‘The Hanging Judge’ and ‘True Grit’

Published 11:57 am Friday, January 14, 2011

Column: Between the Corn Rows

Partial credit for inspiring this column goes to Adam Harringa. His Tribune column on Dec. 29 about the new film “True Grit” serves as an excellent salute to a young actress named Hailee Steinfeld. Also, the title of this film reminded me that a distant relative could be a part of the plot. And it isn’t very often a personal connection with a Hollywood production can be made. As a result, I started off the new year by going to see the second and latest film with this title. I wanted to see if a distant relative was again depicted as a part of the plot in the new Joel and Ethan Coen production.

As Adam pointed out in his column, ”True Grit” is set in the 1870s and is based on a book with the same title by Charles Portis.

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This 1968 novel was published by Simon and Schuster and became very popular. The plot was fictional, except for the main setting based on Fort Smith, Ark., and two characters. On page 18 a man named George Maledon becomes a part of the narrative. He was the official hangman for the Western Judicial District of Arkansas. On page 38 a Judge Parker is mentioned and described in more detail a few pages later. That’s right, I once read this book.

My grandmother mentioned Judge Parker several times when I was a pre-teenager. He was like a family legend. Also, my grandfather and great-grandfather had met the judge several times. After all, he was a relative.

The Portis book became the basis for a 1969 film with the same name starring John Wayne as the one-eyed Rueben J. (Rooster) Cogburn. Kim Darby had the role of the 14-year-old girl determined to legally avenge the killing of her father. Other actors in this first film, as listed by Adam, were Glen Campbell, Robert Duval and Dennis Hopper, By the way, this first production was filmed near Bishop, Calif., and John Wayne later won an Academy Award for his acting.

I made it a special point to go to this first film to see how Federal Judge Isaac Charles Parker was depicted. His role was played by James Westerfield, and I thought the courtroom scene was done very well.

The “True Grit” book is now out of print. Yet, the Coen brothers decided to revive the Rooster Cogburn tale with a second film version that was released last month. The other major actors in this latest epic besides Hailee Steinfeld, as listed by Adam, are Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and Matt Damon.

There are some changes in the second version. For example, Judge Parker is shown in a courtroom scene, but he doesn’t have a speaking part. I’m not going to give away the plot, except for one detail. Near the end of the film Rooster Cogburn, as a federal marshall, says twice he wants to take the villain back to Fort Smith to Judge Parker’s court. And as I will explain later, this court became famous for the number of criminals legally hanged by Maledon.

As a real bonus, the American Movie Channel decided to show the original “True Grit” film on the evening of Jan. 6. Thus, I had the opportunity to again see the first version of the film that resulted in an Oscar for John Wayne.

There’s an interesting difference between these two films. As I’ve already mentioned, Rooster Cogburn was supposedly blind in one eye. Yet, in the first film, John Wayne has the black patch over his left eye. In the latest version, Jeff Bridges has the patch over his right eye. There are also other significant differences between the two versions of the Portis novel, but this will do for now.

The original 1969 “True Grit” has a running time of 128 minutes. However, the Tribune’s cable television guide has a full three hours listed for this film. It’s obvious that 52 minutes was allocated for commercial messages from sponsors.

In the next column we’ll have more information about the real life of Isaac Charles Parker, “The Hanging Judge” of Fort Smith, Ark.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.