The Fort Smith based movie True Grit was released on both DVD and Blu-ray today and if you didn't see it when it was in theaters, I highly recommend it. It was nominated for a ton of Academy Awards and should have won some.
True Grit is the somewhat tongue in cheek story of a one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshal from Fort Smith named Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. In the story, he is hired by a determined young girl to hunt down the man who killed her father. And while writer Charles Portis might have been trying to poke a little fun at Old West characters, he really achieved the opposite. Rooster Cogburn is a larger than life figure who portrays the reality of life on the western frontier much better than Portis probably ever intended.
The story begins in Fort Smith, where Cogburn is testifying in the court of U.S. District
Judge Isaac C. Parker, the "hanging judge" of the Old West. From there it crosses the river into the Indian Nations (today's Oklahoma) and takes off on a fascinating journey to the Winding Stair region of the Ouachita Mountains.
Although Portis has said his Rooster Cogburn character was a compilation of different figures from the history of Fort Smith, in reality it seems almost without doubt that the deputy marshal was based on Union army veteran Cal Whitson, who became a lawman after his son was killed while attempting to apprehend an outlaw.
I've posted about Whitson here in the past, but it seems a good day to remember him. He was a hard fighting soldier during the Civil War who lost an eye in battle. Unlike the eye patch worn by Jeff Bridges in the new edition and John Wayne in the original, he covered his wound by keeping his hat dipped low on one side.
He was a well known figure in Fort Smith and rode out to apprehend outlaws hiding in the Nations many times. The U.S. District Court at Fort Smith was responsible for protecting the people of the Nations from roaming outlaws after the Civil War and Judge Parker - who actually opposed the death penalty, even though he executed more men than any federal judge in history - is usually credited, along with his deputy marshals, with bringing law and order to the region durng the turbulent Reconstruction years. Cal Whitson - the "real Rooster Cogburn" - was part of that heroic effort.
The new movie is a big closer to the book than the original, which is also one of my favorite films. Being a John Wayne fan, I wasn't sure what I would think of the new effort, but I have to admit that Jeff Bridges did a phenomenal job in the role.
I've added links above at left so you can order the new release of the film if you like. And if you would like to learn more about Cal Whitson, please follow this link: www.exploresouthernhistory.com/roostercogburn
You can learn more about Judge Parker and the Deputy Marshals of Fort Smith here: http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/ARFS6.html