Red River (1948)
Tom Dunson (John Wayne) leads a cattle drive 1000 miles to Missouri, accompanied by sidekick Walter Brennan and adopted ‘son’ Montgomery Clift. As the drive goes on, Dunson’s men turn against his harsh methods and Clift realises to save the herd he must depose the increasingly tyrannical Dunson. Of course, Dunson swears vengence…..
Often regarded as one of the quintessential movies of the era, “Red River” is actually a must-see film for even the most ardent detractor of the western genre.
To start with, this is one of Wayne’s best performances – probably in the top 5 of his career. Wayne’s character “Dunson” is a bitter man, etched with regret and terrified of what the future may hold for his ranch after he’s gone. These base motives drive him to damn nearly persecute his exhausted assortment of cowboys and ranch-hands, who thankfully, are lovingly made up with some strong staples of the studio westerns. First amongst these is Walter Brennan as the comic-relief chuck wagon driver and second is the magnificently immoral John Ireland as gunslinger “Cherry Valance”. In addition, legends Harry Carey Jnr and Snr make important if brief contributions
Now, on to the other side of the relationship behind the entire picture: Montgomery Clift in what was his first actual movie role. Derided by some as nothing more than a pretty-boy, Clift is quietly electric as the level-headed ‘son’ of Dunson with an ability to gauge the pulse of the men in a more measured way than the uncaring Wayne. Clift’s role is enchanting and he oozes intensity – consequently, worthy of equal billing with the Duke himself. To be sure, Clift’s apearance alone, is enough reason to watch this film.
Hawks’s fluid direction keeps the story moving along at at pace and there are some great shots of the cattle herd being driven over mountain-tops, through rivers and even across a rail-road. Quite a bit of the movie takes place at night which allows for some interesting sequences and camera shots, I am thinking particularly of the sequence filmed in the ‘fog’. I would also point out the infamous ‘revolver’ scene between Ireland and Clift, in which they compare the size of each other’s weapons; a hardly subtle if characteristic reference from Hawks.
But the director’s greatest achievement is the injection of ‘adventure’ which excites nearly every scene; I also loved the stills of the hand-written pages in a book which separate the movie into sections; because, after all, Hawks was a storyteller first and a director second.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is achingly epic and would be used to similar effect in Hawks’s last masterpiece “Rio Bravo” (1959). A moody script with some stinging lines rounds off a picture which I find hard to critique in any meaningful way. My only gripe would be with the last couple of minutes. The final stand-off between Wayne and Clift is breath-taking but a slightly tacky ‘feel-good’ ending seems a bit ill at ease with what’s gone on before our eyes for the previous 2 hours or so. Nevertheless, there’s not much else that a film of this era could really do…..so it would be unfair to take such a negative view of the final moments.
Overall, this is certainly a film warranting inclusion in a list such as “100 films to see before you die”. Thank you, Mr Hawks.
hotdog rating: 9/10