Howard Hawks’ Red River is supposedly the film that convinced John Ford of John Wayne’s talent (apparently opposed to his abilities to simply perform or suggest a powerful screen presence). Ford had, of course, worked with Wayne previously, and Wayne had appeared in dozens of other films prior to this point, but when Ford saw what Wayne did in the role of the aged, bitter, driven, and obsessive Thomas Dunson, it led him to comment to his friend Hawks, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.” If it were only for Wayne’s performance, which is excellent, Red River would be a vital entry into the Western genre. But there is more, much more to this extraordinary picture. That’s why it’s not only one of the greatest Westerns ever made, it’s an American classic.
Thankfully, the folks at the Criterion Collection must also feel this way. Their release of the Blu-ray/DVD Red River set is an awesome tribute to this film, boasting two versions of the movie: the theatrical release version (Hawks’ preferred cut, at least up until the ending), and the longer, pre-release version. There are three separate interviews, with Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, and Lee Clark Mitchell. Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich are included, as is part of a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. A radio adaptation of the film with Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien round out the disc’s primary special features. Still there’s more, if purchasing the dual-format release. There’s a 1991 interview with Hawks’ editor Christian Nyby and a paperback edition of Chase’s original novel. That’s a lot to go with one film, but this one surely deserves it.
Chase’s Oscar-nominated story begins in 1851, with Dunson and Nadine Groot (a name perfect for a Walter Brennan character) as they separate from a westward wagon train and head south into Texas, seeking water and good land to raise cattle. In doing so, Dunson leaves behind the woman he loves, Fen (Coleen Gray). He’ll come back for her once they are established. But no sooner do Dunson and Groot call it a day when they look behind them and see a mass of smoke. Indians have attacked the wagon train, presumably leaving everyone dead. Everyone except a young boy named Matt Garth, who wanders his way to the duo with one lowly cow in tow. Dunson and Groot take in Matt to be a part of their hopeful cattle empire.
Fifteen years later, Matt (Montgomery Clift) returns from the war and finds that his adoptive father Dunson has achieved his goal. He has been prosperous and owns thousands of cattle on a vast expanse of land. But the war has caused the market to dwindle in Texas. If Dunson’s livelihood is to survive, he must take his stock elsewhere, to where there’s money to be made. They set their sights on Missouri, a thousand miles away. So, with about 10,000 head of cattle, Dunson and his men begin their drive along the Chisholm Trail. Perilous and to a certain extent unprecedented, it’s a “fool drive,” according to Groot, and, sure enough, there are more than a few obstacles in their way: inclement weather, rough terrain, border gangs, and, of course, Indians. As they go along, however, the biggest concern soon becomes Dunson himself. His mind’s made up to get to Missouri, and he doesn’t change his mind. He’s intensely driven, dangerously so. When he assumes the role of judge, jury, and executioner and chooses to hang two men who stole some supplies and attempted to leave, even Matt stands against him.
Kansas keeps coming up as an alternative possibility for the cattle. It’s safer, quicker, easier, and rumor has it there’s a railroad. But nobody can be certain, and Dunson refuses to bend, to take the chance. A growing frustration among the men builds. They’re sick of being short on rations and drinking bad coffee. The drive seems impossible, and to make matters worse, Dunson becomes even surlier once he’s been shot. He begins to drink and he won’t sleep (the better to keep an eye out for any deserters). Sure, there’s ineptitude among some of the men (one childishly reaches for sugar and ends up causing a stampede), but Dunson won’t keep things positive either. For example, he won’t tell the men when they do a good job because, well, that’s their job. The physical strain of the endeavor is bad enough; the sheer exertion necessary to work like this is taxing on all involved. But Dunson’s methodology is ruthless. He becomes beyond focused — he grows fanatical. Such mutual antagonism cannot last. Matt, who has otherwise been loyal, having his doubts but never questioning, finally draws a line. He wounds Dunson, takes the cattle, and heads to Abilene with the men. Dunson swears vengeance, and Matt and the others are forever looking over their shoulder for the duration of the drive.
With its focus on a job to be done, and the related intricacies of such an endeavor, Red River affords Hawks plenty of opportunities to visually and thematically detail the work itself. For the most part, these are professionals, and, as such, they are prime characters for a Hawks feature. Bogdanovich comments on the “reality” of the film, and there are times when the picture seems like a contemporary documentary on the processes of raising cattle and driving them to market. Dunson takes the notion of professionalism to an extreme degree, but he and the others are largely competent authorities who know and care about their work. And as one would expect in a Hawks film focusing mostly on a group of men assembled together, there’s plenty of sizing each other up, the abundance of testosterone keeping everyone rough and ready. Red River casts a notable spotlight on the professional and personal relationships that develop between men in such a situation. But, as the film dramatically points out, what happens when that kinship unravels can be tragically destructive. Along these lines, also symptomatic of Hawks at his finest, is a treatment of quick, simply shot, efficient action, be it involving the rampaging cattle or the occasional sudden bursts of gunplay.
Somewhat atypical for Hawks, on the other hand, is the sheer epic scale of Red River, its visual scope and expressive beauty. The movie’s visceral sense of place is among its most pronounced traits, the dust and rain and sun and wind all intensely illustrated. With so much exterior shooting, Hawks has described the film as one of his most difficult to make, partially a result of the genuinely inhospitable region. What Hawks manages to do with this region, however, is quite remarkable. Save for something like the much maligned Land of the Pharaohs (1955) or Hatari! (1962), his compositions are seldom grandiose — perfectly arranged, but never overly pictorial — but Red River is a gorgeously photographed piece of work, even though Hawks regretted having shot the film in black and white, contending that color would have helped the film last (as if it needed help) and would have added further visual dynamism to certain sequences. For one stand-out scene, Hawks admitted to Bogdanovich that he had John Ford’s affinity for striking visuals in mind. The look of Red River was obviously of exceptional concern for Howard Hawks. Credit here should also be given to cinematographer Russell Harlan, who had or would work with such directorial luminaries as Anthony Mann, Billy Wilder, and Vincente Minnelli, as well as Hawks several more times later.
Aside from Wayne and Brennan, Red River also boasts a who’s who of other classic Western stars (certainly adding to its stature in the genre). There’s Harry Carey and Harry Carey Jr., as well as John Ireland, Noah Beery Jr., and Hank Worden. If you’re going to make a Western with a traditional focus like working a cattle drive, these are the men you’re going to want with you. Then there’s Montgomery Clift, according to Bogdanovich the “most beautiful actor in the American screen,” here in just his second feature film role. But Red River is really all about John Wayne. In his superb recent biography on Wayne, Scott Eyman cites Jeanine Basinger who describes the ultimate non-movie lover as “The person who walks out of Red River talking about Montgomery Clift.” And Bogdanovich describes Wayne here as “tough, acerbic, rough.” Indeed, he argues that his Dunson character may be the roughest he’s ever played. When push comes to shove, he’s absolutely merciless, but by the conclusion of the film (and the conclusion is admittedly somewhat unsatisfactory), we still end up behind Wayne. Still though, Basinger’s comment aside (surely she’s exaggerating?), the generational toe-to-toe between Wayne and Clift is one of Red River‘s strongest features: Wayne the classic, indomitable man’s man vs. Clift the tender, mannered Method actor. It’s a dueling of tenacious personalities and intrinsic masculinity that appears so often with Hawks, and while a female love interest arises near the end of the film, the capricious bond between Dunson and Matt is the true embattled relationship of the picture.
— Jeremy Carr