There are several interesting stories surrounding “Red River”, the 1948 Western directed by Howard Hawks. At the time John Wayne was a Hollywood star, but many of the bigger names in directing and producing didn’t consider him a good actor. That reputation led to Gary Cooper being first offered the lead in “Red River”. Cooper declined leaving the door open for Wayne who eagerly accepted. What resulted was an eye-opening performance from the Duke that literally changed the direction of his career.
Wayne’s enthusiasm was spurred by the opportunity to work with the great Howard Hawks. At that point in his career Wayne had made well over thirty movies but he had often found himself typecast. But “Red River” offered him the chance to step outside of his reputation. Hawks oversees this western version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” which pits a stubborn, crusty Wayne against an earnest, loyal Montgomery Clift.
Clift was an interesting choice. This was his first movie (even though “The Search” actually released first) and he was a very different actor than Wayne. Clift was one of the original method actors and he brought a quiter, detail-oriented performance. But surpringly Wayne matches him in subtlty. This invigorates the film’s pivotal central relationship.
Borden Chase and Charles Schnee’s story starts with Thomas Dunson (Wayne) and his longtime trail hand and pal Groot (Walter Brennan) breaking off from a wagon train to head south into Texas. Dunson’s plan is to stake a claim on some land and make a name as a cattle rancher. The wagon train is attacked by Indians and the lone survivor, a young boy named Matt (Mickey Kuhn), comes across Dunson and Groot. They take Matt in and head for Texas. The trio travel further south near the Rio Grande and with one cow and one bull build a huge cattle ranch.
The story hops ahead fourteen years. An adult Matt (Clift) has returned from school and is set to help Dunson run the ranch. Due to post-Civil War poverty they can’t sell their beef in the South so Dunson sets up a rigorous and perilous cattle drive north to a railroad town in Missouri. They hire several hands and head north. The drive proves more difficult than Dunson is willing to admit and a rift forms between him and his disillusioned men. Matt is the man caught in the middle. Does he side with the trail-weary men or does he stay loyal to his father figure and mentor?
Hawks doesn’t make that an easy question to answer. He tosses in all sorts of physical and moral dilemmas along the way that complicate the relationships. Wayne’s mule-headed Dunson teeters between hero and villain and his stubbornness threatens not only the morale of his men but their safety. Matt balances that with a level-headed but subordinate approach. He’s a clearer thinker but is handcuffed by his loyalty to Dunson.
But while that central conflicted relationship is the centerpiece, “Red River” does so many other things well particularly with its Western boundaries. The cattle drive scenes are some of the very best of the genre. There is one particular famous stampede sequence that still lives up to its praise. Russell Harlan (probably best known for his work on “To Kill a Mockingbird”) handles the cinematography which captures the many facets of ‘life on the trail’. 99% of the film takes place outdoors and Harlan often shoots in a way that accentuates the hardships but also the open-aired freedom this small band of men experience.
But it all gets back to Wayne, Clift, and a soured father/adopted son relationship that plays out like a Greek tragedy. The two leads are superb particularly Wayne who surprised me just as much as his contemporaries when the film first released. The Duke shows a level of acting that goes far beyond the cardboard cutout performances he so often delivered. When you toss in Clift’s grounded method approach, Hawks’ confident direction, and a sure-footed story, “Red River” stakes its claim as a true classic of the Western genre.
VERDICT – 4 STARS