Red River (1948)

Directed by Howard Hawks

‘I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.’
— John Ford —

I don’t if those words ever actually did stumble from John Ford’s mouth, but it is sometimes said that was his reaction to seeing John Wayne in Red River.

Slightly over a year later Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon would be released, and I don’t know how he could have made that without some belief in Wayne’s acting ability.

It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that John Wayne was a good actor, though it’s often easy to forget that when the Wayne image is so large and the number of films he made so many.

We also think of good acting in terms of drama. However, if you’ve ever paid attention to any of the comedies John Wayne was in, he’s equally good. He has great timing and great expressive reactions. But let’s get back to Red River

John Wayne as a focused Thomas Dunson.

It’s deservedly considered one of the great westerns.

If, like me, you tend to associate John Wayne with John Ford, keep in mind he made something like five movies with Howard Hawks, at least two of which should be on any list of best westerns: Red River and Rio Bravo.

Red River is the story of a cattle drive. From IMDB:

Tom Dunson builds a cattle empire with his adopted son Matthew Garth. Together they begin a massive cattle drive north from Texas to the Missouri railhead. But on the way, new information and Dunson’s tyrannical ways cause Matthew to take the herd away from Dunson and head to a new railhead in Kansas. Dunson, swearing vengeance, pursues.”

Dunson is played by John Wayne; Garth is played by Montgomery Clift in his first onscreen appearance. (Clift had had a good deal of success on Broadway prior to this.)

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift as Tom Dunson and Matt Garth.

Wayne has a an interesting role to play in the movie. He’s both hero and villain.

He starts out as a determined young man, leaving a wagon train to head out on his own to Texas with little more than a dream of raising cattle — a lot of them.

But even in this early stage, there is a hint of obsessiveness in his determination. Nothing matters — love, people, anything — only the dream.

Once he finds where his ranch will be, he establishes himself and the movie jumps ahead 14 years. (You’ll see Wayne’s Dunsun begins with a white hat. Once we jump ahead, it is black.)

Following the transition, we see Dunson has established his dream but now it is threatened. A lot more plays into the success of raising cattle than the raising of them. The economics of markets and transportation have an impact. That is what he is facing now.

In the face of this threat, he becomes intractable. He’s going on a cattle drive to Missouri. His terms for others to join him are black and white and unalterable. The further on the drive they get, the more focused and tyrannical he becomes.

His focus is very similar to Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

Matt removes an arrow that has pinned Tess Millay (Joanne Dru).

And for me, The Searchers is one of the two movies I found myself thinking of after watching this movie, in terms of Wayne’s performance.

For some, this is their favourite John Wayne performance, even his best. But while I think it is among his best, for me it’s not the best and it’s certainly not my favourite.

This movie comes across to me as the first major articulation of the John Wayne we think of when we think ‘John Wayne,’ even though he’s a dubious hero in Red River. I find his performances in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers better — they are definitely my two favourite performances.

Listening to John Wayne’s speech pattern in Red River, I could hear the Wayne we know but it seemed as if it wasn’t yet quite there.

He has an almost slow motion staccato quality in his sentences with a falling note to each, except the last. They go beat – beat – beat, or beat – beat – beat – beat, with the last beat a downbeat with a falling sound. There will be a series of two or three sentences like this punctuated by a final sentence that usually goes up.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River.

Despite the staccato nature, however, there is a musical fluidity to his speech in his best roles.

In Red River, however, I find that music sometimes missing. There are times it came across to me as excessively flat as I waited to hear that final, punctuating line that goes up, but it isn’t always there. (I’m thinking particularly of a transitional scene where Wayne does a voice over.)

Of course, all of that is very subjective but it is how it came across to me. That perception may have been reinforced by the way Howard Hawk’s directs the movie in a very episodic fashion with a number of fade outs to fade ups as transitions, as opposed to something like cross-dissolves that can make a movie seem more fluid and of a piece.

The movie isn’t all John Wayne, however. There is much more, including the other major lead, Montgomery Clift.

I have to confess, I’ve never been a big fan of Clift. He always comes across to me as not-quite-there, somehow not on the same page as everyone else. That’s due to his natural style and his heavy dependence on his eyes. At his best, he communicates everything with his eyes — intelligence, doubt, love and so on.

For me, however, he just as often comes across as someone a bit doped up and out of it.

Montgomery Clift's eyes get a workout in Red River. And it works!

In Red River, though, I find he’s at his best. He plays a very quiet, thoughtful (and dangerous) Matt Garth.

You can see what he thinks, and feel his restraint, and know something is coming to a head and it is all in his eyes. He and Wayne make a great contrast here both in styles and roles.

Someone I rarely see mentioned in reviews of Red River is the young Mickey Kuhn, who plays the young Matt in the movie’s first act. He is brilliant in his scenes as a cocky but also frightened and traumatized boy. He’s in the movie only briefly, but he’s wonderful in his scene.

Lastly, there is the movie’s often discussed ending. Is it legitimate, or is it a Hollywood cop-out happy ending? I think it’s debatable to a degree but I have to side with the latter view. It comes about very abruptly and out of the blue and, ultimately, unsatisfying. As proof, I think you need at only look at the fact that is discussed to the degree it is.

Still, it is up for debate. It may be yet another of those things that has no objective answer, just our subjective response.

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