Red River–John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. (1948; Dir: Howard Hawks)
This is the first of the two brilliant westerns (1959’s Rio Bravo is the other) on which Hawks’ reputation as a director of westerns rests. Hawks was not particularly known for westerns, although most everybody in Hollywood who had worked in the industry as long as Hawks had some kind of experience with westerns.
What makes this one brilliant? It marks the bringing of serious themes from other genres into westerns—the father-son conflict between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), for example; the nature of leadership and its moral boundaries; competition between two young men with similar skills but different principles; and a complex relationship between a strong man and an assertive female. It’s a great trail drive story, with overtones of obsession (Wayne’s character, foreshadowing the obsessiveness of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers). The other relationships in the movie are not simple, especially when it seems the characters have to take sides between Dunson and Garth: Loyal family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), who loves them both; gunhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who competes with Garth but respects him nevertheless; and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who is attracted to Garth romantically but like Groot has to mediate between Garth and the vengeful Dunson, while we try to figure out what kind of woman she is.
Dunson is a hard man from the start of the movie. We first see him in 1851 with a wagon train heading from St. Louis toward California. As Dunson and Groot leave the wagon train to head south into Texas across the Red River, Dunson’s girl in another wagon begs to go along. He says he’ll send for her, and they part ways. Comanches attack the train after Dunson leaves, and he sees the smoke from a distance. Several attack Dunson and Groot, too; he fights them off, but they kill one of his two cattle. They find the boy Matthew Garth wandering through the brush, a survivor of the attack who’d been chasing his cow when the Comanches came. Dunson and Groot take him with them, farther south into Texas. When Dunson finds the land he wants, it’s part of a huge Spanish land grant whose owner lives south of the Rio Grande. Dunson figures he can take it, and he starts his ranch there with the brand Red River D.
Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, in 1865. Garth returns from service in the war (presumably with the Confederacy), and Dunson has developed a huge herd for which there are no buyers in Texas. Dunson wants to trail the herd a thousand miles north over the Chisholm Trail to the railroad in Missouri, something which has never been done successfully. The rest of the movie is the epic story is of that first cattle drive north from Texas.
It takes somebody as obsessive as Dunson to drive the herd (and his men). They take off with the famous “Yee-haw” scene, and it’s not a smooth trip. There is a night stampede, resulting in deaths both human and bovine. Some of the men can’t take it and want to quit; Dunson becomes increasingly unreasonable, with his megalomania out of control. When he plans to hang two deserters, Garth steps in and stops him. Garth takes control of the herd, moving it north across the Red River and into Kansas, heading for Abilene rather than Sedalia, Missouri, as Dunson had insisted. None of them know whether the railroad is really in Abilene, although with our modern point of view we have a pretty good idea that it is.
As they move into Kansas, they’re harassed by marauding Indians and wary of the pursuing Dunson. The cowboys temporarily leave the herd to rescue a bunch of traveling gamblers and loose women from Indian attack, and Garth meets Tess Millay, who is wounded in the attack. They are taken with each other, but Garth has his drive to finish and Dunson to deal with, and the herd moves on to the north.
Dunson and his new men reach the gamblers’ camp and learn of the Indian attack and the herd’s movements. Dunson wants to replace Garth as his son, and offers Tess half his ranch if she’ll bear him a son; she says she’ll do it if he gives up his plan to kill Garth¸ and she accompanies him toward Abilene. Meanwhile, Garth and the herd make it there first, and Garth gets a top price for the herd, about $50,000. This sets up the final scene, where all the characters sort out their loyalties and the means they’ll use to defend them. The resolution of the father-son fight is abrupt and a little silly, but the rest of the movie is so good we can put up with that.
The movie was made in 1946 but sat on the shelf for two years before its release because of a dispute with Howard Hughes. It features more adult and complex relationships than most previous westerns. It has a superb cast, and excellent direction. This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he manages to be persuasive, if not entirely convincing, next to the overpowering physicality of John Wayne. The women are unusually assertive for a western, both Joanne Dru (Mrs. John Ireland) and Coleen Gray, although Gray in her first film role gets just a couple of minutes of screen time. The numerous supporting characters are well-written and well-acted, and they include, in addition to Dru, Ireland and Brennan, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey (Sr. and Jr.), Chief Yowlachie as an Indian trail hand, Hank Worden, Coleen Gray and many others. Appearing uncredited are Richard Farnsworth as a Dunson rider and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl with the gamblers.
Excellent management of all these supporting roles gives them each differentiation and development while not impeding the overall pacing of the movie. It adds to the large-scale feel of the film. There’s so much going on that it rewards re-watching. It’s ambitious and long for the year it was released, especially for a western—about two and a quarter hours. After more than 60 years, this remains the greatest of the trail drive movies except for Lonesome Dove, which was not really playing by the same rules.
There are some excellent visual touches, like the shadow that passes over the sun during the funeral of the young cowboy killed during the stampede. Russell Harlan was the cinematographer. The music is by Oscar-winning movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also did the music for Hawks’ Rio Bravo more than ten years later as well as numerous other movies. The tune for “Settle Down,” the theme for Red River, gets recycled in Rio Bravo when sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin.
Wayne considered this film his second breakthrough, after Stagecoach. (Maybe his third, if you consider his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which nobody saw.) Playing much older than he really was, as the megalomaniacal Tom Dunson, gave him a chance to demonstrate his acting chops in a film that a lot of people did see. Even John Ford, who had cast him in Stagecoach almost ten years previously, was rumored to have said after seeing Red River, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!” And the most productive period of their collaboration was coming up, with the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers. Both Wayne and Hawks wore their Red River D belt buckles from this film for many years when dressed in jeans. You sometimes see it popping up on Wayne in other westerns–nine of them in total.
Director Howard Hawks had initially wanted Jack Beutel (who had played Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) for the role of Matthew Garth. But he got lucky when Beutel was still under contract to Howard Hughes, who was nursing a grudge against Hawks for their falling-out over The Outlaw a few years earlier. Clift turned out to be a much better actor. Wayne had misgivings about the difference in their sizes during the climactic fight, but Hawks was known for his ability to block and stage fights convincingly on film. Wayne ultimately conceded that Hawks knew what he was doing. Clift had never been in a western before, and never would be again. Hawks advised him to watch and imitate stuntman Richard Farnsworth. “Montgomery, you walk along behind him and watch him carefully. If he scratches his butt, you scratch yours. He’s a real cowboy.” Red River made Clift a star. Meanwhile, Farnsworth worked in westerns as a stuntman and in bit parts and waited more than 35 years for his own breakthrough role in The Grey Fox.
As of May 2014, Red River is now available on an excellent DVD set from Criterion Collection.