DVD Review Of Red River

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/15/08


  A great genre film is not necessarily a great piece of cinema, for the dictates of genre often run counter to the dictates of art; namely that genre demands familiar elements (aka clichés). As good an example of this dictum that can be found is director Howard Hawks’ 1948 (although filmed in 1946) black and white western Red River. There is great debate amongst western aficionados as to who was the greater director of westerns, John Ford or Howard Hawks? Well, if one compares the two westerns most consider the two directors’ apexes in the genre, Ford’s The Searchers and this film, it’s no contest. Red River and Hawks win in a walk. That’s because Hawks was basically concerned with narrative and characters while Ford obsessed over myth making and caricatures. Even Ford tacitly admitted Hawks was the superior craftsman, for when he first saw Red River he is reputed to have exclaimed, of star John Wayne: ‘I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act.’ Both films, of course, feature Wayne in an anti-hero role, and both are sweeping tales. But, Red River features realistic characterization, great dialogue and comedy in a first rate screenplay written by Charles Schnee and Borden Chase, which was adapted from Chase’s tale The Chisholm Trail. But, above all, the film benefits from the screen debut of Montgomery Clift, who steals the film from Wayne as easily as his character does the cattle herd they are driving north to sell. Note the scene where Matt steps inside a cattleman’s office in Abilene. Watch Clift’s face as he ducks, because it’s been months since he was under a roof. That’s the sort of realistic reaction that takes little effort in writing or acting, but adds up to lifting a pedestrian film into a greater realism. 

  For those who think the Method way of acting meant only the gonzo sorts of performances put out by Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift punctures that fallacy with ease, for he is simply terrific and effortlessly naturalistic as Matthew Garth, the surrogate son of Wayne’s Tom Dunson- a borderline psychotic who’ll shoot a man to death as easily as other men curse. The best way to describe Clift is as a much better looking and far more talented Tom Cruise. But it’s Wayne’s role as Dunson that links this film to The Searchers. In the later, color Ford film, Wayne has always been credited with creating his first real villain, Ethan Edwards, a racist killer, but his essay as Dunson, eight years earlier is more convincing, for we can relate to the man’s bitterness and motives. We do not identify with his quick and psychotic temper, but we understand what drives him. In The Searchers, Ford leaves Edwards as more of a tabula rasa, which would not be a bad thing, save there is no growth in the man. By the end of Red River, Tom Dunson has grown, although the denouement of this growth is perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of the film, for the ending just totally deflates, and seems highly unnatural given all the depth and, yes, complexity of the relationships between the two men, and the third main character, an old cuss named Groot (Walter Brennan), who is, for some reason, Dunson’s eternal sidekick.

  The film starts in 1851, with Dunson and Groot leaving a wagon train bound for the far west, to establish a ranch just north of the Rio Grande. There is where they first meet young Matt (played by Mickey Kuhn), who is a survivor of the wagon train they just left. It was ambushed by Indians, and ended up killing Dunson’s woman, Fen (Coleen Gray), whom he sent on, feeling they were safer in the wagon train than alone with him and Groot. Soon, they find the sort of land they desire, and Dunson murders the enforcer of a Mexican cattle baron who claims the land. Dunson then spends fourteen years raising livestock, establishing the Red River ranch, and living through the Civil War, only to find out there’s no market for his product, ten thousand head strong, so he has to hire men on to help Matt and him drive them north to Missouri.

  Along the way they meet up with hardships, stampedes, Indians, robbers, and worst of all, their own egos. Several of the men end up being killed by Dunson for rebelling, and there is a morose ritual that Dunson always  follows- he murders, then buries, and reads over the dead, from the Bible. That is, until Matt takes command from him, sick of Dunson’s paranoia. He humiliates and emasculates Dunson in front of the others, and vows to take the cattle due north, along the newly blazed Chisholm Trail, to avoid Missouri bandits and sell his livestock at the Abilene railroad station. Dunson, of course, vows vengeance, and that he will come back and kill Matt, whom he claims is just a common thief. As Dunson is banished and the herd heads north, they encounter a wagon train being attacked by Indians. The men help defeat the savages, and, of course, the most beautiful of the dance girls, Tess Millay (JoAnne Dru) in the train falls instantly in love with Matt, after seeing his heroics and being so distracted by him she gets shot with an arrow through the right shoulder. Recall how I mentioned that the film’s end was perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of the film? Well, the perhaps is because the love story aspect is so forced and phony that it gives the ending a run for the money as the film’s nadir. That both involve Dru’s character is no coincidence. That said, her character is likable and well acted, and she is heaven on the eyes. There’s simply no real reason for her to be injected into the tale.

  Naturally, Matt tells her she cannot come along, after they become intimate and he relates the tale of the avenging Dunson. When Dunson and some hired thugs catch up with the wagon train eight days later- they apparently have not decamped yet, he and Millay have a nice scene where they spar with each other, and she convinces Dunson to take her along. In Abilene, the cattle are sold, the men are happy, and they await the showdown between Matt and Dunson. It comes, and, at first plays realistically. Dunson shoots Cherry, who wings him, then shoots past Matt’s head, then feet. Matt does not flinch. Dunson yells: ‘You’re soft! Won’t anything make a man out of you?’ He then belts Matt a few times and tosses him to the ground. Then Matt fights back and starts kicking the older man’s ass. Then, Millay fires off her gun, gets the two men to admit they love each other, and the film ends in forced Hollywood style with Dunson stating he’ll add Matt’s M to the Red River ranch brand’s D, and with the sort of forced laughter that bad sitcoms use at the end of an episode. The end, literally. It’s that bad. So bad that it has to supplant the sunshiny ending of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon as the worst ending a great, or near great, film.

  Aside from the leads, the acting is quite good. John Ireland (who in real life later married and divorced Dru) shines as Cherry Valance, a hot shot with the gun, and there is a humorous side story between Groot and an Indian named Quo, who wins his dentures in a poker game. The film score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is not a good one. It is especially irritating when silly whoopee-ki-yi-yay type songs play over the cattle drive. The cinematography by Russell Harlan is very good, and often shot low off the ground during vista shots, to give a sense of the hugeness of sky and place. This is reminiscent of the famed tatami mat shots of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, save that Hawks has Harlan often moving the camera, not staying static. The low placement of the camera also give the film an epic feel, even if it is shot in a non-widescreen 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The best single shot in the film comes when Dunson’s men are burying a married hand who was killed during the stampede. As Dunson reads from the Bible an ominous cloud rolls down over the hill in the background. Hawks has said this was just fortuity, but it also works perfectly as a metaphor for what lies ahead in the film. The only downside is the use of some obvious background screens with rear projections.

  The DVD, put out by MGM, has no special features, not even a theatrical trailer- only a 4 page insert. This film really cries out for a commentary and making of documentary. On the plus side, the film transfer is solid- not great, but a bit higher than VHS tapes- even if it is a bit speckled here and there, and the film is the 133 minute version preferred by Hawks, rather than a 125 minute bowdlerized studio version that features a voiceover narration by Brennan’s Groot character. It is also shown in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

  The film reaches out and scrapes greatness in the scenes between Wayne and Clift, as Dunson and Matt. Rarely have two macho male roles been so convincingly written- and considering this was the 1940s, it makes that fact all the more special. Wayne actually emotes a bit above his usual monosyllabics, and Clift acts and reacts to Wayne better than any co-star I’ve seen. One really gets the sense of their having known each other for years. Two other relationships that work are the ones between Groot and Dunson, especially when Groot finally stands up to Dunson, after years of cowering, and the one between Matt and Cherry, as young gunslingers whose guns stand in for penises in one well written and acted scene that prefigures, albeit far more realistically, some of the homoeroticism that would end up in the laughable vomitus of Brokeback Mountain.

  But, make no mistake, the major theme of Red River is the classic Oedipal one, where the figurative son must supplant the father, and until the very end, this is the core of the film, and what pushes it well above most westerns. It is a complex film that rises above its genre, but not far enough to reach that ineffable area reserved for the greatest of artworks, even if it can legitimately make a claim to being a great western. Whether or not it would have succeeded in reaching that lofty status without the feminine element is debatable, but that the female element drags it down from unadulterated greatness is not. Now there’s a classic trope: blame it on the broads! Yeehah!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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