12/27/2010 06:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

True Grit: Little Blackie Has it

In Joel and Ethan Coen's new film True Grit, a reinterpretation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same title, and a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film, 14 year-old Mattie Ross goes in search of a man with "true grit." Seeking to avenge the murder of her father, Mattie chooses Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, a man with the reputation as the meanest marshal in Arkansas to bring her father's killer to justice.

Much has been said about the 61 year-old Jeff Bridges' success in embodying the role that gave John Wayne his long sought-after Oscar. Whereas the 1969 Rooster Cogburn was mainly a vehicle for John Wayne to play the blustering, tough-guy with a teddy-bear heart, Bridges lays back in his role. He's filthy, boozy, rambling, and he knows the story is not all about him. Matt Damon, likewise steps back from his usual leading-man posture into the more modest role of the ensemble player, who knows his job is mostly comic relief with a little blue-eyed heroism thrown in.

Indeed, the male stars gallantly allow newcomer Hailee Steinfeld show her own true grit. Chattering in legalistic, ethical and school-marmy circles around all the men in the film, Mattie gets her revenge and lives to tell it as the one-armed old lady in the end.

Mattie's language, an invented jumble of 19th century Christian upright frontier girl vernacular, dominates the picture. Unlike the 1969 True Grit, where Kim Darby was the only one with stylized church-lady language, here in the Coen Brothers' film every character speaks in a highly artificial imagined version of 19th century speech expunged of the nastier expletives and all contractions. Even so, none of these characters, not the dishonest old horse trader, nor the word-sparring Cogburn and La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger, has the linguistic prowess of Mattie.

Yet, the one character whose grit remains beyond question cannot speak at all: Mattie's mustang pony Little Blackie. He's her companion crossing rivers and snowy countryside, and he's the one who gives his life so that she may live. In both films Little Blackie is played by a smallish stunt horse, a mostly black pinto with a blaze and white socks in the 1969 version, and a black Quarter horse named Cimarron in the Coen Brothers' version.

After Mattie is bitten in the pit, Cogburn jumps on Little Blackie with Mattie in his arms and rides for help. Cogburn runs Little Blackie until the pony's legs give out from under him and he falls down dead mid-stride. In the John Wayne version, Little Blackie's legs fly out from under him in a manner--one hopes at least--that horse trainers had to teach stunt horses to fall after horse tripping was banned from the movies in the 1960s. That death of Little Blackie happens in late afternoon light. He falls to the ground, Cogburn pulls himself and Mattie out from underneath the lathered, lifeless horse and commandeers a wagon from a nearby party of travelers.

Little Blackie, aka Cimarron of the Coen Brothers' film, charges through the winter night bearing his two riders, one oversized, the other a delirious girl, his savior from the glue factory. Pounding over a dreamy starlit, frostbitten landscape, Little Blackie rides until he can go no farther. A dramatic silhouette shot shows him buckling to his knees and folding over in exhaustion. He's not yet dead when Cogburn shoots him and carries Mattie further on foot. Cogburn fires his pistol again when he almost reaches people who can help Mattie.

Rooster Cogburn shows both heart and grit in saving Mattie, and she honors him by looking him up, alas, too late in life, after he's passed away following a stint as a circus entertainer. But the one who bares Mattie across the river, who helps her chase down justice and gives his life in the end is her trusty steed, Little Blackie.

Watching both versions of True Grit, it struck me how the horse culture of the Westerns has shrunk to a shadow of its former life in Hollywood. The stunt rider who swam the river with the 1969 Little Blackie was experienced enough to stay astride and not fall off as the horse lurched up the river bank--no easy feat for even the most skilled stunt regular. In the Coen Brothers' version the camera cuts away as Little Blackie heaves himself up out of the river. We only seem him again soaking wet and shining black, with Mattie on his back confronting Cogburn and Le Beouf. Little Blackie saves the day at the river and in the end on the benighted plains.

Where have all the horses gone? The horse is the kind of four-legged friend who no longer exists in American mainstream culture. Little Blackie, his name itself jarringly retrograde sounding when Mattie tells it to the African-American stable boy in the 2010 version, is an anachronism. The horse is as out-of-date as the heroine's speech. But if Mattie has true grit, Little Blackie has it too.