How John Wayne Made True Grit an Instant Classic

Posted by Topix Media Lab on

John Wayne True Grit closing scene riding horse and waving hat in air


This year marks the 50th anniversary of what some would argue is John Wayne's most iconic role, as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. to celebrate his Oscar-winning turn as the "one-eyed fat man," we've created an all-new edition of the John Wayne Official Collector's Edition. In Volume 29, fans of Duke will not only gain detailed insight into the making of the classic film but also a closer look at how Duke's legacy of living life with conviction continues to inspire. Below, read an exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming magazine and keep an eye out for the new issue, in stores June 4 and available to ORDER NOW.


Featured in The Official John Wayne Collector's Edition, Vol. 29


Well before John Wayne was delighting audiences across America as the eyepatch-wearing, booze-swilling, foul-mouthed Rooster Cogburn, the character merely existed on the pages of a novel by a somewhat unknown author. While penning True Grit, his second novel, Charles Portis called upon his past experience as a journalist with the Arkansas Traveler and the Northwest Arkansas Times to give a credible and realistic voice to the characters he was crafting. Unbeknownst to Portis at the time, though, was the fact that he was laying the groundwork for one of the most iconic John Wayne characters to ever saddle up on the big screen.


John Wayne True Grit Fill Yer Hands


Shortly after its release in 1968, True Grit's adaptation rights became an extremely desirable purchase for Hollywood producers. The novel's vivid descriptions, powerful story and intricate character work all had rich feature-film potential that was noticed by more than just a few well-read filmmakers. One such producer who enthusiastically threw his hat in the ring for the rights to True Grit was Duke's son, Michael Wayne. By the time director Henry Hathaway called John Wayne to gauge his interest in taking on the role of Rooster Cogburn should the bidding war go his and Hal B. Wallis's way, Michael was already plenty familiar with Portis's story. To help his father fully understand the unique role he could potentially be taking on, Michael lent his father a copy of True Grit. As Michael stated later, Duke loved the story and was rooting for his oldest son. "I think it's great and I hope you get it," John Wayne told Michael. "But no matter who gets it, I'm going to play that part," he added. Leave it to a legend to call his shot.

Sure enough, John Wayne was indeed cast as the cantankerous Rooster Cogburn once Wallis was given rights to the adaptation and Hathaway officially signed on as director. Even though he would be riding around on horseback, firing a rifle and showing no mercy to those who dared do him wrong, the role would be unlike any Duke had stepped into before. Despite his younger years being far behind him in the 1960s, the star continued to stick to his signature style by playing imposing characters who could still physically hang with foes half their age, such as Cole Thornton in El Dorado (1967) and Taw Jackson in The War Wagon (1967). But the role of Rooster Cogburn was a chance for John Wayne to fully embrace his age—a move most Hollywood megastars aren't eager to make. Duke, however, welcomed the challenge. Not only did the legend let stray gray hairs fly freely from under his hat on set, he intentionally gained weight to more convincingly portray the weathered old marshal.


John Wayne True Grit scene with costars


Once production got underway, though, John Wayne did encounter a challenge he hadn't anticipated. By 1969, most moviegoers probably would have believed the Western icon could leap a fence on horseback while blindfolded—and on the set of True Grit, that theory would nearly be put to the test. The necessity of sporting an eyepatch at all times while shooting gave Duke pause, particularly as it pertained to performing his parts to perfection while riding a horse. Fortunately, Hathaway was thinking a step ahead. The director assured his star the patch was crafted from black gauze, which gave it transparency. With reduced yet functional vision, there was nothing holding John Wayne back from delivering the defining performance of his career. His dedication to the film was clear to everyone he worked with, as costar Kim Darby recalled in a biography, "He was there on the set before anyone else and knew every line perfectly."

By the time the film wrapped, Duke was more than confident he had turned in some of his finest work yet. Prior to True Grit's release, the star penned a letter to Wallis, wittily stating, "I'm sure this one is going to make those theater owners 'fill their hands.'" And much like how he knew he'd end up playing Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne was correct in his prediction that the film would be a hit. Beyond Duke's longtime fans, critics also celebrated seeing the icon flex beyond his typical fare. Los Angeles Times claimed, "Until you've seen John Wayne with the reins in his teeth, you haven't seen it all," while Playboy wrote, "Give John Wayne a pungent, fast-moving script spiked with equal parts of rugged individualism and raunchy humor and he can transform a mere movie into something like a national monument." His incredible effort was being noticed, and soon it would be formally recognized by the Academy.