BEN BOVA: Feb. 20, 2011 ... Two versions of movies show how we have changed

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I experienced an interesting coincidence a few nights ago. My dearest friend and I went to see the film “True Grit” at a local movie theater. This was the new version of the film, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

We enjoyed the film thoroughly. Then, when we got home, one of the movie channels was showing the old John Wayne version of “True Grit.” We sat down and watched it too.

It was fascinating to compare the two films, the one made in 1969, the other in 2010.

Western movies are a part of America’s mythology, and the way they have changed shows how our attitudes about ourselves and the rest of the world have changed.

The typical Western movie is about the lone hero, a man who is essentially peaceful by nature, who doesn’t want to fight. But the forces around him push him and push him and push him until at last he does fight. And when he does, he wipes out the enemy.

That’s how most Americans have seen themselves. The actual history of the 20th century echoes this theme. We tried to stay out of both World War I and World War II, but eventually we got pushed into fighting. And once we entered the war, our enemies were doomed.

“True Grit,” in both the movie versions, tells a different tale. The story’s central character, Rooster Cogburn, is a no-nonsense federal marshal who enforces the law with his guns. Cogburn admits that in his earlier life he wasn’t above a bit of thieving now and then.

Cogburn’s frontier society is changing. Lawyers are chivying him in court for his rough-and-ready ways.

“How many men have you shot?” a lawyer demands of Cogburn when he’s on the witness stand.

“Shot or killed?” Rooster asks.

The lawyer is appalled. But out in the wilderness, beyond courts of law, Cogburn shoots and kills without flinching.

“True Grit” speaks to our attitudes about the people who enforce the law, the people who wear a police officer’s badge, the cops.

We want strong, efficient law enforcement. Yet we want to protect the rights of suspects: they are citizens, after all. They’re not guilty until found so in a court of law.

This makes the job of a policeman incredibly difficult. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve been in nations where the police can break down your door, or break your head, whenever they choose to. Mexico today is in the midst of a virtual civil war in part because many of its police forces have been corrupted by narcotics money.

To get back to the movies, of the two versions of “True Grit” I must say that I like the older one better. The 2010 film may adhere to the original novel more closely, but I found the film sort of — well, mechanical, as if the actors were merely going through their paces, without warmth, without truly living their roles.

John Wayne will never be mistaken for a great actor, but the secret of his enduring success is that he came through on screen. You believed in who he was and what he was doing. He had terrific screen presence.

It’s astonishing how few of the biggest Hollywood stars are really good actors. Most of them find a characterization that fits their personality, and they go on playing that character for the rest of their careers.

Humphrey Bogart, for example, was a second-string performer in Warner Brothers’ stable until he played Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.” That’s when he became “Bogie,” the character he portrayed for just about the rest of his life.

James Cagney was always Cagney: tough, hip, smiling whether he was playing “The Public Enemy” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

John Wayne always played John Wayne: on the western frontier or the sands of Iwo Jima, he was always the Duke. Strangely, though, I thought his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn was deeper and more nuanced than Jeff Bridges’.

I’m probably wrong. Maybe I just like watching John Wayne. I’ll have to see Bridges in “True Grit” a few more times and see if my opinion changes.

Bova is the author of 124 books, including “Leviathans of Jupiter,” the latest volume of his epic Grand Tour series. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.

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