The Cultural Context of True Grit

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One of the most important lessons to impart when teaching popular cultural semiotics is that the same phenomenon can mean something quite different when you change its historical context. This is why it is essential to situate a popular cultural topic within its own temporal framework, while at the same time comparing it to other relevant historical contexts to find the crucial differences that help mark out semiotic meaning. Take the Coen brothers’ reprise of the 1960s classic True Grit. While most of your students will be interested only in comparing Jeff Bridges’s interpretation of Rooster Cogburn to John Wayne’s, and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance to Kim Darby’s, that isn’t where the interesting cultural significance of the movie lies. To find that significance you need to look at the historical contexts of the two films. Let’s start with the original version. That movie appeared in 1969, only a year after the publication of Charles Portis’s novel of the same title. Now, by the late 1960s America was fully engulfed in a cultural revolution that was effectively splitting the country apart. Resistance to the Vietnam War was a particularly volatile flash point, and it is highly significant that only a year before the release of True Grit, John Wayne had starred in and codirected The Green Berets, a movie that was clearly addressed to American traditionalists who resented the antiwar movement (Joe, released in 1970, was similarly addressed to conservative opponents of the cultural revolution). In such a context, Portis’s novel, with its appeal to old-fashioned self-reliant individualism and law and order, not to mention its revival of a traditionalist mythology of the Old West that movies like Little Big Man (1970) would soon challenge, was a signifier of conservative reaction. (It is also significant that True Grit, both the novel and movie, revisits the fundamental material of Cat Ballou (1965), reconstituting that spoofing of the Old West as a serious homage to the frontier tradition.) Thus the appearance of True Grit as a movie in 1969 was a clear signifier of conservative pushback. Should anyone have not gotten the point, John Wayne—popular culture’s leading standard-bearer of conservative values at the time—was cast in the lead role. Fast forward to 2010. While there is still a sharp political and cultural divide in America, it does not loom so dramatically as it did in the late 1960s/early 1970s. (Can you imagine National Guard troops opening fire on an American college campus today?) The reprisal of True Grit in the current state of affairs just doesn’t have the same political force that it did the first time around. The fact that the Coen brothers—who are hardly known as conservative standard-bearers—have made the movie, and that Jeff Bridges (rather than, say, Chuck Norris) is Rooster Cogburn, also plays an important role in the depoliticization of the film. Perhaps if Clint Eastwood had starred in and directed this version things might be different, but as it stands even liberal cinephiles can be content to debate such aesthetic matters as whose interpretation of Portis’s novel is more accurate and whether Bridges’s handling of John Wayne’s only Oscar-winning role measures up to the Duke. But politically, the return of True Grit is hardly a blip on the cultural radar.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.