Definitely not your father’s True Grit.
I hadn’t even seen the John Wayne original from 1969 until TCM showed it on Wednesday evening. (Like most people, I still haven’t read the original Charles Portis book on which both movies are based.) But seeing the two in such proximity has some advantages and disadvantages. Unlike many, I don’t have old memories of the original to fall back on, only a recent side-by-side comparison. Given the film-making of the time, the attitudes, the position that The Duke held in the national pantheon, the original can only suffer by comparison.
Much has been made of the fact that John Wayne’s only Oscar was for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, but Cogburn comes across to me as much less complex a character than, say, Tom Doniphin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By the time of True Grit, Wayne’s career was already near the end of his career, and the Oscar has the feel of a career award. Despite himself, Wayne is less cantankerous and curmudgeonly, and more avuncular.
There’s none of that with Jeff Bridges. Bridges is a tough, ornery, all-business (when he’s not drinking) Cogburn. When Wayne says he robbed a high-interest bank in New Mexico, we forgive him because he’s The Duke. When Bridges says it, we forgive him because he a tough SOB who’s proven his worth.
In the confrontation between Cogburn and the Texas Ranger LeBeouf (Glen Campbell in the original; Matt Damon in the remake), Wayne by far gets the better of it. In the remake, Damon’s LeBouef is verbose, but not the borderline-clownish that Campbell’s was; the tension between LeBeouf and Cogburn is much more evenly matched, much more serious, the anger much closer to the surface.
Hallie Steinfeld also plays a more serious, more persuasive Mattie Ross than Kim Darby. Just as tough, but called on the manage both Cogburn and the Cogburn-LeBeouf relationship in a way she doesn’t in the first movie.
On the whole, a grittier Grit, closer to the bone, and closer to the novel.
UPDATE: Lori Horn reminds me that the scenery in the original is breathtaking. True enough, given that the scenes in the “Indian Territory” were mostly shot in southwest Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains.