By Jennifer Boulden
There are a few things I‚Äôm passionate about. Somewhere near the top of that list are great films, great books and my job. This year has been one of off-the-charts anticipation for me because of a singular occurrence this December. The Coen Brothers‚Äô¬†adaptation of¬†True Grit combines all three of these passions into one event seemingly designed for my maximum tizzification. I‚Äôm serious. I don‚Äôt know if there‚Äôs a single person in the country more excited about this film than I am.
Here‚Äôs the thing: not only does this new¬†True Grit look to be a great film, perhaps even a Great Film; not only is it being directed by my favorite directing team, the Coen Brothers and shot by my favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins; not only is it an adaptation of one of my favorite books ever by Arkansan literary genius Charles Portis, and starring some of my favorite actors working today; no, it‚Äôs also set in and during the most fascinating time in my city‚Äôs history‚Äîand communicating that city‚Äôs unique history to tourists is what I happily get paid to do for 40 hours a week from my office in a restored Old West bordello.
That‚Äôs right. My favorite directors are directing my favorite book starring my favorite actors set in the place I live and work and am passionate about promoting. I mean, how crazy is that?
I‚Äôm talking about¬†Fort Smith, Arkansas. Now a city of about 85,000 people (Arkansas‚Äô second largest city), my adopted hometown has been featured¬†in a surprising number of films and television shows from¬†Hang ‚ÄòEm High to¬†Lonesome Dove. There‚Äôs even an AMC show called¬†Fort Smith in potential development by the producer of 24.
The best known of these, and the film that has been one of the primary drivers of tourism to the¬†Fort Smith National Historic Site for 41 years, is of course 1969‚Äôs True Grit starring John Wayne. That film reportedly was so popular in Fort Smith that it played in the cinema here, pre-multiplex, for more than a year. Every time John Wayne said, ‚ÄúI mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?‚Äù a huge cheer would arise from the crowded theater.
So here‚Äôs some quickie background on Fort Smith and its unique place in U.S. history. It should shed some light on why Charles Portis set¬†True Grit here and the larger context for the films‚Äô (and novel‚Äôs) characters and adventures. Turns out, they aren‚Äôt nearly as far-fetched as some might think.
Crash Course in Fort Smith History
Fort Smith is on the border of Arkansas and Oklahoma. It was once, as they say, the last bastion of law and order before the wild frontier. What was unusual about the federal court in Fort Smith was that it had an unbelievably large coverage area: 75,000 square miles of lawless Indian Territory (now the State of Oklahoma) with one judge to hear all those cases. Any crimes committed in Indian Territory were automatically federal cases. Seeing the frontier as a probable safe haven, troublemakers from all over the country would flee to hide out in this territory, raising hell and robbing, raping, murdering and generally terrorizing anyone who got in their path.
There was a popular saying back then, ‚ÄúThere is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith.‚Äù
To keep the peace among the many rival Native American tribes situated right over the border in Indian Territory and for the ranchers, railroaders and general westward expansion of the United States, dozens of Deputy U.S. Marshals were stationed in Fort Smith. They‚Äôd be sent out with a subpoena to find and round up the accused and to return with them to Fort Smith dead or alive. (The deputies did their best to bring prisoners back alive, because they didn‚Äôt get paid for returning with a corpse.) The charged criminals might spend weeks or months in the putrid one-room jail known for good reason as ‚ÄúHell on the Border‚Äù before standing trial in Judge Parker‚Äôs court. It is in Parker‚Äôs courtroom that Rooster Cogburn is being questioned on the witness stand when we first encounter him in True Grit.
Parker is infamously known as ‚ÄúThe Hangin‚Äô Judge‚Äù because he sentenced 160 men and women to hang during his 21 years on the bench. Of those, 79 men were indeed executed in Fort Smith, more than by any other judge in American history.
The inside scoop: Despite his moniker, Parker personally was against the death penalty. Instead he favored sending prisoners for rehabilitation back into society to a progressive detention center in Detroit. Considering that he heard 13,490 cases in 21 years, holding court six days a week for up to 10 hours a day, 160 death sentences is a small percentage of the total. His original jurisdiction was larger than the entirety of New England. Parker also did not decide the criminals‚Äô fate‚Äîthe jury decided the verdict and federal law determined the penalty, yet his is the name associated with the 79 men who were hanged in Fort Smith. Bum rap.
Fort Smith Fact & Fiction in True Grit
Now to the story. Let‚Äôs separate the true grit from the false:
FICTION: Fort Smith did not look anything like the bucolic mountain town depicted in the John Wayne version of the film. The city was already much larger than what was depicted‚Äîit was the gateway to the Old West, after all‚Äîand the Rocky Mountains are actually 900 miles away, not sitting pretty right there in the background. The Coens‚Äô production is set in west Texas and New Mexico, which is¬†still not what Western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma look like, but is at least a better approximation of the forests and rolling plains here and nearby in the novel‚Äôs Winding Stair Mountains of Oklahoma where the story‚Äôs climax takes place (about 70 miles from Fort Smith).
FICTION: Believe it or not, though we STILL get visitors coming through Fort Smith claiming to be related to him,¬†True Grit‚Äôs Rooster Cogburn was not a real person. Author Charles Portis has said that he is a composite of several real Deputy U.S. Marshals who served in Fort Smith in that era, likely including the celebrated deputy Heck Thomas. Lucky Ned Pepper, Tom Chaney and the other outlaws in True Grit are also fictional, though in looking over this list of criminals tried in Fort Smith, it‚Äôs easy to see how colorful the real ones were. Bandit Queen Belle Starr was deeply connected to Fort Smith and her daughter Pearl Starr ran a famous brothel in Fort Smith‚Äôs red light district. Fort Smith was an interesting place, and one that would open any 14-year-old‚Äôs eyes, even one as composed as Mattie Ross.
FACT: Rooster Cogburn is a¬†Deputy U.S. Marshal, not a U.S. Marshal. This distinction is important and almost always blurred. For the District Court there was only one U.S. Marshal, a political appointee who oversaw the work of the court, whereas there were dozens of deputies doing the dangerous work out in the field. The vast majority of people and characters we know as Marshals in history and in Hollywood are actually Deputy U.S. Marshals.
FACT: Likewise, many of¬†True Grit‚Äôs plot points are taken from actual Marshals stories documented at the Fort Smith National Historic Site. One of the most recognizable of these is the¬†true tale of Rattlesnake Cave. Charles Portis has said this incident was the direct inspiration for the climactic rattlesnake pit scene in the novel. The actual cave is about three hours southwest of Fort Smith near Davis, Oklahoma, though the precise location is, for better or worse, unknown today.
FACT: The border town was also similarly rough, attracting tough men and women of all flavors, ethnicities and temperaments. Fort Smith‚Äôs downtown thoroughfare, Garrison Avenue, was home to dozens of saloons, and after the turn of the century the city‚Äôs famed red light district would for 17 years offer legalized prostitution. Fort Smith‚Äôs Visitors Center is now in the only one of these former bordellos still standing, now on the National Register of Historic Places (Plus, it‚Äôs where I work). Outlaws, lawmen, settlers, prospectors, soldiers, adventurers and Native Americans all came through Fort Smith for supplies, refreshments and entertainment before heading into the wild frontier lands. These people routinely came into brutal conflict with each other, and it would not be extraordinary for a man such as Mattie‚Äôs father Frank Ross to be murdered in the street over a hand of cards.
FACT: Being a Deputy U.S. Marshal out of Fort Smith was a dangerous job. Of the more than 200 Marshals and Deputy U.S. Marshals who have been killed in the line of duty since President George Washington founded the U.S. Marshals Service (in Senate Bill #1, actually), more than half of them died serving this area. More Deputy U.S. Marshals are buried within 50 miles of Fort Smith than anywhere else in the nation. This is one reason Fort Smith was chosen as the future site of the¬†U.S. Marshals Museum, a $50 million museum on the Arkansas River that will be the first national museum to truly showcase the Marshals‚Äô fascinating history. To say Rooster was the meanest of them all in Fort Smith was really something, because these were all extremely tough, gritty men.
FICTION: Although it appears in the novel and 1969 film, Judge Parker did not, in fact, watch every execution from the window of his courtroom. He was not known to watch any of them in person or from afar, and refused to be in attendance at the hangings. As noted above, he did not believe in the death penalty as a deterrent to crime, and only used it because the law dictated it. In the original film Kim Darby says of Parker watching the hangings, ‚ÄúWho knows what lies in the hearts of men?‚Äù But in this case what was in Judge Parker‚Äôs heart was well-documented in his writings, so I always raise my hand and say ‚ÄúI do!‚Äù when she says that.
FACT: Fort Smith did look very similar to what we‚Äôve seen of the Coen Brothers‚Äô Fort Smith set in Granger, Texas. Filming in Granger allowed the production much more verisimilitude of our historic Garrison Avenue than would have been possible if they had tried to film on the original Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith, now a highway and major thoroughfare complete with modern bars, nightclubs, restaurants, shops and businesses. The Coens‚Äô production department spent hours researching Fort Smith photo archives and querying local historians about details such as what a boarding house would have looked like in 1870s¬†Fort Smith, and it shows. The town we see in Granger is in spirit very much akin to historic Fort Smith, even featuring some names of 1870s businesses that have been gone from Fort Smith for generations.
FICTION: Fort Smith‚Äôs gallows was not located right on the main street through town next to downtown businesses as it seems to be in the Coens‚Äô film. The gallows in fact was on the Federal Court property (now the National Historic Site). In the early days of Parker‚Äôs court, including the timeframe of True Grit, executions did attract crowds by the hundreds or thousands and create a festival atmosphere in Fort Smith. Parker got disgusted with the crowds and within a few years ordered a tall fence around the gallows. Following that, the executions were private, held within an enclosure that held at most 100 people who had been given special permission to watch the executions. The execution witnessed by Mattie in True Grit would thus likely have been one of the last public hangings in Fort Smith.
FACT: Simultaneous hangings weren‚Äôt uncommon. The last gallows was constructed to hang up to 12 people at once, though no more than six were ever hanged at one time. In 1896, the Federal Court at Fort Smith lost jurisdiction over Indian Territory. That same year, by coincidence, Judge Parker died. Because there was no longer a need for the unsightly (and reportedly haunted) gallows, the town had the structure torn down and burned in 1897. Today, a recreation of the gallows sits at the National Historic Site in that spot. On the anniversaries of the executions, a noose hangs from the gallows for each man hanged that day, and the park interpreters present programs telling the stories of each of the condemned and their victims.
To learn more about Fort Smith of the past or what‚Äôs here today, visit¬†www.fortsmith.org or www.nps.gov/fosm or follow Fort Smith on Facebook and Twitter. To find me on December 22nd, look in Fort Smith theaters; I‚Äôll be the one bouncing up and down in my chair and soaking up every glorious moment.