"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Red River (United Artists, 1948)


Hawks's masterwork

Red River, Howard Hawks’s masterwork, was the only Western in which he matched the work of John Ford. It is a mighty film. One thinks of Ford while watching it not only because Hawks elicited a stunning performance from John Wayne as the Bligh-like Dunson (only in Ford’s The Searchers did Wayne equal it) but also because of the epic grandeur of the movie, the noble themes and the fact that each shot is framed as a work of art.


It made Wayne a major star. The Big Trail (1930) and Stagecoach (1939) had both turned out to be false starts as far as ‘A’ Westerns were concerned. It was really Hawks who made John Wayne into the cowboy megastar he became. Red River was filmed in 1946, i.e. well before the Cavalry trilogy of John Ford, 1948 – 50, though did not come out until 1948 for financial and legal reasons.

His first Western (ish)

Wayne must have hesitated. To play a much older man (he was 39 then) losing his grip, with no female partner (Joanne Dru was destined for Matt) wasn’t an obvious step for him. But it was a great part and he carried it off supremely well.

Hawks seems to have borrowed a good number of other Ford stock company as well  because Walter Brennan, Harry Carey Sr. and Jr., Paul Fix, Hank Worden and others are all on the drive as they make their weary way through fine Western terrain (Arizona, mostly) to the studio sound stage where they camp each night.

Early in the story, Groot, Dunson, Garth

Brennan as Wayne’s sidekick and crusty cook, Noah Beery Jr. as a decent cowhand and John Ireland as the leering gunman rival to Montgomery Clift are all particularly good. Joanne Dru (Mrs. Ireland) is pretty but you get the impression that her part has been artificially grafted onto the story for some love interest. That kind of happened with Hawks (and Ford). Monty Clift is excellent as the adopted son of Dunson who finally rebels, Fletcher Christian-like, takes over the herd and sets Dunson adrift. He is small and sinewy, not at all like the beefy Wayne (how to make the final fistfight convincing was a real problem for Hawks, who evened the odds by having the gunman Cherry wound Dunson just before the fisticuffs), yet he conveys power and even a growing authority.

The tension builds and builds towards the final reckoning that we know must come.

The story came from The Chisholm Trail, a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase, though Hawks made many changes, often while shooting.

Hawks was perhaps attracted to it because of the male triangle at its heart. Garry Wills, in his biography of Duke, John Wayne, The Politics of Celebrity (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), makes the point that all Hawks’s Westerns had this trio. In The Outlaw, Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) were rivals for the affections of Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). In Rio Bravo you have John Wayne as the Sheriff, Dean Martin as the drunk Deputy and Ricky Nelson as the pretty-boy gunman Colorado (place names for Western characters were traditionally a female preserve). In El Dorado, Robert Mitchum takes the drunk lawman part while James Caan becomes the younger man, Mississippi (though hardly a gunman in this case). The male trio is usually complemented and hovered over by a cranky old mother-hen figure: Walter Brennan in Red River and Rio Bravo, Arthur Hunnicutt in The Big Sky and El Dorado. In Red River, of course, you have Dunson, Matt and Cherry (Wayne, Clift, Ireland) with Brennan as the mother-hen.

On the cattle drive, Dunson, Garth, Groot: the dynamic changes

You don’t have to have read much Freud to smile at the scene in which Cherry Valance and Matt Garth exchange guns and have a shooting match.

Sigmund would have explained it

Cherry: That’s a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? (They swap guns) Maybe you’d like to see mine. (Cherry examines Matt’s pistol). Nice, awful nice. You know there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?

Only the showdown at the end comes over as a compromise. It’s marvelous as Wayne walks, blazing with anger, through the cattle and disposes of the top gun with a dismissive shot. Here comes the clash with Clift! But in no time at all Dru, in a rather silly speech, has Dunson and Clift making up and it all peters out. Dunson has been so driven, so indomitable, that almost no ending would have worked, except perhaps his death. The same is true of The Searchers when Wayne’s film-long fury dissipates in a short scene and he takes Debbie ‘home’. He should really have died, as in the book. It is said that Hawks himself scripted Dru's speech, in a fit of pique against John Ireland. Clift's character was to have shot Dunson, then faced a showdown with the gunman played by Ireland. Dramatically, that was necessary as the two young guns had been locking horns, more or less playfully, throughout the story. But it was not to be.

The fistfight

In a way, the male triangle resolves itself at the end, with Cherry out of the way, into a familial/generational one, with grandfather Brennan, father Wayne and son Clift. Garry Wills even talks about them as Laertes/Odysseus/Telemachus but I think we’re getting a bit hi-falutin’ here.

Red River is an unusually long film for the time (125 minutes) and throughout it is dusty and smells of cattle. It’s a huge picture with thousands of head of steers and a $3.2 million budget in 1948. Scenes like the beeves going down the main street of ‘Abilene’ are still impressive today. See it on the wide screen if possible.


The music (Dimitri Tiomkin) is powerful and memorable. Western buffs will sing “My rifle, pony and me” to the tune because they will be Rio Bravo fans – the tune was used by Hawks again there. Not that other Hawks Westerns, Rio this or Rio that, were a patch on this great work.

The greatness of the film is also largely down to Russell Harlan because the black & white photography is simply stunning – not only the famous 360° shot at the start but throughout.

After seeing the movie John Ford is supposed to have made the famous remark of Wayne: “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” But when you think that Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, some of the best Westerns ever made (and all 5-revolver pictures in this blog), were all produced in the space of three years (1948 - 50) and Wayne was superb in all of them, you realize that Ford soon learned.


The importance of Red River as a Western can be judged by the number of times it is mentioned in reviews of other films and used as a comparison. It is a touchstone.

It’s curious in a way that Hawks made it at all. It was his attempt, a risky one, to become an independent producer but why choose a Western? He was much better known for slick, urbane movies with clever dialogue, or aviation films. It was his first ‘proper’ Western (he had done a couple of semi-Westerns back in the 30s, Viva Villa! and Barbary Coast, and he had contributed to the dreadful The Outlaw earlier in the decade but was uncredited).

Hawks never again did anything as good, certainly not a Western anyway. His four later efforts (three with Wayne) were commercial ‘bankers’ without artistic merit. Red River remains one of the top ten best Westerns in the history of the genre, one of Wayne’s very greatest portrayals and it is unchallenged as the finest cattle-drive movie ever. Pure gold.


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