True Grit’s Props

The Coen brothers’ version of True Grit tells a powerful story and viewers are invited to sit back and watch as the Western unfolds.

Problem is the film portrays Indians uncritically, allowing the camera to simply gaze upon them.

Unlike recent films including Avatar and Flags of our Fathers, I doubt many folks will get twitterpatted over the characterization of the Native Americans in the film. The Coen brothers are revered for their authenticity and story-telling chops, but they treat Indians as an afterthought, a piece of sagebrush to be swept aside.

The film is set in the late 1870s, a time of great turmoil in Indian-settler relations. The period marked the Great Sioux War and the Battle of Little Bighorn and ushered in the beginnings of legislation, including the Dawes Act, which would have a devastating effect on Indian land claims.

The Indians in True Grit are props for the narrative. In the film’s opening we see three bandits ready for the gallows: two are white, one is Indian. The camera captures each man’s final words, where one begs for forgiveness and another blithely accepts his fate. The third, an Indian, has his face covered by the hangman before he can complete his speech, thus forever silenced.

In another scene, when protagonist Mattie Ross and Reuben Cogburn venture into Choctaw territory, they meet up with a lone Indian on horseback, who negotiates with the pair over a corpse left hanging in a tree. Viewers hardly see the Indian’s face, never hear him speak, nor learn his name.

When Cogburn comes across a pair of Native adolescents perched on the rail of a cabin’s porch, he boots one of the Indians in the butt to clear him aside. The act gets a chuckle from the audience. The Indian kids are mere props to reveal Cogburn’s character.

At the film’s end, 25 years later, Mattie learns that Cogburn has been touring with Cole Younger and Frank James in a wild west show. Viewers can see Indians in the background, some in feathered head gear, adding authenticity to the scene. But they are nameless and faceless, like so much scenery.

Obviously the film’s intent is not to tell a history lesson but rather put Portis’ novel to screen. But it’s a shame that the Indians are relegated to background as mere props.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, cinema, film, framing, Indian, Lakota. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to True Grit’s Props

  1. Arthurus says:

    You forgot to mention that the two Native American youths sitting on the rail, were tormenting a mule tied to the rail. It was this act of cruelty to the helpless animal that earned the two youths a boot in the but from Rooster. So the scene reveal Cogburn’s character, a person who will defend the helpless.


  2. Robert Williamson says:

    Perhaps Cynthia simply missed that part where the kids were annoying the mule tied to the rail. I would have kicked them too for their cruelty to the animal, white man or red.


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