The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

POKER FLAT BRET HARTE

If you like playing Red Dead Redemption, if you enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I recommend “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“, a short story by Bret Harte, published in the late 1800s as the century was coming to a close.

This short story was adapted for film in 1919, 1937 and again in 1952.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat movie poster

But the version with the highest rating on IMDb is the latest one — a TV movie from 1958. Good luck finding it, though.

Then [in 2009-10] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in 2012 (to positive reviews), and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.

Poker and Pop

This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just 120 years ago. I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending.

Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end.

STORY WORLD OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

The setting is a very specific November 22 1850, in a town called Poker Flat, in Northwestern California.

There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.

Owl Eyes

Here it is on Google Earth, if you’re viewing this in Chrome. There’s not much there now — but I do spy one ambiguous human structure. I hope there’s at least a plaque which mentions the short story.

I’m thinking of a town a bit like Deadwood (South Dakota) — full of men, drinking and gambling, without the moderating influence of ‘Sabbath’. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.



THE SEASONS OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

At first it washes over me that the month is November, probably because I live in the Southern Hemisphere, when the end of November is warm, perfect for camping outdoors. Stranded outside in Australia at the end of November? You’d be fine — though covered in mozzie bites, probably. I don’t tend to associate California with snow, partly because I’ve watched Thelma and Louise and Animal Kingdom — no snow.

But I am reminded later in the story that, for Americans, November 22 marks the onset of winter, a month before winter solstice. Of course it snows in the mountainous parts of California, ie. The Sierras, the Cascade mountains.

More on The Seasons of Storytelling.

POKER FLAT

There’s something curious about Harte having chosen to include “poker” in the name of the California town from which a poker player is banished and where the game is associated with other activities (thievery, prostitution) deemed “improper.” It almost seems like the people of Poker Flat are denying something essential about themselves when trying to rid the town of the game — or at least the town’s best player.

Poker and Pop

WHAT WAS GOING ON IN AMERICA IN 1850?

  • Never heard of him myself, but Millard Fillmore was sworn in as America’s 13th president. The guy before him died.
  • America had 31 states and 4 organised territories at this time. California had been an American state only since September 9 of that year.
  • In September the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by congress. This was a terrible law which required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate.

While this particular story is not about slavery and not about California’s new statehood, all of this provides an important cultural ambience which affords the contemporary reader an insight into how harshly humans could treat other humans back then. (And still do, in certain contexts.) For Bret Harte, writing this story almost 50 years later, America had undergone huge changes, most notably industrialisation, civil war and the abolishment of slavery. To Harte and his contemporary readers, 1850 would have felt like an entire lifetime ago, harking back to an almost mythic past. This marked the beginning of the age of the Western Story, actually. The Western was really popular with a male audience in particular, right up until the 20th century world wars, after which readers no longer really believed in expansionism and violence as an ideal, and since then we’ve only had ‘anti Westerns‘ (which we shorten to ‘Western’, forgetting how ridiculously racist and optimistic those early ones were).

HARTE’S OWN LIFE

As I already mentioned, Harte lived through an era of huge change. The America he was born into was absolutely not the America he saw as an old man.

For a time he worked as a reporter and was left in charge of a newspaper called the Northern Californian for a time. During that time he covered the 1860 massacre of 80-200 Wiyot Indians. He condemned the slayings, citing Christianity. He said no civilised peoples should be doing that to other peoples.

Not everyone agreed with that. After he published his editorial Harte’s life was threatened. He was forced to flee a month later. He quit his job as a reporter and moved to San Francisco.

In short, Harte knew what it was like to be shooed out of town. He’d also seen great brutality at close range. By the time he wrote “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” he had also seen great riches and also poverty as his writing income waned. He may have even contemplated suicide himself. From a letter he wrote to his wife, referring to the winter of 1877-1878:

I don’t know—looking back—what ever kept me from going down, in every way, during that awful December and January.

Harte had also fallen out with Mark Twain, previously a friend. Twain called him ‘a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery’. So it’s likely Harte felt some sympathy towards people who are thusly besmirched. Though the character of Mother Shipton is a crass woman, Harte eventually leads his reader to empathise with her and respect her.

By the time Harte wrote this story, he’d moved to England, where he stayed until he died. He left his wife and children in America and regularly sent them money from his writing income, though he maintained he couldn’t afford to travel back to America to see them himself.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

In the story, John Oakhurst, an outsider from a place known as Roaring Camp, has enjoyed gambling success the previous night. Now it’s morning and the locals are regarding him differently. He’s calm, handsome — your archetypal Western hero. He probably keeps himself cleaner and tidier than typical cowboy types of the era. He is introduced to us wiping the red dust off his boots with his handkerchief. I’m thinking of Jake Spoon from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Jake Spoon

The narrator offers the town’s recent backstory. There’s been a crime spree, including loss of life. A secret committee has formed to get rid of anyone suspicious, or ‘improper persons’. We infer that Oakhurst is this morning’s target, since he’s described as a ‘gambler’. If that’s his profession, he’s hardly respectable. There are two men hanging from a sycamore tree. Sex workers have been shooed out.

Somehow Oakhurst knows all this, and supposes that he’s ‘included in this category’. He’s especially targeted because he’s won large sums of money from the executioners, and if they could justify killing him, they’d raid his pockets and get their money back. A man named Jim Wheeler is named as the personification of all those who have lost money. They consider it against (‘agin’) justice to let a man carry away all of their money. Between themselves, they can justify killing him. However, some had also won money from Oakhurst, and Jim Wheeler’s suggestion is overruled.

The narrator skips the part where Oakhurst is apprehended and led to court. Instead we get the outcome — he’s banished from town.

Like a true antihero, Oakhurst receives this verdict with calmness, understanding the nature of fate. In this he reminds me of much more recent wild West heroes (if not ‘Western’ in the traditional sense), such as Cohle from True Detective.

Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favour of the dealer.

Damaged heroes who embrace fate and live pessimistically are a favourite in crime stories set in desolate, flat places where ‘nothing can grow, nothing can become’, etc. (These characters are almost always men.)

Annie Proulx also likes to write fatalistic characters, eking out their miserable lives in harsh Wyoming environments. See “Stone City“, “Electric Arrows“, “Dump Junk” etc. Proulx’s fatalistic characters also tend to be men. There is something highly gendered about a fatalistic outlook in fiction. Accepting death as a natural outcome of life is a sign of strength and therefore of ideal masculinity, as idealised by the communities themselves.

Do we still idealise a fatalistic outlook, or do we poke fun at it? True Detective does both.

Back to Harte’s story. After sentencing, a body of armed men escorts a small group of individuals to the edge of town. Then the four of them are forced to make their own way to the next camp. The ‘criminals’ comprise:

  1. A young sex worker known as “The Duchess”. She cries ‘hysterically’.
  2. A woman known as “Mother Shipton” (a moniker also used by Alice Munro in her short story “Silence“). The name comes from English woman Ursula Southeil, born in the late 1400s. She was better known as Mother Shipton, and was thought to have been a soothsayer and prophetess. The moniker is therefore applied to women who are savvy enough to see what’s coming. She uses ‘bad language’.
  3. “Uncle Billy”, a suspected ‘sluice-robber’. A sluice is a slanted channel used to filter gold out from dirt or sand. In gold digging eras, diggers would claim their own spot. If they found gold they’d leave it in the sluice for short periods on the understanding that they’d found it, so it belonged to them. But a “sluice-robber” didn’t respect this rule, and would steal gold from other people’s sluices when they weren’t looking. This particular sluice-robber is also a ‘confirmed drunkard’. (I’m guessing he tried to rob the sluices while drunk, hence was easily caught. Either that or the townsfolk used this excuse to get rid of him for his heavy drinking.)

Each of the other three escorted out of town are therefore presented as upset and emotional about their expulsion, in contrast to the calm and collected, fatalistic Western antihero of Oakhurst.

Oakhurst does a chivalrous thing and swaps his own excellent  riding horse for “The Duchess’s” sorry mule (note that he has done this great favour for the young woman, not for the older one). For some strange reason she’s not all that grateful to him (and as an erstwhile young woman myself, I’d worry he might want to be repaid in kind, later. Don’t forget, they’re liquored up and have no food.

They’re on their way to a place called Sandy Bar. It’s a full day away, of harsh riding up a steep mountain range. (This really does feel like a sequence straight out of Red Dead Redemption.)

But at noon the young sex worker decides she can’t go any further. She’s not stupid — she’s picked a really picturesque place to stop:

The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheatre, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley. It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable spot for a camp, had camping been advisable.

The even more sensible Oakhurst points out that they can’t stop there because they have no provisions. And they’re still half a day away from Sandy Bar. The other outcasts have succumbed variously to the liquor and only Oakhurst remains fully sentient as he does not drink. It ‘interfered with his profession which required coolness’. This tells us that he probably has so much success at gambling not through any special trickery, but only because he’s the most sober person at the table. In this era, resisting drink is its own superpower.

Oakhurst is freshening himself up at a nearby stream or something when an acquaintance of his just happens to ride by at that very moment — a young man, called Tom Simson, who has been on the receiving end of Oakhurst’s fatherly kindness. Simson is known as “The Innocent” of Sandy Bar. He’s on his way to Poker Flat to seek his fortune, against Oakhurst’s earlier advice — Simson is terrible at gambling and shouldn’t try it again. He’s with his fiance, Piney Woods. They’re having to elope since Piney’s father doesn’t approve of the match. Piney is a ‘stout, comely damsel of fifteen’, who shyly comes out from behind a tree.

Oakhurst gives the old drunkard a kick (I guess to stop him telling Simson what they’re all doing there) and then tries to tell Simson he shouldn’t delay. But Simson is very friendly and points out this is bad place to camp. As it happens, Simson has an extra mule of provisions and knows where there’s a ‘crude attempt’ at a log-house near the trail, where Piney can stay with “Mrs Oakhurst”. (He’s assuming the Duchess is Oakhurst’s wife.)

Now the story pans out to offer the reader a wide angle shot of the party, from Uncle Billy’s point of view as he removes himself to the trees in order to stop himself laughing. From here he sees the expanded party has started a fire and that the weather has changed. ‘The air had grown strangely chill and the sky overcast’. This change in weather juxtaposes against the fact that the arrival of Simson and his young fiancée have cheered the others right up.

Notice how Uncle Billy has been separated from the group. Harte did this by a switch in point of view, like the opponent viewing his prey from a distance, through the trees. This is a very cinematic short story.

Harte continues to create a creepy atmosphere for us:

As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a slight breeze rocked the tops of the pine-trees, and moaned through their long and gloomy aisles. The ruined cabin, patched and covered with pine-boughs, was set apart for the ladies.

The women sleep in the hut. The men stoke the fire, lie down outside the door and soon fall asleep. Oakhurst is a light sleeper, and wakes up cold. It’s started to snow. He has to wake the other men before they freeze to death, but he finds Uncle Billy has gone. All the mules have gone, too. The tracks are disappearing in the snow. Level-headed Oakhurst knows there’s no point waking the others up at this hour, so he goes back to sleep, endures the rest of the cold night and tells them what happened in the morning.

Fortunately the provisions were in the log cabin with the women, so the thieving old drunkard hasn’t managed to get away with those. They calculate they can last in this camp for 10 days if they’re very careful.

‘For some occult reason’ (which feels a bit like a hack on the part of the writer), Oakhurst can’t bring himself to tell Simson that Uncle Billy deliberately stole the horses. He cracks on it was a drunken accident, wandering off like that, and accidentally setting free the mules. Perhaps, I deduce, if he explains Uncle Billy’s a thief, Simson will work out that the party have all been ousted for various crimes. “It’s no good frightening them now,” he tells the ousted sex workers.

Simson is happy to share his supplies with the rest of the party.

Now Bret Harte decides to remove Oakhurst from the happy party, dancing and singing around a fire, all against the backdrop of a blizzard. Oakhurst has gone off in search of the path, but doesn’t find it. He witnesses this ‘altar’ from a distance. Even if the reader hasn’t noticed that Harte has used this exact trick before, with the drunkard thief, we probably sense that Oakhurst is now set in opposition to the rest of the party. There’s also foreshadowing, with authorial intrusion reminding us that this is a story of mythic proportions:

Whether Mr. Oakhurst had cachéd his cards with the whiskey as something debarred the free access of the community, I cannot say.

The prophetic nature of ‘Mother Shipton’ also provides foreshadowing of doom:

Through the marvellously clear air the smoke of the pastoral village of Poker Flat rose miles away. Mother Shipton saw it, and from a remote pinnacle of her rocky fastness, hurled in that direction a final malediction.

They’re running out of supplies and snow keeps falling. Although Mother Shipton deals with it by yelling expletives into the void, the others amuse themselves with music, then they start to tell stories. Piney proposes this, not realising that Oakhurst and the women are keeping big secrets and probably don’t want to be telling any stories, lest they reveal their true identities.

So The Innocent starts recounting The Iliad in his own words. He read a translation some months ago. This goes on for another week. A mythic amount of snow has fallen around them. They have little food. They’re now having trouble keeping the fire going because they’re running low on firewood.

Mother Shipton decides to die. She’s been starving herself, saving her supplies. She calls Oakhurst to her bedside before she dies and tells him to give her supplies to ‘the child’ (Piney).

Oakhurst suggests he and The Innocent set off out of there, despite the conditions. Oakhurst leaves extra wood for the next few days of fire and the women realise he’s not coming back, despite promising to accompany The Innocent only as far as the canyon.

The women die after the roof of their hut caves in under snow. The narrator tells us that, when dead, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the pure girl and the dirty one. The image of dead women as ‘art’ reminds me of a film I couldn’t stand, but which met with much critical acclaim — Nocturnal Animals — which well and truly glorifies the murder of women. A murdered mother and daughter are posed in an ‘innocent’ but also in a sexualised way. The sexual past of a woman who is a mother juxtaposes against the implied virgin state of the daughter in a a scene very reminiscent of this one, albeit written with the morality of a full century earlier.

Then we have the fact that suicide was considered a grave sin. When it is revealed that Oakhurst has killed himself rather than fulfil his promise of returning to the young women, the narrator tells us that the strongest man has turned out to be the weakest. Even Mother Shipton did something good before she died by sacrificing her food for the virtuous younger woman. But Oakhurst has done nothing (did he keep those rations for himself?) and now he has ‘committed’ suicide, akin to committing murder in those days.

The Judeo-Christian idea that suicide is a sin does not come from the Bible, in fact, but rather from a macho culture in which it is mistakenly seen as ‘the coward’s way out’. By giving us this ending, Harte has built up a man who conforms to every masculine ideal of the time — the ultimate Western hero — then attempts to subvert that message by revealing that actually he is a coward. Harte is very explicit about this in his narration:

…beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

THE MESSAGE THAT SUICIDE IS A FORM OF WEAKNESS

But this message doesn’t work for a contemporary audience, or even for a non Judeo-Christian audience. In Japan, for instance, suicide is traditionally seen as the most noble way out of an impossible circumstance, and supremely courageous.

We now have a much better understanding of the neurobiology of suicide, an understanding which has continued to evolve through the 20th century. We’re still not fully there:

Suicide was traditionally regarded very much as a kind of consequence of social factors. Émile Durkheim in France, in fact many others before him, had noticed the relationship of suicide to social changes involving people having been alienated from society and isolated and so on. But relatively recently it became more apparent that suicide was in fact related to major psychiatric disorders. This was done through psychological autopsies: that is, interviewing the families of people who had been unfortunate enough to die by suicide. It turned out that over 90 per cent of all suicides had a psychiatric disorder.

There was a spate of youth suicide that began in the United States in the 1980s and a little later began to appear in other countries, including Australia, where it became the leading cause of death amongst young people. And, at first, one had the impression that these were well adjusted, popular young individuals who had everything to look forward to in life and their suicide was a complete mystery. One had a sense that this was a shock to everybody. But in fact a careful interview by a professional revealed that in fact over 90 per cent of these young people had a psychiatric illness that antedated the suicide. It was almost certainly the principle cause of their suicide, and most of them are not treated at the time when they’re committing suicide.

Most people who have these mood disorders never attempt suicide, let alone commit suicide. Low serotonin in the wrong place is a factor. 

…a compounding factor for struggling teenagers could well be that this prefrontal cortex, so key in impulse control. …we know that mood disorders are transmitted familially and that suicidal behaviour, its predisposition, is transmitted familially.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

SHORTCOMING

This is a classic case of a character whose strength is also his shortcoming:

That said, poker has prepared Oakhurst well for the present trial. Long sessions have meant he’s “often been a week without sleep,” thus preparing him to handle the test of physical endurance the trip has presented. Poker has also helped equip Oakhurst with a kind of mental fortitude to withstand the sudden misfortune that has befallen the travelers.

“Luck… is a mighty queer thing,” he tells Simson. “All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you.”

Poker and Pop Culture

Though his shortcoming is kept as a reveal, Oakhurst’s shortcoming is that his fatalistic attitude leaves him susceptible to suicide. The reveal forms a bit of a ‘reversal’ when it comes to understanding his psychology — the reason he seemed so calm and collected, even while cast out of town with other ruffians, is because this didn’t stand in the way of his wish to move on anyway, to a completely different town….

DESIRE

… where he would continue to play cards and win a good living.

OPPONENT

So in this story, the townsfolk who throw him out of Poker’s Flat aren’t his opponent.

The drunkard thief is his surprise opponent — surprise because he seems completely ineffectual. But he’s got a wicked plan of his own — he’ll steal the horses and take off in the middle of the night.

PLAN

His plan to keep his true circumstances secret in order to share in Simson’s supplies does work initially, but nature is the bigger opposition, and keeps on falling, snowing them in.

Eventually, when Oakhurst realises they’re all done for, he makes like the drunkard and leaves two vulnerable women alone.

BIG STRUGGLE

Oakhurst’s own death takes place off the page, but Mother Shipton’s death is on the page, and stands in for his own. Her generosity also juxtaposes against his own.

ANAGNORISIS

I believe Oakhurst has a anagnorisis when the author first removes him from the rest of the group. But this is one of those stories in which the Anagnorisis is kept off the page.

NEW SITUATION

Because the Anagnorisis has been kept off the page, we’re given a didactic bit of narration in the final sentence, told that a man who appears strong is actually weak.

The entire party is dead, though they all died with varying degrees of culpability and innocence. The women — one a dirty whore, the other a pure and kind country virgin — are now ‘equal’ (in the eyes of the Lord) because they both tried their hardest to survive. But because Oakhurst ‘gave up’ prematurely, shooting himself with his gun rather than letting hypothermia take him more gradually, in death he has lost any respect.

The author never tells us what happened to The Innocent, which I first think is a narrative mistake. That said, there’s a possible alternative reading: Is this dead body really the body of John Oakhurst, or is it the body of The Innocent, shot by John Oakhurst, who’s made off with the rest of the rations to start a new life, unpursued by the law of Poker’s Flat?

Maybe the final sentence is sufficiently ambiguous to support this reading, as is Simson’s moniker of “The Innocent”.

The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)

THE BLUE HOTEL stephen crane

“The Blue Hotel” is a short story by Stephen Crane, published serially in Collier’s Weekly (1898) and then in the collection The Monster and Other Stories (1899). The story was inspired by Crane’s travels to the American Southwest in 1895.

Encyclopedia Britannica

I recently took a close look at “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield. By coincidence I came across “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane, which is a similar case study in some respects:



  • Both stories almost feels like they’re going to turn into ghost stories
  • Because both of them make use of the Inn Of No Return trope
  • Both stories have been criticised — Crane’s for being didactic and Mansfield’s for feeling contrived.

“The Blue Hotel” is interesting from a storytelling point of view:

  • Should Crane have left off the final part? Would readers have been able to piece everything together had he left the ‘Three months later’ epilogue out?
  • What is Crane saying about the nature of fate? Another American short story great, Annie Proulx, is known for her fatalistic worldview. Crane seems the direct inverse — if the characters in this story had chosen to act just a little differently, in a kind of butterfly effect, the horrible events that pan out could have been averted. Perhaps. We all have our part to play in avoiding evil, and should act accordingly. Proulx offers no such life advice.
  • The fight scenes in “The Blue Hotel” read to me as excessively long. In the 1880s, before cinema, a blow-by-blow description of fights might have thrilled its audience. But now, reading detailed accounts of a fight feels to me, at least, like skimming over technical stage notes.
  • Crane chose not to name most of these characters — rather, he deliberately keeps them as archetypes. Even when a character is named e.g. “Johnnie”, he has the generic name of a white American boy. When writers choose not to name their characters, it’s sometimes because they don’t think a certain group is important enough to warrant naming. There are important political implications here. But sometimes it’s not because the writer is oblivious to the politics of no-name characters. As Donika DeShawn Ross explains:

“The Blue Hotel” provides us with an imperfect but useful schema for how not to read white manhood. The Swede repeatedly misreads the men at Scully’s hotel because he cannot see past his own assumptions about the West and the type of men who inhabit its forlorn spaces. He is fluent in myth rather than lived experience, and his expectations persist despite mounds of contradictory evidence.

Crane initially encourages readers to enact the same kind of misreading by refusing to name his characters beyond ethnicity, work, and region, which keeps the tone of the story at the register of a joke until the moment the Swede is murdered.

Reading Against Genre: Contemporary Westerns and the Problem of White Manhood by Donika DeShawn Ross (2013)

  • This Western story was written in the late 1800s, in the heyday of the Western plot. People of this era would have been very familiar with the symbolism. Westerns were all about world building. This all changed after the second world war, and almost every Western made since then has technically been ‘anti-Western‘, meaning it’s no longer about the glory of world building, but highlights the miseries of life as a pioneer, and of displaced peoples. What is this story, though? “The Blue Hotel” is Western genre only about as much as Hud is a Western — not at all. These are domestic stories which happen to include a cowboy. The action takes place mostly indoors. The stove, mentioned again and again, reminds us that these guys are sitting indoors in a cosy environment, safe from the threatening elements outdoors. That’s not very cowboy at all, really. “The Blue Hotel” is therefore its own kind of anti-Western, but not because it highlights the miseries of cowboy life — because it nevertheless punishes (with death) a character who subscribes uncritically to the myth of the dangerous West.
  • “The Blue Hotel” is the story of a character who has been negatively, melodramatically influenced by the media he reads — dime novel Westerns, to the point where he can’t see the reality of the situation. This gives “The Blue Hotel” a metafictive quality.

Here is the full story of “The Blue Hotel“, annotated with my own notes.

No Country For Old Men Film Study

No Country For Old Men poster

No Country For Old Men is a 2007 Coen Brothers film which hews pretty closely to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. This is a transcendent example of a crime story, with a pessimistic view on the greed of humans, and on the nihilistic worldview police officers can fall into after a lifetime of crime fighting. In conservative crime stories the baddies get their comeuppance. In reality, bad people don’t always get what’s coming to them.

Business Insider ranked the Coen Brothers’ movies from 1 to 17 and No Country For Old Men comes in at number three. (Did you know the Coens had written quite this many movies? I didn’t.)

HUMOUR AND IRONY

It is said in that same article that No Country For Old Men is without irony:

Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made. It is dead serious and unironic. The lively soundtrack has been replaced with dead silence, creating an absolutely brilliant sense of dread.

But is that really true? I go by the idea that all stories are inherently ironic. To use Matt Bird’s definition of irony, in every story there’s a gap between story outcome and audience expectation. It’s certainly true that this Coen Brothers movie is significantly different in tone. But there is indeed irony:

  • There is dramatic irony running throughout the entire plot. The audience knows exactly what Chigurh is up to because we’re there with him on his serial killing rampage before Llewellyn even discovers the box of cash. So the audience is in constant audience superior position. This is necessary in the creation of suspense, because we know just what’s at stake and we must watch Llewellyn come to that same, slow realisation for himself.
  • Even at a line level, I can see exactly how the novel No Country For Old Men would have appealed to the dark humour of the Coen Brothers. When Llewellyn arrives home with a satchel full of cash his wife asks him what’s inside. Llewellyn tells her it’s full of cash. “Yeah, that’ll be the day,” she scoffs, obviously used to her husband’s ironic sense of humour. Again we have dramatic irony this is funny to the audience because we know that this time Llewellyn is telling the truth. Though we haven’t seen Lewellyn’s entire backstory we just know he’s got a history of ironic comebacks. We know this from Carla Jean’s response. “That’s just like Llewellyn,” we think to ourselves, along with his wife.
  • The name Chigurh was coined by McCarthy because he didn’t want Anton to be of any nationality in particular. But it’s also ironically funny, sounding very much like Sugar.
  • Both Lewellyn and Chigurh wear white socks ironically symbolic, since white is heavily associated with purity and innocence. Carson Wells wears a white hat. In this film Carson Wells is indeed set up as the good guy from your unironic Western film, yet take away all the other evil and Carson Wells himself is a pretty terrible individual. The point of this irony? Evil is all relative. A bad person can be the good person depending on the story. Another crime show, this time British, gives us the full spectrum of evil men: Happy Valley.

Nor is this story without humour. It is the dark humour which makes this film watchable.

A lot of the humour derives from the juxtaposition between out-and-out evil walking around on a murdering spree in an environment where the ‘regular’ counterparts of friendly, guileless, open, helpful and ultimately confused when confronted with imminent death. This should not really be funny, but because it happens again and again, with Anton meeting basically the same characters in different bodies, it becomes almost ridiculous, and therefore, is. The predictability makes it so. A lot of gags in No Country For Old Men rely on the audience already knowing what’s going to happen. Any sort of comedic character relies on that, actually. We know Catherine Tate’s Nan character is going to turn sour as soon as a visitor leaves the room. We know that at some point in every episode of Kath and Kim, Kath will say, “Look at me, look at me Kimmy,” and we know that Magda Szubanski’s character Lynne is going to say, “I said pet, I said love…” and take a long draw on her cigarette.

So when Anton Chigurh grimly carries out his plans, sighing at the same responses, “You don’t have to do this,” or “I don’t understand”, I guess we can either laugh or cry. And I don’t believe the point is to make the audience cry over the murders of Anton’s victims. The point is for us to be further and further intrigued and baffled by his mindset.

Anton's facial expression No Country For Old Men
The gas station scene is terrifying, but Anton’s motherly-chiding facial expression as he leaves is a comedic touch.

This juxtaposition between Everyday People and Anton Chigurh hangs on expression of detail.

James Wood writes of the influence of Flaubert on modern crime writing (as well as on war reportage):

Flaubert manages to suggest that…details are somehow at once important and unimportant: important because they have been noticed by him and put down on paper, and unimportant because they are all jumbled together, seen as if out of the corner of the eye; they seem to come at us “like life”. From this flows a great deal of modern storytelling, such as war reportage. The crime writer and war reporter merely increase the extremity of this contrast between important and unimportant detail, converting it into a tension between the awful and the regular: a soldier dies while nearby a little boy goes to school. […] All detail is somewhat numbing, and strikes the traumatised voyeur in the same way.

How Fiction Works

When we see Anton take off both socks and fling them into the bathroom, this focus on detail sits in opposition to the out-and-out recklessness of the shooting spree here’s a man who has killed three people because he had the wrong room. (Or had the right room and simply didn’t care.) Juxtaposition is one of the eleven elements of comedy, as described by the founder of The Onion.

GENRE BLEND OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

This is a crime story utilising thriller elements, combined with drama to provide subtle characterisation. The addition of ‘drama’ elevates the story and allows it to resonate with the audience while saying something deeper about human nature.

What makes this a ‘crime’ drama and not a ‘detective’ story? After all, the sheriff is doing detective work. Compared to detective stories, crime stories place less emphasis on detecting the criminal and more on the cat-and-mouse beats of catching them. In a crime story there is seldom any “mystery” as to who the criminal is. Typically the story starts with a brilliant or daring crime, and then a cat-and-mouse game of wits and will ensues, with the tension created by the increasing intensity of the big struggle between the opponents. The underlying question is: Will the cops prevail before the opponent stages their next crime?

No Country For Old Men is also an anti-western. Set on the frontier of USA and Mexico, this story is about the life and death big struggle that happens when you’re in the wilderness, with no one to rely upon but your own wits. It’s an anti-western because it does not glamorise the life and death big struggle, ending in a win. The point of an anti-western is to highlight the futility of expansion, not to glorify it. Llewellyn has struck his own jackpot in the form of two million dollars, in the same way that early white settlers thought they’d struck jackpot by finding a nice piece of land on the frontier, only to die of illness or injury, be challenged by Native Americans who were there first, or big struggled by the train company who wanted to take their land and use it for railroad.

No Country For Old Men is also an example of a neo-Western. This is a like a traditional western but set in the modern era. The setting isn’t necessarily The West, but somewhere reminiscent of that. It might even be set in space typically it’s somewhere ‘godforsaken’, where you’re on your own.

SETTING OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

When depicted in a single image, the film colours of No Country for Old Men don’t surprise me a lot of yellowy ochre. I’m pretty sure the defective Kodak film issued in the 1970s has something to do with our link between ‘yellowed’ and ‘the 1970s’. (I’m a 1970s baby myself all of my baby photos are yellowed.)

Dominant Culture

The title clues is into the fact that this is a story about masculinity. No Country For Old Men. Significantly, the main story is set in the year 1980, when feminism had not touched the trailer park subcultures of the USA/Mexico border in the Texas desert. This idea of hunter-and-protector backfires, but Llewellyn has soaked in it his whole life.

Place In History

In 1980 the Vietnam War was not long over. This wartime experience most definitely would have played a part in shaping Llewellyn’s sense of right and wrong, and because he came back with all his limbs intact, it would have also given him a false sense of his own infallibility.

In 1980 the USA was really starting to have trouble with drugs. Take for example the Miami drug cartel which lead to a series of massive shoot outs, one major incident the year before this story was set, in 1979. Incidents such as the fictionalised drug war in this story ultimately lead to the drug panic of the late 1980s, and mass incarceration for anyone involved in the most peripheral way with illegal drugs.

The storyteller is looking back from the mid 2000s (the book was published in 2005), and the reader knows where this fictional drug war fits within the wider drug war. The shoot out on the plains is itself a given it is not the shootout itself that is story-worthy in this case. It is the cat-and-mouse chase.

Interestingly, the term ‘serial killer’ (not used in this film) was only coined in the 1970s, by a FBI criminal profiler called Robert Ressler. Until the 1970s, people didn’t realise serial killers existed. And if they did, they understood nothing of their psyche, because the research had not been done. Imagine that. Sheriff Ed is of that generation, let’s not forget. Even as a police officer and detective, this character would not have encountered serial killing as a concept until he encountered the character of Anton Chigurh.

Technology

1980 is a great year to set a story like this because it’s before GPS and mobile phones. Technology is limited to the transponder a piece of equipment a layperson such as Llewellyn would not have thought to look for. Lack of police technology is also what allows Anton to continue on a murder spree without being hunted down quickly.

Desert vs Trailer

The vastness of the Texas desert makes for a strong opposition against Llewellyn’s cramped trailer home. Anton is part of the desert a personification of abject wilderness whereas Llewellyn is your stereotypical ‘trailer park white trash’, so he is symbolically linked to that. He has no freedom at all.

Symbolically, deserts are associated with death. (So are icy environments, which the Coen Brothers utilised to full effect in Fargo.)

Note that Anton is injured in an opulent leafy suburb. We see an opposition between rich and poor when Carson visits the leader of the drug cartel in that high rise office block (the one ‘missing’ a floor). We see it again with those middle-class boys on their BMXs, responding as only well-off boys can without personal sacrifice, “Hell Mister, I’ll give you my shirt!” Ironically, Anton is almost killed in a kind of paradise. Why should such an evil character die in paradise? Is that where he’ll end up? Who’s to say he wouldn’t? Maybe the rest of us have it all wrong about morality.

STORY STRUCTURE OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Who should we consider ‘the main character’ of No Country For Old Men?

By character function:

Sheriff Ed is a storyteller narrator and the main character in the metadiegetic level of this story. Because Sheriff Ed was a part of the story himself, he is a homodiegetic narrator. But because he’s looking back on the story after some decades of reflection, he is also an extradiegetic narrator no longer a part of the level zero story. Sheriff Ed is the main character of this level. It is the Sheriff storyteller who has the anagnorisis. Part of this revelation comes from the events themselves at the time, further revelations come in the decades following, and yet more come in the telling of it, to us.

That said, the ‘anagnorisis’ of Sheriff Ed is completely ironic. Why? Because he has no meaningful anagnorisis at all. The Sheriff has reached retirement and still cannot make head nor tail of how some people do the terrible things they do. When he tells us (his partner) at the breakfast table that he’s already lived twenty years longer than his own father ever did, we know that he’s as wise as he’s ever going to get, and the case of Anton Chigurh will never make any sense. The ‘revelation’ therefore, is that there will never be any revelation. Sometimes we can’t put a motivation behind evil.

The ‘level zero‘ story is, of course, the crime story in which Anton kills a lot of people in Sheriff Ed’s jurisdiction. In this level of story, who is ‘the main character’? We see about equal parts of Anton and Llewellyn. But because we do not identify with Chigurh at all — Chigurh is a wholly unsympathetic opponent Llewellyn is more of a viewpoint character. But he’s not that either, because as I mentioned above, the audience constantly knows more about what’s going on than Llewellyn himself does. Instead, Llewellyn is the character we are encouraged to empathise with, and this is what makes him the star of the level zero story.

SHORTCOMING

Llewellyn is a heavily flawed character. We first see him shooting a deer. A lot of non-hunters will already be against him for that. Hunters on the other hand will see him look chagrined that he’s injured the deer but not killed it, and now he’s obliged to hunt it down and put it out of its misery. But then we see how he reacts to a human being in the same state as the deer a Mexican about to die only asks for water. Driven by greed, Llewellyn is unmoved by his pleas. Like Chigurh, Llewellyn has his own moralistic world view. Since these guys were drug runners, they had what was coming to them. (The police later articulate the same view “Did of natural causes” as in “Natural to the line of work they was in”.) This asks the audience to draw our own moral line. To what extent are we sympathising with the victims when they were drug runners? What would we do in the same position? Ah, but what if we were dirt poor, like Llewellyn? Would we be more money motivated then? (We soon see him go back to his home. This is not a rich guy.)

However, there is soon a Save The Cat moment for Llewellyn. This was Blake Snyder’s term to describe a characterisation trick writers employ to engender empathy for a hero. Show them ‘saving a cat’. Whatever other evil they get up to, that’ll put the audience on side. “Ah, this character isn’t all bad,” we will say. And we are amazingly forgiving. Llewellyn’s Save The Cat moment is failing to sleep out of guilt for abandoning the dying Mexican who asked for agua. He gets up in the small hours and we see him filling a big bottle from the tap. We are further back on Llewellyn’s side when his act of kindness ironically ends up almost costing him his life.

Esmeralda quenching Quasimodo's thirst. Illustration by Francois Flameng, engraving by A.Mongin. Illustration for the Paris edition of 1885
Esmeralda quenching Quasimodo’s thirst. Illustration by Francois Flameng, engraving by A.Mongin. Illustration for the Paris edition of 1885

Llewellyn’s psychological shortcoming is that he can’t back down. We see that for ourselves, but this trait is underscored via dialogue between Norma Jean and Sherrif Ed. Norma Jean knows people well, is highly attune to her husband and is able to tell us that her husband thinks he’s some big shot and that he’ll never ask for help even if his life depended on it. Sure enough, this is what costs him his life, as well as many others’ lives along the way.

This particular psychological shortcoming has a definite Christian vibe to it. Christians are encouraged to submit to the healing powers of the Lord, to have faith and be constantly mindful of the fact that we are only human. We must consistently repent, try our best, fail then ask for forgiveness and do better. This is what gives this story a Christian feel, despite being atheistic and nihilistic in its message.

The nice thing about heavily flawed main characters: There are a few pitfalls writers aren’t going to fall into by accident. Here’s one of them, described by Dean Koontz:

If you choose to use a protagonist who is an admirable crook, do not fall into the moralistic trap of using the cliché ending in which, after all his trials and tribulations, the lead loses the stolen loot either through a quirk of fate, the machinations of an even more crooked partner, or the cunning of the police. If you have established your crook as a sympathetic character and have gotten your reader to root for him throughout the bank robbery (or whatever), your audience will only be frustrated when he loses everything simply because you feel that you must prove “crime doesn’t pay’.

Dean Koontz, from Writing Popular Fiction

When Llewellyn loses the loot, he kind of deserved it. We felt that from the start. Or perhaps we don’t feel the loss of the loot is significant because Llewellyn loses so much more than that.

DESIRE

The surface level desire is “I want two million dollars.” In this regard, the plot is similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, because we never do find out for sure who ended up with this money. It is one of the most frequently-asked questions about this film on IMDb. The answer is that Chigurh probably ended up with it, not because we’re shown, but because we’ve been given enough about his character to know that’s what would have happened.  (This in itself is a masterful case study in trusting the audience to ‘get’ a character writers don’t have to keep beating us over the head with characterisation audiences make assumptions pretty quickly when it comes to archetypes. A short story which achieves the same is “Je ne parle pas francais” by Katherine Mansfield.) As in the money stolen by Marion Crane in Psycho, the two million dollars therefore functions as what Hitchcock referred to as a McGuffin. This is the thing that starts the action, but by the end of the story we don’t care that much about what happened to the money we care about who gets out alive.

What about Llewellyn’s deep down desire? The money functions only as a surface level desire. When Llewellyn  tells Norma Jean that she is no longer employed by Walmart, that she is now a lady of leisure, this is a clue into his deeper psyche he needs to be seen as the hunter and provider. It makes complete sense that we saw him first as a hunter. His sense of masculinity is so extreme that it is toxic. He needs to prove himself the big man, to himself, to his wife, and probably even to his mother-in-law, who has always said he is no good.

He also wants freedom. As we all do this is a very easy desire for an audience to identify with. Here’s a guy who slaves away as a welder a very versatile welder, by his description to Carson Wells yet he lives with his wife in a trailer park. Between them they don’t seem to have enough money to bring kids into the world. (Not that this is mentioned.) I can imagine a man in that position feels he is owed this money. He fought for America, after all. Yet this is what he has when he gets back.

OPPONENT

Anton Chigurh is the Big Bad Monster of the story. We see quite a lot of him, but only in the same way Twister gives us shots of the tornado. Anton is a fascinating character, because humans have the need to watch sociopathic behaviours carefully. As an opponent he is interesting because he has his own morality. Carson Wells makes sure to remind the audience of that (talking to Llewellyn in the hospital bed) in case we missed it. Anton is an extreme version of a nihilistic fatalist. He justifies his actions, however heinous, with the belief that they had it coming to them, and that he, too, is part of an evil machination and can’t get out of it, because there’s no such thing as free will. Anton is a complete loner, so it’s very difficult to get such a character to have an ‘attack by ally’ moment in the way writers can do for their heroes.

But McCarthy masterfully wrote one in anyhow. Right before she’s killed, Carla Jean tells him that his decisions have nothing to do with a coin that his decision to kill is completely up to him. Carla Jean can hardly be called an ‘ally’, but for that scene she is functioning as a friend/mentor, calling him on his bullshit. Of all the characters in this story, Norma Jean is the most brave. She pays the ultimate sacrifice for challenging Anton’s worldview. (We know she does because Anton checks his shoes for blood on the verandah outside. Anton has already been shown twice avoiding blood on his feet, first by taking off his white socks and flinging them into the bathroom of the Mexicans at the motel, and next by lifting his feet as the blood of Carson Wells pools below him.)

Anton Chigurh is set up as both similar and completely different to Llewellyn. The similarity is only superficial, as pointed out to Llewellyn by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Llewellyn thinks he’s Anton’s match. At first the audience probably wonders if Llewellyn will win out in the end. We’ve watched many, many stories in which the smaller guy the underdog ends up winning against evil. When Llewellyn walks into the hunting and camping store and tells the shopkeeper that white socks are the only kind he wears, the audience is shown that Chigurh, too, only wears white socks.

What motivates Anton? It’s exactly the same thing that motivates Llewellyn.

Really, how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different motives can there be? In the end it all comes down to money and sex. At most a writer can create an original variation on a tried-and-true theme.

Dana Stabenow

But it’s not even money and sex it’s what these two things symbolise power. Violent people have one thing in common they need to be in control.

PLAN

Until he finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh and co., Llewellyn’s plans are pretty simple. He and his wife are going to live off the proceeds forever, quitting their unpleasant jobs and probably buying a nice place of their own somewhere. But when the plot turns into a cat-and-mouse chase Llewellyn has to constantly modify his plans in order to evade death. Unfortunately, he’s not as smart as Anton and doesn’t have all the information. It takes too long to look for the transponder, and when he’s told about it he’s angry in response, saying yes yes, he knows all about that.

BIG STRUGGLE

As mentioned above, we’re shown so many big struggles that when it comes to the ultimate big struggle the one where Llewellyn gets killed we don’t get a scene, we get narrative summary. This is the opposite of what we’ve been led to expect from storytelling. Most stories ask us to revel in the big showdown after the big struggles get more and more intense. But we don’t even get to see Llewellyn die.

This is asking the audience to believe in fate. The story is training us to expect the worst, then it gives it to us, literally teaching us to become the pessimist that Sheriff Ed has himself become. In this way, even the big struggle scene is ironic at a narrative level. We expect a big big struggle scene but don’t get one, defying story expectations.

This is why I reject the idea that this story is not ironic. It is ironic at every level, from dialogue down to plot structure.

The crime genre’s ur-story is explanation. Real life is arbitrary; bad things happen for no reason. Not so in the crime novel. There, justice may not be found but an answer is. Evil may not be controllable but there’s the solace of understanding.

Crime and Thriller Writing: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion by Michelle Spring, Laurie R. King, which describes most crime stories, but not this one.

For another example of a big big struggle scene that takes place off screen, see Sicario, an action, crime, drama blend from 2015, which takes quite a bit from No Country For Old Men.

ANAGNORISIS

Sheriff Ed doesn’t understand these people and these events, and that’s the point.

Llewellyn never has any revelation either. He’s cavalier right to the end, showing interest in a woman beside the pool even though his life hangs in the balance.

Carla Jean is around a little longer, loses both her husband and her mother (to cancer) and everything she ever had, including her job, so at the end she is able to philosophise a little. She tries to help Anton Chigurh have a anagnorisis about self-determination but ultimately fails.

NEW SITUATION

Everyone in the level zero story is dead (probably even Chigurh himself, by the mid 2000s), leaving Sheriff Ed to try and enjoy his retirement, putting aside the misanthropy he has tried to run from in his own cat-and-mouse, purely psychological, failed escape from nihilism.

True Grit Film Study (1969)

True Grit movie poster 1969

When iconic Australian film critics Margaret and David reviewed the 2010 film True Grit they did enjoy it, but couldn’t see the point of a remake. The 1969 original stood the test of time, so they said. That’s what made me watch the original. Turns out the 1969 film is benign enough to watch with my cowboy-loving primary school aged daughter, who loves it to bits.

The two versions are very similar in plot. Any difference is mainly in tone.

The Coen Brothers also modernised Charles Portis’ novel by turning it into a mumblecore, which I understand better with subtitles, but the 1969 actors were stage trained, and speak with clear enunciation. Again, better for kids.

The novel is a first-person narrative recounted by a one-armed old maid. The Coen Brothers adaptation is more faithful to this dark detail, depicting Mattie at the end with no arm. The 1969 film ends with Mattie’s arm in a sling. For all we know, she’s going to fully recover, limbs intact.

What can storytellers learn from True Grit?

Genre Blend of True Grit

Listed on IMDb as Adventure, Drama, Western.

The Western is itself a blend of genres, using the American West of the 1800s as a setting.

The Coen Brothers remake is not a western at all. It is simply set in the West. At best, True Grit is an anti-western. In 1969, True Grit was widely thought to be a parody of a western. It depends on your definition. Are you talking about the setting, the plot or the themes? Setting-wise, it’s a western. Thematically, it’s not a western but a crime story.

REVENGE WESTERNS

If there are 7 basic plots of all Western stories, True Grit can be considered a Revenge Western. Revenge is a form of wish fulfilment. We see it in stories for all audiences, including in stories for children, in which they tend to be super popular. Matilda by Roald Dahl is the ultimate revenge fantasy.

Like almost all stories from the Revenge Western subgenre, the plot involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual. In other words, this is the Western equivalent of a cat-and-mouse story. Some of these Revenge Westerns also include elements from a classic mystery story, though not True Grit. Mattie is so capable that she solves any technical difficulties off-screen. She knows exactly what she wants and exactly who she must see in order to get it.

Revenge stories grip us because of their mythic excess. Another example of a Revenge Western is The Searchers (A John Wayne film from 1956) in which An American Civil War veteran embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches. Ethan and Martin wander over the Southwestern landscape. As we watch them, the audience becomes aware of the depth of the vengeful main character’s alienation from the ‘sivilisation’ once equated with anything feminine. Consider this a kind of gender inverse of Thelma & Louise, in which two women are similarly alienated, then escape from all things masculine.

Linda Williams has said that when a female character (or female duo) lights out to seek vengeance, the audience expects her motivations to be stronger than it might be if she were a man. There’s something alienating about a woman with a gun and a chip on her shoulder. This may have changed in recent decades (for better or for worse) but male viewers were initially alienated by Thelma & Louise while women found it empowering (as a cohort). When writers create stories about women seeking vengeance, they tend to make them true underdogs, whereas we accept men who set out to avenge a villain like a superhero, asking “Well, who needs saving today?”

This can be easily explained, and is beautifully explained by Kate Manne in The Logic of Misogyny. According to Manne’s definition of misogyny (the ‘police force’ which works below the fabric of society to uphold the patriarchal status quo):

women are obligated to give to him, not to ask, and expected to feel indebted and grateful, rather than entitled. This is especially the case with respect to characteristically moral goods: attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration and nurturing.

Down Girl by Kate Manne, “Eating Her Words”

Since women are expected to feel indebted rather than entitled, revenge is coded unfeminine, and writers (as well as women themselves) must work harder to win approval for stepping outside the norms.

How did the writers achieve sympathy when it comes to Mattie Ross? They basically have her step in as a proxy man. She’s acting on behalf of her dead father. The fact that she’s so young — a girl, really — is a bit ‘man bites dog‘. “Wow, a girl, and so young, out there on the prairie,” we think. I’m reminded of those films from the 1980s with highly precocious talking toddlers—aiming to be interesting as an exhibition in its own right.

WESTERNS AND WAR STORIES

Westerns have a similar structure to a subcategory of war story. As in a war story, the first half deals not with the chase itself but with the preparation for it. The social unit is central to war films, and the social unit is central to True Grit, too, with this odd combo of characters functioning as found family. It takes time to establish these people as a coherent fighting force, which is why so many time is dedicated to it before we see them on the road. When I watched this film again after a few years I had forgotten how much time was dedicated to the preparation.

The Difference Between War Films and Westerns

Westerns are set in frontiers and war films are set at the front. Both are places where colliding forces clash against one another. At the front in war films, large numbers of people follow rigid rules that come from military organisations. At the frontier of the western, there are usually few people, and because they are far away from any organisation’s power, the rules are weak or nonexistent. The emphasis in war films is thus on courage and tests of strength, while in westerns it is on morality and tests of will.

Howard Suber

For writing purposes — if you’re in the business of studying plot — True Grit is a crime drama utilising mythic structure, set in the old west.

Logline

A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.

Logline Annotated

A premise is a combination of CHARACTER and PLOT.

A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager [SOME SENSE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS] track down [SOME SENSE OF AN OUTCOME] her father’s murderer [EVENT THAT STARTS THE ACTION]  in Indian territory.

The promise in the logline: There will be a chase. The murderer will be confronted face-to-face (we know this because it’s a ‘western’). We have to find out who wins the struggle by watching the film.

Also in the logline: the shortcomings that are ruining the characters’ lives. Rooster Cogburn is drunken and hard-nosed. Mattie Ross is stubborn. The Texas Ranger is not otherwise described. He is a bit-character after all, and sacrificed as sidekick to the main characters.

We’re also given the setting ‘in Indian territory’.

SETTING OF TRUE GRIT

True Grit is set across Arkansas and Oregon in the Old West, or rather the popular imagining of how Arkansas was back in 1878 (which by the way, is the same decade Lonesome Dove is set). Mattie’s father is killed in Fort Smith on the Oklahoma border. The murderer has fled into ‘the federal territories’ to escape the law. The book is set in the middle of winter, which makes the environment super harsh. However, the 1969 movie was filmed in autumn, with beautifully coloured trees. According to An analysis of True Grit from the True Grit Roundtable Podcast these forests don’t exist in that part of America. There may  have been practical reasons why the film crew couldn’t/wouldn’t film in a wintry rockies, perhaps to do with John Wayne’s advanced age. In any case, the autumn vistas in the film make the setting a lot more accommodating than they would have actually been.

Calvinism

Perhaps more apparent in the novel, Mattie the old maid extradiegetic narrator is Calvinist — representative of the people who settled in the Ozark hills in the 19th century.

Unlike other major Protestant churches, Jean Calvin stressed equality before God in the sense that people had the right to choose their own priests and by extension their own rulers. This didn’t go down well with a lot of the kings and princes that embraced protestantism as a means to expand their own power base. There’s no pope. Calvinism was about austerity and predestination.

Contrast with Anglicans (the Church of England), who in the beginning were not that different from Catholics apart from their unwillingness to accept the Pope.

Lutherans are followers of Martin Luther. Lutherans are pretty similar to Calvinists, except Luther didn’t reject the Catholic notion of transubstantiation outright, simply modified it. Also, Luther said salvation is independent of merit and worthiness. Anyone can attain salvation through faith. Calvinsalvation is about predestination (a chosen few).

Baptists and Methodists came along later — these are more mystic forms of Christianity. Mormons are different again — more elaborate, strict and centralized.

Mattie’s Presbyterian upbringing (heavily influenced by her Calvinist environs) means she disapproves of Rooster’s drinking, not to mention his lack of religion. She probably has a pretty strong sense of religious entitlement. If she thinks she’s one of the chosen few who deserves salvation, maybe she’s interpreting this scripture to her advantage as she goes about avenging a murder by murdering in her own right.

Political Climate

Mattie was brought up to hate the Republicans of the Reconstruction. This was a new kind of Republican party which came about during the Civil War. They wanted to free slaves and give them the right to vote.

Old Mattie doesn’t know what to think of Al Smith, who is a Democrat like Mattie, but also a Catholic. In fact, he was the first Catholic nominee for President, and he mobilised a lot of Catholic votes, especially from women, who had only recently achieved emancipation (1920) when he ran in 1928. Prostestants feared a Catholic President. They thought the Pope would have too much say in how American ran its business. Protestants were also fans of prohibition at that time, and Catholics tended to be drinkers. Al Smith was anti-prohibition. He lost the presidential election to Calvin Coolidge because of his Catholicism. Or, that really didn’t help. (Calvin Coolidge was named after Jean Calvin, of course.)

Mattie ends up giving Smith the benefit of the doubt because he’s not a Republican at least. Like Al Smith, she uses weaponry to get her way.

Rooster is a veteran of William Quantill’s crew in the Civil War — at this point in America’s history everyone is still living in the shadow of this war. The Quantrill crew was particularly murderous. Rooster Cogburn is thought to be based on a composite of historical characters, but on one in particular.

None of this political stuff comes out in the film adaptation because there’s no wrapper story told in 1923.

Symbolism

In Wild West days it was far more common to see people walking about with missing eyes and limbs and teeth. In modern stories these losses are also symbolic. Rooster’s missing eye is basically the equivalent of the one-legged Long John Silver Mattie is fascinated by Rooster in the same way that Jim Hawkins is fascinated with Long John. Later, of course, Mattie loses one arm, joining her hero in physical imbalance.

POINT OF VIEW

True Grit was published 50 years ago. It first ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post, then Simon and Schuster published a hardback edition.

Because the novel is written in first person from the point of view of Mattie, all of the dialogue is theological and out of date. This is deliberate, of course. Charles Portis did not create Mattie herself to be a novelist. But a lot of the dialogue from the book was brought into the movie, and here it doesn’t sound as natural as it should have. Mattie as storyteller has been lost. So the screenwriters should have modified the dialogue of the villains to suit their character. This is something the Coen Brothers did fix really well. The dialogue is much more distinct from character to character.

In narratological terms, Mattie is a homodiegetic, extradiegetic narrator.  She is part of the story she tells, but she is telling it as an old lady, which means she’s distanced from it.

The 1969 is attempts to break free from Mattie’s limited point of view but doesn’t quite go far enough. The 2010 adaptation achieves a more omniscient point of view.

In the novel Mattie is not a particularly likable character.

She is severe and unforgiving, the antithesis of the archetypal freewheeling American youth as embodied by Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,” she intones when Cogburn offers her a sip of whiskey as medicine.

The Coen brothers, who remade the film in 2010, likened the character to Alice in Wonderland. Donna Tartt compares her to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in an afterword she wrote for the 2011 paperback edition of the book. She has gone through the looking glass, having left the relatively civilized environs of Dardanelle for the Oklahoma Indian Territory.

And it’s true she has a relentlessness similar to Dorothy, but she doesn’t want to go until after she’s had her vengeance. Mattie is a civilizer, a law reader, an organizing principal — as much a symbol of imposed order as a piano in a homestead parlor. An unforgiving moralist, an Old Testament raver like John Brown, an imperial tamer of chaos who’s perpetually suspicious of others’ motives. She lights out for the wilderness not for the freedom that it promises, but to extend her Scots Presbyterian notions of justice. […]

Mattie is a cranky old maid, but we can love her for the creaky humanity that leaks through her Scotchgarded facade — her affection for her game pony, her pal Little Blackie, her affecting (and affected) rhetorical habits which include the seemingly random use of “quotation marks” to preserve the authenticity of the story she is telling us. Mattie’s dryly musical voice is a miracle of vernacular precision and authorial intent — she reveals only and exactly what is necessary.

A key to that voice might be found in Portis’ personal history. After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps* during the Korean War, Portis enrolled in the University of Arkansas and worked for Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his duties was editing the correspondence columns written by little old Mattie-type ladies who lived in the hinterlands. He confessed he edited all the character out of their copy; perhaps he saved it up for Mattie.

Arkansas Online

STORY STRUCTURE OF TRUE GRIT

Picking out ‘the main character’ is not always easy. True Grit is a prime example of a story with two main characters exhibiting the same character traits but in different outworkings. Mattie’s stubbornness is the same as Rooster’s hard-nosed-ness. But one is an old guy tip-toeing along the wrong side of the law, while the other is a young woman who could easily go the same way, but who has been wronged. For now she is on the right side of the law. It feels inevitable that these two characters find one another. They are two sides of the same coin, in the same way a criminal often has the exact same strengths as the detective in a typical crime drama.

By god, she reminds me of me!

Rooster Cogburn

The logline posits Mattie as the main character, ‘helped’ by the two men.

  • Mattie drives the action.
  • We see Mattie on screen from the first scene to the last. Mattie is our guide into unfamiliar territory. When Mattie watches the hanging in the town square, the audience sees through Mattie’s eyes. We’re as awed as she is.
  • But it is Rooster who changes the most, because Mattie is an example of The Female Maturity Formula, starting off as a sensible little mother, ending the same way. Rooster learns to care for another human being.
  • I’m guessing an audience finds Rooster and Mattie equally interesting.
  • I identify more with Mattie, myself. But she is almost a superhero archetype. Charles Portis is a writer who lists ‘grit’ as a necessary character attribute, but some of his characters acquire grit; others are born with it. Mattie is born with it. She is preternaturally mature, articulate and self-assured. She achieves the almost impossible, joining two world-wise men in an environment overtly hostile to women on a trek through dangerous territory. Mattie’s humanity only becomes apparent during the last third of the film when she gets into a life/death situation and needs to be rescued by the older men. Mattie is not in fact a superhero.

SHORTCOMING

Mattie’s flaw is that she is single-minded, but this is also her strength. Shortcomings are at their most powerful when those same traits function as strengths.

Rooster is a fairly cliched alcoholic. Unlike other alcoholics crated by Charles Portis, Rooster is unable to do his job properly because of it. Here’s what Matt Bird has to say about alcoholism as character flaw:

Flaws need to have an upside, which is why some just don’t work very well. One of the most overused flaws is alcoholism, but it’s not as compelling as some writers think because ther’es very little upside. It’s hard to overcome, but only because it’s a chemical addiction. There’s never any good reason to be an alcoholic. We’ll never identify with a character’s desire to keep drinking destructively.

The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird

The thing is, Portis isn’t using alcoholism as a flaw — Rooster has many others — but as a plot device. It’s because Rooster is drunk that he fails to load Mattie’s gun properly and that’s why it backfires. Otherwise she’d have killed her father’s murderer before the story was over. The misfiring gun keeps the big struggle going for as long as it needs to go for. Rooster’s reliance on the drink also contrasts nicely with Mattie’s up-and-go attitude.

DESIRE

Mattie wants to hunt down the man who killed her father. She wants to see him killed in front of her, and hanged in her own town, in respect of her father’s memory. As Rooster points out, this is a lot to ask. He tells her this at one point, in what’s known as ‘attack by ally’ that what she’s asking might be impossible. Isn’t it enough to see the man dead? Dead is dead. Mattie replies that she wouldn’t be happy with just dead. She is ruthless in her desire to see him hanged in her father’s town.

OPPONENT

The ‘Big Bad Monster’ opponent is the guy who killed Mattie’s father. He is horrible. Unpredictable, unsympathetic… a monster for storytelling purposes, who wreaks havoc in every town he visits.

But for a story to work this big bad monster isn’t enough. There needs to be conflict within the group. Rooster makes an excellent opponent for Mattie, as well as an ally. This is similar to the progression of a love story, except that kind of creepiness is never on the table — that’s why Rooster calls Mattie ‘baby sister’. He considers her family, and the audience doesn’t have to worry about the gender issues. The book is much less clear about Mattie’s age. She herself obfuscates it in the retelling, and it feels to the reader that there may be some erotics of abstinence going on, precisely because she doesn’t mention any such feelings for Rooster.

Contrast Rooster with the Texas Ranger who initially sees Mattie as a love interest. Mattie isn’t having any of it. Le Boeuf (pronounced La Beef). The three remain opponents until they learn to rely on each other.

PLAN

We’re not let in on Mattie’s plans — we see her carrying them out. In stories, characters rarely tackle problems head on, but Mattie is an exceptional character in this regard. This is because she is young and naively optimistic that she can do anything. Her plan eventually fails when she comes face to face with her main opponent by complete accident. No amount of excellent planning can account for this kind of coincidence. In the end, Mattie is literally in a massive hole and she must rely upon others to rescue her. She can’t plan her way out of that.

BIG STRUGGLE

A series of big struggles, accidentally with the murderer when Mattie slips down a bank towards a river, and then with the other outlaws, culminates in a highly symbolic fall into a snake pit. This scene is less harrowing and drawn out than the one in the novel.

ANAGNORISIS

Okay, so in the film there’s no hypodiegetic narrator — just a level zero narrative. In the level zero story, it is Rooster and La Boeuf who have the revelations — first La Boeuf, who learns to respect Mattie despite her being a young woman. Presumably he will transfer this respect to others in his life, except then he dies. Then Rooster softens and learns to call Mattie family. By being nice to someone else he finds that he in fact really likes her, in what’s known in psychology as The Ben Franklin effect.

When Mattie is the storyteller, she has her own anagnorisis in the telling of the story. This is lost in the film, and that’s why it becomes an example of the Female Maturity Formula.

NEW SITUATION

In the film, Mattie tells Rooster she’d like to bury him in her family plot and Rooster agrees to this and says a proper goodbye. We are left with the feeling that Mattie will lead a pretty normal family life from here on in, getting married, having her own children.

In the novel, Rooster gets Mattie to a doctor who saves her life after she is bitten by the rattler, but when she comes to, Rooster is gone. She learns later that he is part of a Wild West show and she goes to see him perform in Memphis. But he dies several stops before Memphis in 1903. She retrieves his body and buries it in her own family’s plot. Mattie has not managed to get married and have her own family, possibly because of the events and trauma of this very story, and because of her conflicted feelings for Rooster.

So the book is more of a love tragedy whereas the 1969 film has a tidy, satisfying ending.