True (or False) Grit

Hailee Steinfeld has already cemented her place in the Western genre.

Hailee Steinfeld has already cemented her place in the Western genre.

True Grit’s Mattie Ross may only be fourteen, but she will forever be remembered as one of the toughest women in the Western genre. In the Coen Brothers’ recent adaptation, Hailee Stanfield brings to life author Charles Portis’ immortal character, a determined daughter who defies social conventions in order to avenge her murdered father. For her pluck and intelligence—to say nothing of her “grit”—Stanfield was accorded an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, one of ten nods for True Grit. The film’s Oscar run, coupled with $150 million earned in the U.S., show that there’s plenty of life yet in the old Hollywood Western.

Mattie’s success with current audiences is only the latest in a long lineage of Women of the West both in front of and behind the camera. Among the first female trailblazers of the genre was Ruth Ann Baldwin, whose 49-’17 is the earliest known Western directed by a woman. Little is known about Baldwin’s life, but we do know that she was a scenarist on the Universal lot who eventually rose to the rank of director—a title that was, for an all too brief time, not foreign to women at Universal. Among Baldwin’s contemporaries were Cleo Madison, Ida May Park and Lois Weber. Regrettably, most of their directorial output is considered lost.’49-’17, however, survives—and what a gem it is.

Based on the pulp short story The Old West Per Contract by William Wallace Cook (originally published in Argosy Magazine), ‘49-’17 is a clever examination of our cultural nostalgia for The Old West. The story is about the elderly Judge Brand (Joseph Girard) who, while going through his old trunk, is struck by a sudden thirst for the gold mining days of his youth. He engages his secretary, Tom Robbins (Leo Pierson, Baldwin’s husband), to head westward and to repopulate Nugget Notch, the Judge’s old campsite. When Robbins reaches the West, he realizes “Western birds were rare types—and shy.” Eventually, Robbins engages an out-of-work Western theatrical troupe to “play” the townspeople at Nugget Notch.

The “performance” of Western history, even within the actual geographical area, is a theme that runs throughout the genre. It is evident in the 1917 Douglas Fairbanks comedy Wild and Woolly and Gregory La Cava’s 1925 Womanhandled—and in the Coens’ True Grit. Since the first settler set foot out West, the freewheeling qualities that defined the land in opposition to the East had already begun to disappear; civilized, lawful society was inevitable. As we see in the final moments of True Grit, as well as 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Rooster Cogburns and Robert Fords of the West couldn’t last on the frontier’s edge forever, so they took to “playing” themselves in carnival-type attractions. It wasn’t uncommon for real life cowboys to turn to this occupation.  Whether out of a need to relive historical events or indulge in wilderness fantasies, audiences ate up this highly theatrical representation of the past.

Ruth Ann Baldwin uses this theme to explore how individual memory and desire can shape our understanding of history. It is never explicit whether the Judge wants to relive his past life as it actually happened, or as he wishes it had. My bet is on the latter. The story gets underway when the Judge opens his trunk and the lid transforms into a movie-like projection of his thoughts. We see horses, wagon trains and the flickering lights of Nugget Notch at night.

This explicitly self-reflexive moment suggests that cinema, or some similarly theatrical representation, has replaced his own memories. As Mark Garrett Cooper proposes in his new book Universal City, “the film within the film seems to have captured and preserved a past in the way a memory might, but in its display of technical virtuosity it also flaunts the cinema’s ability to produce fantasy worlds.” This conflict between romanticism and realism has always been, and still is, at the crux of the Western genre. Even in True Grit, stark danger, severe landscapes and moonlit beauty commingle in a magical snowy flight as Rooster tries to save Mattie’s life.

The dash in ‘49-’17’s title draws attention to the span of time separating the present from the past, and its story is about the impossible struggle to bridge that gap. While the Judge does get to play the hero again, bringing closure to personal mysteries left lingering for over half a century, the actual past remains as aloof and untouchable as time itself. In True Grit, Mattie Ross similarly takes her own stroll down memory lane. It’s important to remember that she is narrating the story, framing it from some distant, undefined future moment. Experience taints, embellishes and personalizes history.

’49-’17 suggests that our vision of the Old West derives as much (if not more) from the way we want to remember it than the way it actually was. Like the Atlantic protagonists of Wild and Woolly and Womanhandled, Judge Brand heeds the obsolete call of Manifest Destiny only to discover the “true west,” or what he thought of as such, no longer exists. And perhaps it never did.

It would be fallacious to label these “revisionist,” as they were created right alongside (and in some cases before) such foundational cinematic Westerns as The Iron Horse, The Covered Wagon, and Tumbleweeds. Rather, what Baldwin’s film (and the like) imply is that the Western, far from stringent, has always been interested in experimentation and exploration. Much like the iconic characters that populate its stories, the Western genre itself is an exploratory process. We can certainly count Ruth Ann Baldwin as one the many who carved out the genre in its earliest form.

When it was first released, ‘49-’17 was praised in The Moving Picture World “for its vigor and straight-from-the-shoulder action, and represents the high-water mark in [Baldwin’s] achievement.” Baldwin’s film may be nearing its centenary, but it has never felt more modern than it does now, and its capacity for entertainment remains undiminished. More importantly, the film is as telling about the evolution of the Western genre as it is about our own cultural preoccupation with that sagebrush allure.

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