What’s the story behind ‘Rooster’s’ eye patch?

“True Grit” was a hit in its original incarnation, the 1969 version with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, and the current remake, with Jeff Bridges as the fearless, one-eyed marshal. It’s a great adventure story, and both films have terrific, memorable performances.

But we’re not here to talk about movies (there are plenty of other blogs for that)—our focus is on vision. And the reason I bring up “True Grit” and the character of Rooster Cogburn has nothing to do with cinema and everything to with ophthalmology.

Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit"

While watching the movie, I wondered what happened to Rooster’s eye and why he wore that patch. The movie, and the book on which it’s based, aren’t specific about how Rooster was injured, but it’s clear he sustained the injury in a Civil War skirmish while serving under the (real-life) Confederate guerilla leader named William Quantrill.

According to an article in the Journal of Ophthalmic Prosthetics, the heads, faces, necks and eyes of Civil War soldiers were particularly vulnerable in battle because they were often exposed while muskets were being sighted. And wounds to those areas were usually devastating, due in part to the introduction of a bullet called the Minié ball, which was much more destructive than the round musket balls it replaced.

“Because of the Minié ball’s explosiveness and tendency to destroy all tissue near the entry wound, the eyelids of Civil War soldiers rarely escaped injury from gunshot wounds to the face, neck, or head,” the article says. “In addition, misiles seldom penetrated or destroyed the eyeball without injuring the bones of the orbit (the cavity in the skull that holds the eye).”

Even if we can’t know exactly what happened to Rooster’s eye, an educated guess is that it was removed after a Minié ball, shrapnel or some other projectile, hit him either directly in the eye or near it.

The operation to remove an eye, called enucleation, was done during the Civil War-era as a matter of routine both to preserve vision in the non-injured eye, which was at risk for sympathetic ophthalmia, and because surgeons of that time simply did not have the skill or experience to perform delicate operations, such as removing foreign objects. (Enucleation still takes place today, for instance after a severe injury or in cases of malignancy; however, advances in medicine and surgery have made it much more rare.)

After Rooster’s eye was removed, he probably only had two choices: leave what remained uncovered or wear a patch.

“While a few Civil War veterans were furnished with artificial eyes, in most instances the tissue destruction in gunshot wounds involving the globe made inserting a prosthesis inadvisable or impossible,” says the article. “Patches were a cheaper solution than prosthetics to an offensive appearance, and for some, they were a badge of their sacrifice and a symbol of heroic achievement.”

So, chances are Rooster sported that patch both to hide a disfigured eye socket into which an artificial eye could not be successfully implanted, and because it was statement to the world that he was not a fellow to be messed with.

And if that’s not “true grit,” I can’t imagine what is!

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