Below, J. L. Wall suggests that Rooster Cogburn’s character arc in True Grit is basically redemptive. I’m interested in an alternative hypothesis: What if Cogburn’s heroism is entirely consistent with his history as a Confederate guerrilla? Rooster shows no sign of being ashamed of his past; indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to say that his courage and frontier know-how are intimately linked to his wartime experience.
My favorite exchange in the new version of the film comes when LeBoeuf and Cogburn start arguing about their service in the Confederate army. If I encountered two World War II veterans squabbling over the merits of their respective Wehrmacht divisions, I would not give them the benefit of the doubt. But in the context of the film, it’s clear that LeBoeuf and Cogburn are basically decent, honorable men. They also happen to have fought for the Confederacy.
That bit of dialogue between LeBoeuf and Cogburn rang true because it gets at a peculiar human failing: Our unflagging ability to ignore or rationalize colossal moral blind spots even as we appear upstanding or even courageous in other circumstances. Read this article on Daniel Cobb, a respected and respectable citizen of Southampton, Virginia during the Civil War. The disconnect between the the man’s religious faith and his lifestyle is astonishing:
Cobb was a devout Methodist. He prayed every day, “kneeling, standing, walking, working sitting, prostrated on my face, lying on my bed, and even prayed in my sleep.” He devoted Sundays to churchgoing and quiet contemplation, fearful that those who failed to keep a strict Sabbath might “miss heaven . . . and being with Christ.” But that faith didn’t keep him from owning a dozen slave laborers who planted, cultivated and harvested his crops of corn and cotton. Indeed, he and some of them worshiped together at Indian Spring church (most churches in the Old South had black as well as white members; it was thought imprudent to allow slaves to organize separate congregations).
I liked True Grit because the film is unapologetic about Cogburn’s moral defects. He rode with Quantrill during the war. He was a bandit in New Mexico territory. He also saves Mattie’s life and tracks down her father’s killer. The frontier has always been a sort of gray area: Not quite barbaric, but not quite civilized either, and True Grit’s characters do a nice job of capturing that ambiguity.