mattie badgered people. She got in their face. And she yelled.
Using equal parts money, threats and unrelenting determination, Mattie hires a drunken and reluctant US Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to track down and bring her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, to justice in Arkansas before a handsome Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell) could haul the murderer off to Texas — dead or alive.
Of course bad guys run in packs, so Wayne and Campbell try to even up their odds by becoming uneasy allies. When Mattie forces them to take her along, they relegate her to outcast status in their little trio. But every step of the way Mattie fights to prove that she is not a helpless victim nor the weakest link. Without brute strength or the ability to use physical force, without beauty or sex, she uses her knowledge, skills and other people’s underestimations of her to get her way and help them (and her) to achieve their goals – get Tom Chaney.
There is an iconic moment in the movie when Wayne rides into enemy fire with both guns a blazing and the reins of his well-trained horse between his teeth. The scene is big and dramatic and oh-so visible. Here, I thought, this is the “true grit” of the movie title. And yet repeatedly, throughout the movie Mattie out grits the guys. So much so, that by the end of the movie Wayne all but acknowledges Mattie as the one with True Grit.
So what gave young Mattie the edge in beating out a US Marshal and a Texas Ranger when it comes to Grit?
True Grit is About Learning from Adversity.
Sure, when faced with adversity, Mattie showed resiliency and persistence in spades. But grit is about more than endurance and overcoming adversity. Mattie actually used her struggles to learn what she needed in order to propel herself forward.
True Grit is About Believing in Oneself.
While the men had far more experience — and bravado, Mattie’s belief in herself ran deeper and truer. Despite the odds, despite the social norms of the times and despite the almost continual pressure to conform and act as a girl … Mattie believes in her own unique abilities, priorities and goals.
True Grit is About Having A Purpose.
Mattie wasn’t motivated by money or ego, as the men were. She believed in their mission to catch Tom Chaney. She was passionate about the success and she was energized to see it completed because it was personal to her. She had a purpose.
True Grit is About Changing Outcomes.
Mattie believed she had the ability to make a difference, maybe even “the” difference in making sure her father’s killer was brought to justice, therefore, her actions mattered. Mattie took action because she believed she had the power to change the fate of herself and others.
Yes, John Wayne got the big screen moment and an Academy Award for showing a gritty nature, but Kim Darby (Mattie) showed what True Grit is really about – the will to not just survive, but to believe in your purpose and your ability to make a difference even when the odds and the bad guys are stacked against you.
Thank you, Uncle Jerry, for showing me Mattie and helping me find my own true grit!
Do you honor your grit? Was there a person that inspired you to develop grit? Do you have a favorite book or movie character that showed grit?
I love this! I finally watched this movie a few months ago and absolutely loved it. I think you’re absolutely correct – I think the obvious is to view Rooster Cogburn as the possessor of True Grit because he’s older, far more experienced, and (clearly) hardened. but Maggie kicks some serious butt and never once considers packing up and going back. Not ever. She’s focused and determined. All throughout all 3 of the main characters grow. But Maggie’s the one who never loses her way – not in life, and not in their adventure. Truly, the really is about Maggie and her own true grit. Easy to see if we look past the obvious.
Considering the impact this movie had on me, I can’t believe I’ve never read the book by Charles Portis. I want to see how the story plays out in the novel especially since it started out as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post.