Few would dispute the notion that the tempestuous ‘master and mate’ alliance struck between caustic director, John Ford and Hollywood icon, John Wayne benefited both men immensely. That this pair consistently maintained their reputations – or perhaps managed to build, feed and piggy-back off one another’s to mutual advantage – is even more miraculous when one considers the adversarial nature of their working relationship. Wayne knew any association with Ford could make him a star. He also understood it would be something of a trial by fire. The curmudgeonly Ford did not disappoint on that score. And Ford, despite the chronic berating of his star, secretly admired and respected Wayne as an artist. That he never afforded Wayne the credit so obviously due – and decidedly earned the hard way – was Ford’s ace in the hole; a way he believed he could keep ‘Duke’ Wayne humble and pensively appreciative of his expert tutelage that had willed so many performances in which both men could take immense pride.
The persona we think of today as John Wayne was not all Ford’s doing; nor Wayne’s either; the lanky Iowan having another – and decidedly more benevolent – influence. Howard Hawks may not have shared Ford’s zeal for abject humiliation, but he most decidedly matched Ford’s ego and mastery of the art. Born to privilege, Hawks paid his dues in Hollywood as a producer and scenarist at Paramount in the early 1920’s. By sheer determination and personality alone, Hawks sustained an enviable autonomy within the studio’s hierarchy; working outside the system even as he maintained the illusion of being an integral part of it; rewriting his own screenplays on the fly and without concern for getting the seal of approval from Hollywood’s, then, governing board of censorship. Hawks commanded respect. Ironically, he did not demand it. Even more surprising, it readily came his way. For Wayne, the prospect of working with Hawks must have seemed like a holiday. Alas, Hawks’ first – and arguably his ‘best’ western – Red River (1948) would prove to be anything but a vacation.
In retrospect, Red River is something of a microcosm for the way Howard Hawks plied his filmmaker’s craft; a superbly directed/expertly photographed epic retelling of the cross-country cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail, with Wayne and newcomer, Montgomery Clift cast in this male-bonded buddy/buddy alliance – occasionally tinged with a hint of the paternal, and infrequently marred by bouts of mutual antagonism. Upon repeat viewing, Red River remains endlessly entertaining; an intimate and inimitable portrait of rugged individualism. Borden Chase and Charles Schnee’s screenplay is peppered in taut drama, character-driven with vital performances drawing upon Wayne’s formidable portrait as the undisputed face of the old west. Arguably, Wayne did his finest work in Red River – prematurely aged and weather-beaten, stoic to a fault and unwilling to break or even bend to the harsh wilderness and conspiring human elements destined to test the mettle of his stubborn alter ego, Thomas Dunson.
Howard Hawks would, of course, become one of the impresarios of the movie western, challenging John Ford’s supremacy and ultimately surpassing Ford’s tenure by a few noteworthy years. But Red River is Hawks’ first time out of the gate and he proves unequivocally he requires no direction – apart from his own – to figure out and thoroughly hold dominion over the lay of the land. There is a vitality and freshness to this story; excellently realized via Russell Harlan’s exquisite cinematography; at times overwhelming, though never overpowering the dramatic interplay and undercurrents of Hawks’ character-driven opus magnum. Red River crackles with tremendous excitement. And Hawks has achieved a minor coup, transposing his well-honed and time-honored skill set to the western milieu. Characters – rather than action, or perhaps, even the plot – truly command our attention.
Red River was actually filmed in 1946 but not released in theaters until two years later, presumably because it bore an uncanny resemblance to Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw. In crafting Red River, Hawks plays by his own set of rules, willing this multi-layered story of the cattle drive into an intimate, yet stark and unsentimental likeness of the American west; also challenging coded masculinity while outright dismissing truth for verisimilitude; telling a good yarn of strife and conflict between a tyrannical Texas rancher (Wayne) and his adopted son, played with considerable whip-smart brass and balls by the boyishly handsome, Montgomery Clift.
The physical dichotomy between Wayne’s craggy, roughhewn machismo pitted against Clift’s finer features, yet undisturbed by time (and the 1956 auto crash that would deprived Clift of his own masculine security), at least, in retrospect, creates a fascinating homo-erotic subtext. It is rumored Clift (a closeted homosexual) and co-star John Ireland, cast as Cherry Valance, became intimate during the making of this film. And certainly, Hawks’ affinity for challenging gender stereotypes seems to be feeding into some deeper understanding (if one actually existed) – if not between his characters, then, decidedly transpiring amidst the male stars – Hawks deconstruction, re-imagining and deft articulation of a more subliminal code of ethics, challenging our preconceived notions about such arrangements that would remain undisclosed and undiscussed (particularly within the dialogue of mainstream pop-u-tainment) for several long decades to follow.
Undeniably, there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism at play in the ‘cute meet’ between Ireland’s Cherry and Clift’s Matthew Garth as they compare ‘guns’; the dialogue overtly flirtatious. Cherry asks to see Matt’s pistol, suggesting with even more forthright tenderness, that perhaps Matt might enjoy having a look at his. Cherry’s caress of Matt’s firearm reveals an even more telling undertone; these two young bloods taking their turn at annihilating a tin can across the sandy terrain, each shooting the other’s gun with elevated exhilaration.
Red River is very loosely based on Borden Chase’s novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail; a far more historically accurate account of the cattle migration. True to his own principles, Howard Hawks is less interested in such accuracies than in telling his own fictional story; one exploiting the real-life nineteenth century milieu mostly as backdrop, to regale us with an even more compelling human saga. At once, Hawks mythologizes, though ironically, also exposes the unerring heroism of those bygone days for what it is; raw reaction mainly established out of blind necessity.
We begin with Thomas Dunson (John Wayne); a rather caustic rancher aspiring to his own spread somewhere in Texas. Shortly after departing for the open country with Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), his trail hand, Dunson learns Fen (Coleen Gray), the girl he had pledged to marry – but left behind with the wagon train for safety’s sake, was murdered along with the others in an Indian attack. With no good reason to turn back, Dunson and Groot press on. At nightfall, they overhear a group of Indians plotting to attack them, thwarting the ambush with one of their own in which Dunson exacts his revenge for Fen’s death; discovering a bracelet strapped to one of the deceased, worn by his own mother he gave to Fen shortly before his departure.
The next morning Dunson and Groot are confronted by Matthew Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn). Having wandered off in pursuit of a stray cow mere moments before the assault, only to return to the wagon train to discover the bloody carnage, Matt is the sole survivor. Nearly catatonic – and virtually incoherent – the boy is taken under Dunson’s wing as his adopted son. The trio crosses the Red River into Texas. After a day’s journey, Dunson lays claim to a settlement near the Rio Grande. Alas, the land already belongs to a Mexican chieftain, an inconvenient fact readily dismissed by Dunson, who assassinates one of two of the chieftain’s protectors sent to relay his message about his claim to the property. The other man is sent on ahead to relay Dunson’s refusal to surrender the land; rechristened the ‘Red River D’ after his own cattle brand. Dunson informs Matt that someday he will add an ‘M’ to this brand when Matt is old enough to have earned it.
Fast track ahead: fourteen years to be exact. The Red River D is a fully operational ranch and the pride of the region, numbering over 10,000 head of cattle. Groot is still Dunson’s right-hand man. But Matt (now played by Montgomery Clift) has also taken up his share of the duties. Alas, time and fate have conspired against Dunson; the South’s brutal defeat after the Civil War rendering the entire region unable to pay for his choice beef. Undaunted, Dunson plans to drive his massive herd north to Missouri where he speculates his grade-A investment in livestock will fetch a very handsome price. It’s something of a suicide mission, plagued by inhospitable conditions, and with the prospect of starvation and more Indian attacks.
To manage the cattle drive, Dunson takes on some hired help, including professional gunman Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and cowboy, Dan Latimer (Harry Carey Jr.). The journey will not be easy. Daily bouts of drought, the threat of Indian attacks and a stampede inadvertently triggered by one of the men attempting to steal some sugar from the chuck wagon, result in Dan’s death. In their journey Dunson, Matt, Groot and Cherry encounter the goodwill of several strangers, informing them the railroad has reached as far as Abilene, Kansas. Dunson is unimpressed by these rumors, especially since none of the travelers have actually seen the depot firsthand. Despite Matt’s imploring to move the herd to Kansas, Dunson elects to press on to Missouri as originally planned.
Dunson is a fairly aloof and curmudgeonly taskmaster; single-minded in his purpose and ignoring virtually any suggestion contrary to his own. His heavy-handed mismanagement of the men leads to friction; particularly after the stampede decimates one of only two chuck wagons. Living on nothing but beef, the men grow sullen. Morale bottoms out and Dunson suddenly realizes he has no more money to reinvest in more supplies. Dissention reaches its fevered pitch after Dunson vows to lynch two of his men who were attempting to steal a sack of flour and a hundred rounds of ammunition. Matt rebels. Cherry and the other men follow his lead, abandoning Dunson (who has been wounded in their skirmish) with only his horse and a few supplies to see him through. Matt is now in charge of the cattle drive, vowing to reach Abilene. But Dunson declares war on these deserters, promising to hunt Matt down at his earliest possible convenience. Having grown up under Dunson’s oppressiveness, Matt understands too well Dunson will endeavor to make good this threat with a posse.
A short while later, Matt and the men encounter Indians, saving the life of one Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), a feisty survivor who almost immediately begins to fall in love with Matt. Spending the night together, Matt gives Tess the bracelet once belonging to Dunson’s mother before leaving her behind to push the herd on. Matt’s singular ambition is now to outpace Dunson to Abilene. In the meantime, Tess encounters Dunson along the trail. He confides his intentions to hunt down Matt; also his rather regretful and bittersweet desire to have had a son. Understanding something of Dunson’s anguish – and empathetic besides – Tess offers to bear Dunson’s child if only he will abandon his desire for revenge against Matt. It’s tempting, but a no go for Dunson, still blinded by his anger and disappointment. He would rather destroy Matt than make this valiant last attempt at his own happiness.
When Matt reaches Abilene, he makes arrangements for the sale of Dunson’s cattle; turning a handsome profit. Alas, Dunson arrives in Abilene not long thereafter with a posse. Seeing the storm clouds of animosity gathering on the horizon, Cherry attempts to intervene on Matt’s behalf. Instead, Dunson shoots Cherry dead, but not before the latter manages to get off a single round, superficially wounding Dunson in the arm. (Aside: this is a revision to Chase’s original story. Cherry actually kills Dunson in the novel; his body taken by Matt back to the ranch in Texas for burial.) Dunson engages Matt in a ferocious bit of gunplay; the inevitable carnage thwarted by Tess, who pulls a pistol on both men, demanding each acknowledges their deeper familial bond. Ah, what one good woman can do; and does, as both Dunson and Matt come to their senses and make peace. Dunson vows to add the ‘M’ to his cattle brand – as he promised fourteen years ago. After all, he’s definitely earned it. Recognizing Tess’ desire for their reconciliation as predicated on her love for Matt, Dunson also encourage Matt to propose marriage to Tess. She obviously loves him very much.
By any measure of true cinema greatness, Red River is a seminal western; usually ranking among the top ten in popular opinion polls of the best western movies ever made. Its’ success must have stuck in John Ford’s craw, not only because Hawks had intruded upon his hallowed territory, directing a very fine film, but also because Ford could not fail but see how John Wayne’s reputation had surpassed even his own expert tutelage; the mate now working for another master entirely, and arguably, scaling even greater heights in his own career. “I didn’t think the big son of a bitch could act,” Ford supposedly said upon seeing the movie: typical Ford; shielding his chagrin with crassness. Viewed today, Red River is undeniably a masterpiece; Hawks elevating the genre with impeccable taste and vision; imbuing his tale with a fascinating subtext and critique of human sexuality, his deconstruction of western legends and mythology, also factoring in Hawks’ inimitable strain of celebrated humor into these proceedings.
Apart from Wayne’s formidable performance, Red River is immeasurably blessed by the presence of Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan; the latter a lovable ham and main staple in the western genre/the former destined for a very memorable career (alas, tinged in tragedy). The delay of Red River ultimately resulted in two distinct versions being simultaneously released in 1948; the 127 minute theatrical cut, much preferred by Hawks, and a longer 133 minute cut, with several scenes augmented with lengthier exchanges of dialogue. The longer version also replaces Brennan’s oral prologue with a more formal text scroll. The main difference between the two edits comes at the end; the penultimate showdown between Matt and Dunson truncated in the general release print. In the last analysis, Red River is one of a handful of truly remarkable western dramas; a masterful example of Hollywood’s re-envisioning of the old west.
Criterion Home Entertainment has included both versions of Red River for our consideration on Blu-ray. Each transfer has been culled from original camera negatives, sporting a brand new and meticulous 2K digital restoration. The results?…hmmm. A year ago, Masters of Cinema released Red River in the UK in hi-def. That disc is Region B locked, leaving most of us out of luck and pensively waiting for Criterion’s reissue. However, Criterion’s presentation is considerably different and not altogether satisfying – or perhaps, is – particularly if one hasn’t seen the MOC edition first. The MOC sported a grainier image with contrast levels that seemed more in line with the original intent of Russell Harlan’s cinematography.
By direct comparison, the Criterion just seems slightly bleached out. There are no real blacks, just various tonal gray values with shadow delineation suffering as a direct result. Contrast is not ‘blown out’, per say. But the overall visual characteristic here seems brighter than necessary – or even accurate. The image is also considerably smoother; grain reduced via DNR. Is it excessive? Hmmm, again. My vote would be ‘yes’. The image, while remarkably clean, looks a tad too ‘scrubbed’ for my tastes. Criterion has maintained the original mono; a good solid track very nicely cleaned up and sounding crisp with minimal hiss and no pop. Extras are a little light: new interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, critic, Molly Haskell and film scholar, Lee Clark Mitchell. We get audio excerpts from 1970 and ’72, exchanges between Hawks and Bodanovich and novelist and screenwriter, Borden Chase; a Lux Radio adaptation and the original theatrical trailer; plus a booklet with an intriguing essay by critic, Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with editor, Christian Nyby, plus a new paperback edition of Chase’s original novel, previously out of print. Good stuff, overall. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)