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
Excellent review Keith! I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed this one, I grew up watching films like Red River and I cherish it dearly.
Although it is pure western mythology, one of the main things I liked about this was its realistic approach, with no huge gunfights or forced comedy. John Wayne looks great in his role, this might be one of his most complex characters, and the film is beautiful with the b&w cinematography capturing the spirit of the vast plains of the Midwest.
“Red River is one of the great westerns and a piercing illustration of how insignificant man’s grandly conceived plans can seem when set against nature’s indifference.”
You make so many wonderful points. I think one of the things I loved most was the film’s clear desire to stay away from the expected western tropes. I also agree that Wayne was excellent. Never have been the biggest fan of his but he really shows a side that surprised people then and I found surprising today.
Is it bad to say I’m just not keen on John Wayne? I guess I’m not into Westerns either and he did a bunch of those. I’ve only seen a single film of Montgomery Clift, need to see more as I like him in The Heiress. Btw, I always think Tom Cruise looks like a dead ringer for Clift sometimes. Well I finally saw one of Brando’s classics for my Blindspot entry and though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant film, I’m glad I finally got to see it!
Ya know, Wayne is considered an icon but he isn’t really a favorite of mine either. I do like some westerns but I’m pretty selective. This feels quite different from the western norm which I really appreciated.
I actually really liked Clift. He is really good in The Heiress and he is really good here. I would also recommend seeing him in From Here to Eternity. Great performance there.
You must have checked out Streetcar? Oh I’m anxious to read your thoughts. Great movie but an emotionally brutal one.
There’s something about Wayne’s acting style that just doesn’t gel w/ me. But Cliff is intriguing, I need to see more of his work. I had A Place in the Sun last year but never got around to it. I didn’t know he was in From Here to Eternity, I should see that one too.
Yes, it’s ‘Streetcar.’ I’m curious to hear from classic fans who’ve seen it. I ended up writing a long one on it, but there’s really a lot of stuff in that film.
Yep, there is a ton to say about Streetcar. It was so strikingly different than the majority of movies at the time. As for Wayne, he usually comes across as so dry and forcibly stoic but here he makes a stunning transition from his normal approach to acting. He showed some real chops.
One of my all-time favorites!
Oh really? It is a good one for sure. Really found myself caught up in it.
Excellent job, Keith. Your review reminded me I need to sit down for a revisit. It’s been ages. I’ve only seen Montgomery Clift in ‘A Place in the Sun’ — love the book and film, but no westerns. The Duke doesn’t bother me. I grew up with him around; he was admired by uncles, fathers, just about every man I ever met loved him.
My dad and uncles would fall right into that group. Saw a lot of Wayne growing up but never really ‘watched’ many of his movies until I got a bit older. Not sure how this one slid by me.
You made your uncles and dad proud 😉
LOL! I hope!
As someone that loves westerns, this is a film that I’m eager to see as I heard that after John Ford saw the film. He said this about John Wayne, “I never the son-of-a-bitch could act!” This is one of many films of John Wayne that I haven’t seen as I’m doing a trilogy of films he did with Ford as part of my Blind Spot probably around the summer.
SEE IT! I think Wayne will really surprise you here. It is easy to paint a mental picture of a Wayne performance mainly because he frequently does the same thing. This is quite different and many people (like Ford) were really stunned by the performance.
I know Wayne is a good actor. I’ve seen a films he’s in including The Searchers which is so far my favorite performance of his. The man is a fucking legend.
Nice review Keith. Saw Red River for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was really impressed with this picture. I wouldn’t put it up there with the pictures Wayne did with John Ford, but it’s a solid western for sure and has great performances all around.
Really good, right? Probably not my favorite Wayne picture either but such a wonderful surprise. Lots of things at work in the film.
John Wayne is an interesting figure in my life. I remember seeing him on the screen lots when I was a kid. That was usually at my grandfather’s house. However, I couldn’t tell you which movies I saw as I don’t remember anything about them. The only one I know I’ve seen is The Searchers, and that’s only because I watched it a couple years ago. That was a really long way to say I need to see more John Wayne movies, including this one.
Yep, I have plenty of Wayne voids too. I have seen several of his earliest films (Stagecoach, the Calvary trilogy, etc). I’ve also caught a few of his war movies. But there are soooo many I have never seen yet.
Hey this sounds like a good one for me to check out. I am woefully behind on both old westerns and old westerns with John Wayne in them. (So basically I haven’t seen any of the old westerns haha!)
Yep, this would absolutely be one worth your time. Dramatically different than the traditional Wayne films which there are tons of. Give it a look.
Nice review Keith. I really liked this myself. While I think it doesnt measure up to the westerns Wayne did with Ford, its still a pretty good film, which a really god John Wayne performance
Agreed. Wayne really blew my mind. I’m so accustomed to his familiar form of acting but he brings a lot more to this role.
I have so many movie blindspots it’s unbelievable. Great review Keith, you always deliver.
Thanks my friend. This one is a gem.
It sure sounds like that.
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