Great Scene: “True Grit”

A snakebit girl. A wounded lawman. A flagging horse. A desperate ride.

Movie: True Grit (2010), screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, novel by Charles Portis

IMDb plot summary: A tough U.S. Marshal helps a stubborn teenager track down her father’s murderer.

Scene Setup: In shooting Tom Chaney, the blast from the rifle sends Mattie stumbling backwards into a deep pit. She calls for help, but LaBouef is still out cold. Cogburn appears and begins to scale the side of the pit with a rope to rescue her, but Mattie’s left hand has already been bitten by a rattlesnake. Cogburn retrieves her and temporarily treats her wound, but knows he must get her medical attention quickly or she will die. A revived LaBouef hoists them out of the pit.

Here is the scene in the script:

THE LEDGE

Little Blackie, led by a wobbly LeBoeuf, finishes pulling Rooster and Mattie from the pit.

Rooster is already unwrapping the rope from his waist and talking to LeBoeuf as he and Mattie emerge:

Rooster
I will send help for you as soon as I can.
Don't wander off.

Mattie
We are not leaving him!

Rooster heaves her up onto the back of Little Blackie, LeBoeuf helping though blood still flows down one side of his face.

Rooster
I must get you to a doctor, sis, or you are not
going to make it. (to LeBoeuf) The girl is
snakebit. We are off.

He swings up behind her and nods down to LeBoeuf.

. . . I am in your debt for that shot, pard.

LeBoeuf
Never doubt the Texash Ranger.

Rooster reins the horse around and spurs it. LeBouef shouts after:

. . . Ever shtalwart!

The horse takes to the steep slope reluctantly, with stiff legs, Rooster kicking it on. Tree branches slap at him and take his hat. His face, already peppered with shot, gets new scratches.

THE MEADOW

Mattie is woozy. As Little Blackie crosses the field at full gallop Mattie looks blearily at the littering bodies of horses and men.

Next to Lucky Ned's body his horse, saddled and riderless, swings its head to watch as Rooster and Mattie pass.

Mattie's eyes are closing.

LATE DAY

Mattie's eyes half-open.

Little Blackie plunges on, through a rough road in woods, but slower now, his mouth foaming.

Rooster
Come on, you!

Mattie
We must stop. Little Blackie is played out.

Horrible noises are indeed coming from the horse, but Rooster is grim:

Rooster
We have miles yet.

He leaves off whipping the horse and takes out his knife. He leans back and slashes at the horse's whithers. Little Blackie surges.

Mattie screams.

Mattie
No!

A locked-down shot as horse and riders enter at a gallop and recede.

NIGHT

It has started to snow.

Mattie is flushed and soaked with sweat.

The horse is laboring for breath.

Rooster gives inarticulate curses as he kicks it on.

Mattie looks ahead:

Barely visible in the moonlight, a man mounted bareback rides on ahead. A sash cord holds a rifle to his back.

He recedes, outpacing us, disappearing into the darkness and the falling snow.

Mattie
He is getting away.

Rooster
Who is getting away?

Mattie
Chaney.

Rooster
Hold on, sis.

Mattie is falling. It is unclear why.

Her legs squeeze the horses flanks.

Her hand tightens on the horses mane.

Rooster's arm reaches around to hold her.

Little Blackie is giving out, going to his knees and then all the way down.

Rooster hangs on to Mattie as the horse sinks. He pulls her clear, lays her on the ground, and then steps away from her, taking out a gun.

The horrible noises coming from the horse end with a gunshot. Rooster reenters to pick up Mattie but she screams at him and claws at his face, opening fresh gashes.

He ducks his head as best he can to avoid the claws but that is the extent of his reaction.

Rooster
Put your arms around my neck, I will carry.

He presents his back and she relents, clasping her arms. He rises with a pained wheeze and he starts jogging with Mattie piggie-back.

Bouncing at his shoulder, she twists to look back.

In the dark, the darker shape of the dead horse, growing smaller.

Mattie turns forward again, eyes drooping.

LATER

Rooster is loudly wheezing as he carries Mattie before him now, his jog slowed to an unsteady walk. Her eyes are opening again.

They are now on a proper dirt road. Rooster staggers around a turn and does a barely controlled stumble to his knees, and then sits heavily back, Mattie in his lap.

Up ahead is the front porch of Bagby's store, the building dark.

Rooster sits gasping.

Mattie's voice is thick:

Mattie
Where are we?

Rooster takes out his gun, weakly raises his arm, and fires into the air. He sits panting.
Rooster
I have grown old.

The door of the distant store opens and someone emerges, holding a lamp, peering out into the dark.

FADE OUT

Here is the movie version of the scene:

As always with Coen brothers scripts, the movie version follows closely what they’ve written. A few minor changes, most notably Mattie crying out “No” multiple times when Cogburn pulls out his gun and shoots Little Blackie.

Also missing from the script: The haunting melody of the Christian hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. It plays over the entire race to save Mattie’s life. Indeed, that song is an idée fixe used throughout the movie including the film’s opening credits.

The Coens have a special ear for music in their movies and the choice of this hymn is no different. Mattie enters the story cocksure and independent, a youth who has had to grow up fast in order to handle affairs at the family in part because of her father’s tenderhearted nature and lack of business acumen. She has to learn to trust others and that is the primary lesson she gets in the relationship she develops with Cogburn.

In this scene, we see the apex of her arc. She has gone from a determined young woman relying solely on her wits and force of will to someone quite literally “leaning” into the grip of Rooster Cogburn.

That final image, unfortunately missing from the video, of Cogburn raising his pistol into the air, firing it, then uttering, “I have grown old” is a fitting capstone to the man’s epic life.

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