Negotiating Between the Worlds of Childhood and Adulthood
(1965), Dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Kids meet pirates sounds like the worst holiday season multiplex movie of all time (and probably has been), but Alexander Mackendrick’s 1965 adaptation of Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel sees a childhood journey diverted into an odd captivity on a ship with a bunch of unwashed ruffians. Though High Wind in Jamaica doesn’t force themes or messages, the underlying resonance with the journey from childhood to the adult world remains perfectly clear, with the excursion into the lawless pirate world erupting unexpectedly from the strictures of a controlled, rule-bound trip.
While the kids presence on the boat may warm a few old pirates’ hearts, we’re not delivered a trite “the exuberance of children redeems a cranky old man with a secret heart of gold” story (see Scorsese’s surprisingly simplistic Hugo for that…). The pirates enjoy the extra level of chaos that the children bring, so that the ultimate attachment formed seems unforced but, whatever the connection, there’s never the sense that the kids are running the ship, and the bond between some simply reinforces the notion that the children (including a young teenage girl) are only a hairs breadth away from real violence. Importantly, the story isn’t foolish enough to pretend that violence and looming crises can simply be averted by storybook childhood innocence.
Featuring children in key but largely powerless roles allows High Wind in Jamaica to bypass any real eye-rolling moments of precocious wisdom; the children are never operating on anything other than childhood logic, aware of general danger but completely oblivious to the reality of the situation they find themselves in.
Most powerfully, High Wind in Jamaica doesn’t take the easy road of letting it all come together into a moment of character growth or kid-power resolution. In the film’s finale, the full impact of childhood’s obliviousness and insularity emerges with devastating power: essentially the opposite of the handy resolution of Tiger Bay. High Wind in Jamaica doesn’t simply chronicle a childhood experience, it forces us to face an experience through the eyes of a child: where important details mean so much less that they need to, and where the full impact of what has taken place can only be evaluated with adult awareness once it’s far too late to solve any of the problems.
The conclusion is painfully real. In High Wind in Jamaica, children may seem to offer redemption, but only unwittingly: when they’re needed the most, they’re ultimately shown to be just kids, unable to offer anything.
(1969), Dir. Henry Hathaway
I wonder how many of those who praised the Coen’s Brothers True Grit with a derisive swipe at the earlier John Wayne version actually saw (or recently re-watched) Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film. A charming, funny, colourful and exciting film, the 1969 version may have that “1960s Western” vibe, but the Coen Brothers are no less pandering to their audiences’ contemporary requirements, giving their version a predictably smug, grey, snow-ridden, nihilistic 2010s bleakness that somehow automatically characterises “seriousness” in a Western.
For modern audiences chained to monotonous notions of realism (“another word for artifice” as David Bordwell puts it ), this really just represents a timidity at exploring the full range of cinema’s palette rather than a real engagement with serious issues or confrontational cinema. Despite the “reimagining” label that’s conveniently added to modern remakes (the level of sarcasm varying depending on how much we like the film), much of the Coens’ version can be seen almost unchanged in the earlier film – in fact, strong dialogue scenes tend to run for a bit longer and with a more varied humour in the earlier version.
The Coens’ version got a lot of praise for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, only 13 when she took the role, but her age (counter-intuitively, perhaps) does inhibit the range of her performance of a child compared to the nuances of Kim Darby’s 1969 Mattie. While Steinfeld is essentially limited to a small set of emotional traits that are exhibited independently of each other (frown, pout, look happy, look upset, look stern…), Darby seems to be in a constant state of emotional and mental activity, as though in an never-ending flurry of inner negotiation with herself as she simultaneously negotiates with the outside adult world.
That fact that Darby’s Mattie seems always aware that she’s really out of her depth (as opposed to Steinfeld’s simple determined pout) makes her endless persistence all the more powerful; her form insistence is usually tempered with a solid dose of fear and uncertainty. Darby was 21 when she played the 14-year-old Mattie, and while this may be an issue for literal-minded audiences, it allows the film to artistically represent childhood (i.e., performance) rather than simply presenting a literal image of it (i.e., an actual child).
[Youtube is lacking any decent True Grit clips (due to overzealous copyright policing?) so this underwhelming trailer will have to do…]
Over at the excellent Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian provides some good commentary on Mattie’s limited emotional range in the 2010 version, though offhandedly dismisses Darby’s more interesting and textured earlier portrayal due to her age. (See “True Grit, Mattie Ross and Feminism?, 09 March 2011)
Perhaps no scene sums up the difference between the two versions of Mattie than when she claims her horse, Little Blackie. Both films essentially use the same dialogue, but the 1969 usually finds a little more to play with. Where the 2010 version sees Mattie pleased with her horse and claim it with the simple precocious determination she’s so far exhibited, Darby’s Mattie seems scarcely able to contain her excitement even as she stifles it under the weight of her own self-imposed seriousness. When she names the horse, she isn’t just claiming with rugged determination, but summoning it as some kind of storybook companion to take her on her adult journey. Steinfeld’s Mattie pretends to be a grown-up until she isn’t anymore; Darby, caught somewhere between the world of a child and adult, narrates her own journey to herself (and her horse) and never lets us know just where she is on the spectrum between child and adult.
This uncertainty plays out wonderfully in a concluding scene that could so easily have lapsed into a stupid joke if the film wasn’t so aware of it’s underlying “true trit” theme. Having threatened to sic her attorney on Rooster Cogburn for the whole film, the lawyer arrives as (predictably) a small, weak-looking man with spectacles (wonderful character and voice actor John Fiedler). Rather than leaving it at this “surprise”, Wayne’s Cogburn and the lawyer get to have a quick exchange, betting on whether or not Mattie will pull through the serious injuries she’s suffering. The scene ends as the canny attorney laughs off the suggestion; neither of these men is foolish enough to bet against Mattie, and it’s a nice moment where all three characters are united in a position of strength and shared awareness. It’s a small validation of the diminutive attorney’s own “grit” – as well as Rooster’s and Mattie’s – despite the extreme differences in all of their characters.
In a sense, that’s what lifts the 1969 True Grit into such a wonderful film. Sarkeesian criticises the lack of a character arc for Mattie in the 2010 version, but really this is just a clumsy replication of something special about the 1969 version. The 1969 film isn’t about how Mattie, a naïve young girl, develops “true grit” by hanging around the tough Rooster Cogburn. Rather, it’s about how Mattie’s own brand of childish innocence mixed with determination, and her prissy yet warm femininity are – and always were – worthy of the label “true grit”. We come to appreciate the characters’ own existing values, rather than watching them to change into something else (Hollywood’s constant leveling process). It’s something akin to James L. Brooks’ excellent Broadcast News (1987), where we’re expected to change how we feel about the characters as we progress through the film rather than having the characters change into something that will supposedly please us.
Where the Coens end on a bleak, hip nihilism, it’s this downer ending that seems forced (even if it’s more true to the source novel). An endorsement of all kinds of “grit”, Hathaway’s celebratory ending validates Mattie’s odd blend of childishness, femininity and toughness and integrates it lovingly into the John Wayne’s macho-centric West.
Like all lists, it’s pointless to really sell the entries as the “best” films on the topic – rather they’re just a list of films that might be worth remembering in the general rush to praise films like Scorsese’s Hugo and the Coen brothers’ True Grit. What the films above all seem to have in common – and what makes the kids all less obnoxious than so many of the on-screen tykes we’re forced to endure – is the underlying awareness that it might take more than a little plucky courage to get through a tough situation, and that kids aren’t just adults in miniature. Instead of having kids as central motivators in these films, they seem to remember that it’s a tough world out there, generally indifferent to strangers, and that the beliefs and values of childhood don’t necessarily transfer easily or naturally to the complexities of the adult world. For every charming trait these kids have, there’s a drawback, and real independence in the adult world is as illusory for them as it remains for us.