Red River

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Borden Chase and Charles Schnee (from The Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase)
Stars: John Wayne (Thomas Dunson), Montgomery Clift (Matt Garth), Joanne Dru (Tess Millay), Walter Brennan (Nadine Groot), Coleen Gray (Fen), Harry Carey Sr. (Mr. Melville), John Ireland (Cherry Valance), Noah Beery Jr. (Buster McGee), Harry Carey Jr. (Dan Latimer), Chief Yowlachie (Quo), Paul Fix (Teeler Yacey), Hank Worden (Simms Reeves), Mickey Kuhn (Matt as a Boy), Ray Hyke (Walt Jergens)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: U.S.
Red River: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Red RiverIn 1939, director John Ford gave a prolific B-movie actor named John Wayne the lead role in Stagecoach, and it turned him into a movie star. Nine years later, Wayne was discovered a second time when director Howard Hawks cast him as the lead in Red River and mined previously unknown depths to his now familiar screen persona. Wayne was still a larger-than-life movie star, but he was now far more interesting. The rumor goes that Ford was always envious of Hawks’ use of Wayne, to the point that one of his primary motivations in making The Searchers (1956) was to take Wayne’s newly complicated screen persona to even darker depths.

While Wayne’s role in The Searchers is arguably his greatest, it will always be his role as Tom Dunson in Red River that inaugurated the second, more intriguing half of his career, enabling him to be cast in roles that were more than just macho posturing and gruff heroism, including his Oscar-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969) and his poignant performance as dying gunslinger J.B. Books in Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976). At the time, it would have been hard to imagine him in the role of Dunson, who is described in the film’s source novel by Borden Chase (originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post) as “A bull of a man. A brute of a man. Thick-necked, low-jowled, whith eyes that looked out at you like the rounded gray ends of bullets in a pistol cylinder.” That is not the handsome, dynamic Wayne of Stagecoach or the stern, but thoughtful soldiers in played in so many World War II combat films. Yet Wayne, who was only 39 at the time, managed to embody Chase’s brutish description, playing an aged man who early in the film makes a tragic mistake and spends the rest of his life obsessively trying to make something of his life even if it means ending the lives of others.

When we first meet Dunson, he is a younger hired gun on a wagon train who breaks off to claim open land and start his own herd of cattle along with his right-hand man Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), whose mug most certainly appears next to every textbook definition of “cantankerous old coot.” Dunson’s love, Fen (Coleen Gray), begs to go with him, but he rejects her pleas and leaves without her, only to witness from afar the massacre of the wagon train by Comanche Indians. The only survivor of the wagon train is a preteen boy named Matt Garth (Mickey Kuhn), who Dunson adopts as his son.

The film then leaps ahead 14 years, where we find Dunson, Matt (now played by Montgomery Clift), and Groot overseeing a massive herd of 9,000 cattle. Unfortunately, times have changed drastically—the film began before the Civil War, and it is now 1865—as has the economy of the South, where cattle are no longer a valuable commodity. Facing bankruptcy, Dunson’s only choice is to drive the entire herd north from Texas to Missouri—a drive never before attempted—where he can make his money back and save the empire he has spent the past decade and a half building. Thus, the drive is not just about economics, but about preserving Dunson’s dream, the one that came at the expense of his lover’s life. It is not surprising, then, that it becomes his obsession, a single-minded focus from which he will not deviate, even if it means driving his hired men as brutally as he drives the cattle, clashing with those who disagree with his approach (especially Matt), and cold-bloodedly killing those who threaten to desert the drive. Dunson’s lethal capability with a firearm, which is often the defining trait of the western hero, here takes on a sinister edge, as he defies the hero’s traditional reluctance to employ violence by killing to maintain control.

Thus, as Dunson slowly becomes the film’s villain, Matt emerges as the traditional hero, a man who comes into his own by stepping into his adopted father’s position of power, but with a sense of ethical responsibility and human decency. Clift, who was almost impossibly handsome at the time, was making his screen debut after years of success on stage, and the role turned him into the kind of matinee star that Wayne had become after Stagecoach. Along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, he was a new kind of screen heartthrob—sensitive, thoughtful, at times anguished, but always with a depth of feeling and thought. His face is nothing if not absolutely earnest, and Hawks wisely directed him to stay in Wayne’s undeniably large shadow, which reflects Matt’s thoughtfulness and reserve. When he finally does step up, it is a moment of great intensity, bringing to a head a long-simmering sense of conflict between adoptive father and adopted son.

Clift’s masculinity is fundamentally different from Wayne’s, which makes their star casting all the more pertinent—two icons of two different ages meeting and doing battle on the silver screen. The fact that we now know Clift was gay has led many to read different levels of homoeroticism into various scenes in the film, some of which reach further than others. While one can only speculate as to how Clift’s off-screen sexuality inflected his on-screen performance, there is no doubt that scenes in Red River often carry an overtly erotic charge, intentional or otherwise, that only heightens the narrative stakes and conflicts. Thus, I find the erotic reading of the scene between Matt and hired gun Cherry Valance (John Ireland) comparing pistols much less interesting (if only because it’s so obvious and fired by rumors that the two men were having an affair during production) than the way the film’s sexual subtext makes Wayne’s and Clift’s characters simultaneously more and less connected, as if they are operating on completely different planes of understanding, which is why their relationship is fated to fracture.

One of the miracles of Red River is the way Hawks keeps both men fundamentally sympathetic, even in the depths of conflict. Wayne’s character may be brutal and in a way tragically simple-minded, but we understand his motivations and his core, which demands that he follow through on his intentions. Dunson is the villain, but he is a villain of gray, his worst actions shaded by our recognition of his desperation and desire. It is for this reason that Wayne’s performance is so monumental, especially after playing so many one-dimensional characters. The fact that Wayne was even willing to take on such a role, one that could have hurt his box office appeal, speaks volumes about the actor and the trust he put in Hawks, a director known for working with stars (Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Carol Lombard, among others), as well as his dexterous ability to slip in and out of every Hollywood genre imaginable. Despite never having made a western at this point in his career, Hawks clearly understood the terrain, and as he did in all of his films, he merged the familiar elements of the genre with his own thematic preoccupations, particularly issues of masculinity and professionalism. Dunson’s single-minded intent to make it to Missouri represents the dark side of the professionalism that so often formed the core of Hawks’s films—the American dream driven to its tattered edges and turned into a nightmare.

Red River is also one of the most visually impressive westerns of its era. Despite working with only 1,500 cattle, Hawks and his production team give the film a sense of impressive scale. The cattle drive scenes are among the best in Hawks’s oeuvre, both visually and thematically. Many of these scenes were shot either early in the morning or at sundown, which bathes them in an ethereal light that adds an aura of symbolism to the gritty sense of physical reality, but in a way that is neither showy nor pretentious. A scene in which the cattle stampede is as exhilarating as it is terrifying, and it personifies Hawks’s assertion that the most interesting drama derives from men in danger.

Red River is a great film, although not a perfect one. Visually, it is marred by the scenes that were shot on soundstages and with rear projection—a production necessity, to be sure, but they still stick out like a sore thumb. The use of Walter Brennan’s voice-over narration is also a bit of a liability, even though Hawks much preferred it to the alternative of using on-screen diary pages to convey narrative information.

And then there’s the end, which requires the intervention of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru, a comedienne who became inextricably associated with westerns after this role), a strong-willed woman with whom Matt falls in love. The ending is both too quick (a necessary compromise to avoid a lawsuit by Howard Hughes, who accused Hawks of stealing the ending of his 1943 film The Outlaw, which Hawks was originally slated to direct) and in some sense too easy. Everything about Red River suggests a showdown between Dunson and Matt that will result in one of them dying, yet Hawks found a third option, one that works narratively, but feels tonally amiss from the rest of the film. It is hardly enough to derail the film’s overall experience—truly one of the great westerns of the Studio Era—but it also reminds us that even the greatest films are sometimes a mix of pointed artistry and necessary compromise.

Red River Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • New interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
  • New interview with critic Molly Haskell
  • New interview with film scholar Lee Clark Mitchell
  • Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich
  • Audio excerpts from a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1949, featuring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan
  • Trailer
  • New paperback edition of Chase’s original novel
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 27, 2014

    Criterion’s four-disc Blu-ray/DVD edition of Red River contains both versions of the film: the 127-minute theatrical version (which, to my knowledge, has not been released on video) and the 133-minute prerelease version, which is often seen on television and, because it is longer, is frequently mistaken as the preferred “director’s cut” (Hawks, in fact, preferred the shorter theatrical version). As Peter Bogdanovich clarifies in a video interview, Hawks’s truly preferred version would be a combination of the two that utilizes Walter Brennan’s voice-over narration from the theatrical version with the longer ending of the prerelease version. Either way, both versions are presented in excellent new high-definition transfers from the best sources available. The liner notes provide copious detail regarding the various sources for the transfers. In short, the prerelease version was scanned from a duplicate negative, while the theatrical version had to be recreated from several different sources, including the prerelease duplicate negative, an MGM archive print, and a composite print discovered at the Cinémathèque française. There is some fairly obvious variation in the quality of the image from time to time in the theatrical version, as some shots and scenes are quite a bit sharper and more detailed than others, but it is never distracting in any way. Both versions of the film look amazing for their age, with good detail, contrast, and a minimum of visible wear and tear. There is a strong presence of grain in both versions, especially in those great open expanses of sky. Both soundtracks are presented in lossless Dolby Digital monaural, and they both sound superb. Like the visuals, the audio for the theatrical version had to be compiled from several different sources, but the effect is virtually seamless.
    There is no audio commentary on Red River, but Criterion has recorded a trio of new video interviews with experts, each of whom provides a unique perspective on the film (together they run about 45 minutes). First up is, of course, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who discusses the film in general, its uniqueness as a Western and as a Hawks film, and the two different endings. Then we have critic Molly Haskell, author of From Reverence to Rape, who discusses the film’s gender politics and portrayal of women. And, finally, we have film scholar Lee Clark Mitchell, author of Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film, who talks about the film in relation to the western genre. From the archives we get excerpts from two audio recordings: a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich and a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. Also from the archives is a trailer and the 1949 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, which brought back John Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan. The insert booklet contains an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby, and it all comes packaged with a new paperback edition of Chase’s original, long-out-of-print novel.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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