Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Green Hornet
Produced and distributed by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Michel Gondry
Screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
The King’s Speech
Produced by See-Saw Films
Directed by Tom Hooper
Screenplay by David Seidler
Distributed by The Weinstein Company
I was surprised to learn that Ethan and Joel Coen were making a film of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit. After all, Henry Hathaway had turned it into a John Wayne movie in 1969. Any new version would be compared to the earlier one and likely found wanting for not having the Duke to play its principal part, the one-eyed marshal, Rooster Cogburn.
Now that I’ve seen the Coens’ version, I can report that they found a simple solution to this problem. They largely ignored Hathaway’s movie in favor of Portis’s text. Yes, there’s a big lunk of a fellow six-gunning his way through the 1880’s Indian territory of ur-Oklahoma, but he’s Jeff Bridges, nobody’s idea of a Wayne-sized hero. Bridges’ Rooster is a venal, stupid, murderous liar whose only recommendation is his apparent fearlessness. He’s also not the central figure the earlier film had made him. That distinction goes to Mattie Ross, played with preternatural conviction by 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who has hired Cogburn to capture or, better, kill her father’s murderer. As in the novel, Mattie is both narrator and prime mover of this revenge tale, a frontier, Bible-quoting Presbyterian terror, as righteous as she is relentless.
When we first meet Mattie, she has left home to travel to Fort Smith, Arkansas where her father has been killed by his hired hand, Tom Chaney, who, Mattie scrupulously notes, “robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money and two California gold pieces.” The extra “ands” in her sentence imply that the stolen horse and money are losses almost as grievous as that of the good man himself. Mattie has been her father’s bookkeeper, and she’s committed to strict accountings, whether moral or financial, which may explain why she skips her father’s funeral to join Rooster, her hired gun, on his pursuit of the malefactor. She’s determined to close the book on Chaney in person. As she tells us, there’s nothing free in this world save God’s grace. This 19th-century Calvinist has determined that Chaney owes her a debt that, in her economy, he must pay by “roasting and screaming in Hell.”
The full enormity of Mattie’s resolution finally dawns on Cogburn when he tries to prevent her from accompanying him on the dangerous chase. He and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, admirably supportive) have just ferried across a 40-yard-wide river into the Chocktaw territory when Mattie arrives on the other side. When the ferryman refuses, per Rooster’s instruction, to take her across, she doesn’t hesitate. She plunges in on horseback and fords the stiff current until she’s on the opposite shore with the lawmen. The usually garrulous Rooster regards her silently through his good eye. He realizes she’s his match (and probably more) when it comes to sheer moral force. There’s nothing for it but to take her along.
Mattie’s strength comes from her Presbyterian conviction in her own righteousness. From her moral fortress, she looks out at a world filled with dissolute backsliders, crafty cheaters, and vicious self-seekers and knows that in any showdown that’s likely to arise, her virtue will give her the upper hand. The film begins, as does the novel, with Mattie’s invocation of Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” Left out is the second line: “But the righteous are bold as a lion.” That would be Mattie. The rest of the novel is studded with biblical quotations and allusions, several of which have been included in the film. They are almost all from the Old Testament and testify to Mattie’s early American sense of uncompromising justice. The death of Mattie’s father, for instance, is unmistakably a Cain and Abel affair. Chaney shoots her father when he tries to prevent his young employee from getting himself killed in a drunken gun battle. Some have asked, Mattie tells us, “what business was it of [my father] to meddle?” Her answer: “Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?” Her curt dismissal of the inquiry suggests more than she’s saying. She seems to imply that her father should have known better. He was a little too New Testament. After all, Chaney’s face bears a virtual mark of Cain in the form of a black-powder burn from an earlier gun battle.
The film’s climax takes up another biblical theme that has been carefully prepared throughout the story. On the trail, Rooster makes a habit of surrounding his sleeping bag with his lariat. It’s supposed to ward off snakes, a defense he claims Mattie doesn’t need since she is so young and bony. Said snakes make a late appearance in the story to critical effect. In a narrative so heavily laden with biblical references, it’s hardly a stretch to suppose these snakes have a purpose beyond the physical danger they pose. This is, after all, a story about innocence and experience told by a 40-year-old woman looking back 25 years to her younger self, a time when she was convinced she was morally impervious to the world’s various poisons. The burden of the novel has to do with just how well defended she was and is. It’s a question the Coens think worth pondering.
On the question of innocence, I have to say the makers of the latest superhero film, The Green Hornet, must be invincibly ignorant. If not, then they must be judged moral cretins. This month’s Chronicles is devoted to exposing our popular culture’s determination to confront youngsters with sexual images and themes for which they haven’t the means to cope. The Green Hornet serves as a prime example of this noisome practice. Seth Rogen, who wrote the screenplay and is the film’s supposed star, thinks it amusing to employ what has become America’s favorite all-purpose participial modifier, f–king, as often as he no doubt does in his supposed real life. It seems to be his only way of expressing any sort of emotional intensity—fear, joy, disappointment—it’s all f–king to him. Along with his linguistic ingenuity, he labors to captivate children with scenes of him slobbering goggle-eyed with lust for the derrière of his costar Cameron Diaz, which, of course, he refers to as her “f–king ass.” At one point he invites Miss Diaz to a restaurant and manages to refrain from saying f–king. Instead, he avails himself of an adroit simile. To overcome Miss Diaz’s character’s natural reluctance to accompany him anywhere—one trusts this is an instance of art imitating life—he explains that tasting the food served at this establishment is like having “an orgasm in your mouth.” How poetic! And how educational for those children who don’t quite know what the o-word means, supposing there are still some over four who don’t.
Along with the sex, there’s plenty of violence—explosions and car crashes—but here done with unparalleled sloppiness that the director, Michel Gondry, has sought to redeem with close-ups of bad guys being crushed to bloody pulps under falling machinery. For variation, one miscreant gets a pair of desk legs shoved into his eyes. What sport!
And the story? Well, the Green Hornet, a.k.a. Britt Reid, who had been a crusading newspaper publisher by day and vigilante by night in the 1930’s radio serial, has been turned into a fellow much like Rogen’s now patented persona, a no-account slob who lives to drink and dope and whore. Perhaps in a bid for credibility, the script makes his sidekick Kato, the Chinese martial artist who used to be variously Japanese, Korean, and Filipino as national politics demanded, responsible for everything connected to the Green Hornet. Kato designs the armed supercar, the Black Beauty, invents the weapons, and fights the bad guys. The Asian bests the round eye on every front. He even comes up with the Green Hornet alias and gets to date Cameron Diaz, who refuses so much as to flirt with Rogen. I suppose this is Rogen’s attempt to be realistic about life in today’s America. Well, he could be right. If American youth buy Rogen as a hero, I suppose we’ll have to accept this film as a documentary of our future.
After watching this vile travesty, I listened to some episodes of the original Green Hornet on the internet. One from the series’ inaugural year (1936) was remarkably intelligent. The drama concerned a crooked businessman in cahoots with an equally crooked politician. They were colluding to bribe one of Reid’s reporters to slant the news so they could push through a phony public-works project for their personal profit. There wasn’t much in the way of fisticuffs and no gunplay, just a couple of fierce arguments about preserving the public trust. You can understand how this sort of thing wouldn’t do in today’s multiplexes. By the way, the Hornet was created by the men who had dreamt up the Lone Ranger. Britt Reid was supposed to be the Ranger’s grandnephew. Perhaps deferring to his brand of realism, Rogen ignores this morally exalted ancestry.
A word about The King’s Speech, which has garnered 12 Oscar nominations, more than any other film this year. Starring Geoffrey Rush as speech coach Lionel Logue and Colin Firth as George VI, this is an enjoyable, feel-good movie about the monarch whose reign Evelyn Waugh declared to be the most disastrous since that of Stephen and Matilda of 12th-century fame. If Waugh’s remark seems a mite cruel, keep in mind that George VI commissioned a ceremonial Sword of Honour to be crafted and bestowed on England’s brave ally, Joseph Stalin, in 1943. Waugh never forgave what he took to be a craven act of treachery that helped legitimate the Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe.
Although George went on to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, he did have one clear victory. With Logue’s help, he conquered his stammer so that he could give speeches, once he ascended to the throne in 1937, following his brother, Edward VIII, who gave up kinging for the delights afforded by American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
In a series of scenes shrewdly tailored to warm the hearts of us commoners, Logue dissolves George’s instinctive reserve and enables him to find his voice. If you can put aside the film’s questionable history, you’ll find it good, clean fun with winning performances by all involved, especially Rush.