One of Hollywood’s true curiosities. At times a charming, kiddie Western, this John Wayne vehicle also has a real nasty streak. It’s perhaps best personified by an early hanging scene, during which families gather to picnic and watch. When an adult tries to cover the eyes of a young girl, she says, “No. I’m here. I’ll see it all.” That girl is Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), a preteen tomboy seeking revenge on the scoundrel who killed her rancher father. And so she hires Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, a frequently drunk marshal who explains the high body count in his wake by saying, “I never shot nobody I didn’t have to.” Darby and Wayne are spectacles, each in their own way. She’s a pushy, precocious pest; he bugs out the one eye that isn’t hidden by a patch and slugs from his jug as if it were part of an acrobatic performance. Yet somehow, they balance each other out. (Wayne even won an Oscar.) Mattie and Rooster share a talk during an overnight stakeout that allows each of them to soften a bit, and that underlying affection is carried through the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, on the nasty side, look for a young Dennis Hopper getting some fingers cut off.
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