Escapism at its best in a sweeping Western adventure
If you love to lose yourself in a sprawling adventure, “Red River” is definitely for you. Set in the American Frontier just after the Civil War, spectacular black and white cinematography transforms a cattle drive into a gritty, exciting, and magnificent journey, led by a commanding cast of characters. There are no profound messages or groundbreaking effects - only an intensely gripping, funny, and moving experience to be enjoyed from a thoroughly satisfying movie. Considered one of the finest Westerns ever made, it ranks in many best films lists, including being named the 5th greatest Western of all-time by the American Film Institute. It is certainly one of my favorites.
Generally thought of as uniquely American (and the first identifiable film genre), the first known Western was actually a British short by the Mitchell & Kenyon film company titled “Kidnapping by Indians” in 1903. Westerns commonly feature stories of the American West sometime between the Civil War and the early 20th century, and include expansive landscapes, cowboys, American Indians, gunslingers, heroes, horses, cattle, outlaws, settlers and the like to tell stories which often mix historical facts with fiction. While “Red River” contains many elements typical of the genre, what sets this Western apart from others are its two male protagonists and its glorious film direction.
Based on the story “The Chisholm Trail” by Borden Chase, at first glance “Red River” is a fictitious tale of the first cattle drive on the trail (the Chisholm Trail was an actual trail used just after the Civil War). But the film is really the story of “Thomas Dunson” and his surrogate son “Matt”. After forever losing the woman he loved, “Dunson” meets a young boy ("Matt"), and sets out to create the largest cattle ranch in Texas. When facing bankruptcy fourteen years later, he decides to sell his heard of approximately 10,000 cattle, and set out on an unprecedented cattle drive from Texas to the railroad in Missouri. He is accompanied by “Matt”, their older pal “Nadine Groot”, and a slew of hired cowboys. The unbendable “Dunson” is determined to get his cattle to Missouri at any cost, and as trail conditions worsen and men become tired and fed-up, “Dunson” becomes tyrannical. Mistrust, mutiny, and shifting alliances ensue, along with a rift between “Dunson” and “Matt”. The bond holding all the men together slowly shatters, and amid the exciting action (and some romance), an intricate look at relationships, masculinity, and morality unfolds.
Due to Howard Hawks’ superb direction, watching “Red River” seems like watching an actual cattle drive. Staggering shots of river crossings, stampedes, and wagon trains in vast landscapes add an awe for which Western films became known. Since he thought himself a storyteller, Hawks liked to keep his work invisible from the audience, letting most of the action unfold inside a somewhat wide shot rather than through editing or close-ups. Because of this, when Hawks does use close-ups or rapid editing (such as the cowboys exclaiming “yeehaw!” when starting the journey) it has a powerful impact. While watching Hawks’ films (even “His Girl Friday” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) one realizes his gift for instinctively knowing exactly where to place the camera to capture action in the most entertaining way. This is especially evident in the sequence when the cattle cross the Red River. He captures the crossing in a way that brings out the majesty of the land and the magic of cowboys in action. There’s even an exhilarating shot taken from the back of a wagon while crossing the river. Hawks’ dead-on instincts weren’t limited to camera placement. He also had an impeccable sixth sense with actors. He launched the careers of many a movie star, including Lauren Bacall, Paul Muni, Carole Lombard, George Raft, and Montgomery Clift, and greatly boosted the careers of actors such as Rosalind Russell, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne. Howard Hawks remained independent for most of his career, and as a result wasn’t typecast into making one kind of film. He worked in practically every genre, and though his name is frequently associated with Westerns, he only directed five of them - “Red River” being his first (his others include the classics, “Rio Bravo”, "The Big Sky" and "El Dorado”). His specialties were action films, films with male bonding, and those with tough talking women - all of which are found in “Red River”. He is also remembered for his comedies, including the classics "Twentieth Century", "Bringing Up Baby" (film #2 on this blog), "Ball of Fire", "Monkey Business” and “His Girl Friday”, film #44 on this blog - and where you can read more about the life and career of Howard Hawks. Check it out for more on this great director.
John Wayne (also known as “Duke”) stars as “Thomas Dunson”, a rancher on a mission. His unwavering, one-track mind to get his cattle to Missouri becomes his undoing, as he grows insensitive to weakness and reason. We should hate this largely unsympathetic man, but because of Wayne’s captivating manner, we don’t. Even with his sternness, "Dunson" is loaded with nuances, including a slight show of tenderness when he first meets the young “Matt”. Aged to make him look older, Wayne is thoroughly convincing, and his trademark swagger and slow drawl both fit the virile “Dunson” like a glove. Towards the end of the film, “Dunson” walks directly through his herd of cattle who part for him like the Red Sea - displaying Wayne’s immense screen presence in all its glory.
John Wayne became a star with the 1939 groundbreaking John Ford Western, “Stagecoach”. Between that film and “Red River”, Wayne appeared in mostly routine roles in just over thirty films, establishing him as a popular leading man. “Red River” was perhaps his most challenging acting role to date, and with it he stuck gold. Upon viewing “Red River”, director John Ford (who discovered and worked with Wayne often) was quoted as saying, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”. From that point on, Ford cast him in more meaty roles, beginning the following year with “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, and later in the classic “The Searchers” (also previously on this blog). “Red River” invoked the type of tough, gruff, complex individualist for which Wayne became famous. It catapulted him into a top box office star where he remained for twenty-five years. "Red River" was not without its challenges for Wayne, including enduring six continuous weeks of rain while filming outdoors in Arizona, from which he caught a severe cold. His biggest issue though was his co-star Montgomery Clift. The two were polar opposites in looks, manner, politics, acting styles, and sexuality (Clift was gay and Wayne was reportedly homophobic). The nearly 6’4”, big boned, larger-than-life Wayne had his doubts that the just over 5’9”, skinny, sensitive Clift was manly or tough enough to hold his own in their scenes together. After they filmed Clift’s first scene Wayne changed his mind but was still not convinced about their fight scene. Patricia Bosworth states in her biography, “Montgomery Clift”, “According to legend, Wayne actually burst into guffaws when Hawks staged the fight between them. Wayne simply could not take the scene seriously - something that privately infuriated Monty and probably inspired the superhuman intensity he brought to this battle with the Duke”. The two did not get along and kept to themselves except for a couple of poker games which Clift later said “repelled” him because of what he felt was forced machismo on the part of Wayne, Hawks and Walter Brennan. In an interview with Life Magazine, Wayne was quoted as calling Clift an “arrogant little bastard”. Their animosity helped their performances, and Wayne gives one of his career's best. I wrote more about John Wayne’s life and career in my post on “The Searchers”. Please check it out for more.
Montgomery Clift is outstanding as “Matthew ‘Matt’ Garth”, the sharpshooting adopted son of “Dunson”. Clift was going to play the role as a tough guy until Hawks told him to underplay his scenes and think of it as a battle between David and Goliath. Again, Hawks’ instincts were on the money, for in the end Wayne’s strong, mountain sized brute is matched every step of the way by the cool, smoldering emotions ready to explode behind Clift’s eyes. His brooding uniqueness adds significant depth to the film. Here was a brand-new type of screen actor - naturalistic and emotionally raw. One can see it clearly in the scene when “Matt” and “Groot” are trying to figure out when “Dunson” will catch up with them. Watch Clift’s intense underlying emotions while delivering simple straightforward dialogue. With a quiet honesty, vulnerability and movie star appeal, Clift was a forerunner in bringing about a new type of leading man. He was the first (and least theatrical) in a revolution in screen acting, followed immediately by Marlon Brando and James Dean. The three became the faces of this newly raw and authentic acting style called the Method.
An established success on the New York stage, Hollywood kept trying to lure Montgomery Clift to the screen just about every year since he was sixteen years old (including Louis B. Mayer’s offer for him to appear in the 1942 classic, “Mrs. Miniver”). He turned down all offers because they came with a seven year contract, and Clift wanted to retain control over his career. Not seeking to become a movie star, his craft came first and foremost. Hawks had seen Clift in the play “You Touched Me!” and that's all it took for him to send Clift a plane ticket to come to Los Angeles to talk about the part of "Matt". Not having to sign a studio contract, and knowing Hawks was an independent producer helped Clift accept his first film role. In a matter of weeks before shooting, he learned to ride a horse like a cowboy for the film. Because of legal issues instigated by Howard Hughes (who claimed "Red River" was too close to his own film, “The Outlaw”), "Red River's" ending was reedited and its release was delayed. Subsequently, though Clift's first film was "Red River", his second, "The Search” was his first to be seen by the public. "The Search" earned him his first of four Best Actor Academy Award nominations. Six months later, the release of “Red River” made Clift a full-fledged movie star (and he would become a superstar just three years later with the classic, “A Place in the Sun”). About a decade later Hawks wanted Clift for a role in "Rio Bravo" - another western, but because it starred Wayne, Clift turned it down. Unwittingly, another interesting dynamic was instigated by Clift and Wayne in "Red River". A younger, fresher breed of vulnerable, yet masculine leading men such as Clift were now challenging the intimidating, macho, alpha-male heroes that had been Hollywood’s mainstay, personified by Wayne. Their real life contrast is really at the heart of the film and one of the major aspects as to why it is so riveting. Montgomery Clift appears in two previous films on this blog, “A Place in the Sun” and “The Heiress”, where you can read more about him and his career.
Joanne Dru plays “Tess Millay”, “Matt’s” love interest. I realize I haven’t mentioned this character yet, and perhaps that’s because to me “Tess” seems a bit forced into the story (possibly due to Hawks’ forte at male bonding). However, being a true "Hawksian woman”, “Tess” is tough and fearless, ready to stand up to any man or even the (stereotypically) savage American Indians. In some ways she’s even tougher than “Matt”. Her scene with “Dunson” is perhaps her best, in which she gives as good as she gets (and it is one of Wayne’s best scenes as well). Like Wayne, Dru also became ill from the weather during filming. It might be a smaller role, but in the end “Tess” is essential to the story.
Joanne Dru began her career as a model, and in 1940 was cast as a showgirl in the Al Jolson Broadway musical "Hold On to Your Hats". The following year she married singer Dick Haymes (who would become Rita Hayworth’s third husband twelve years later), and the two moved to Hollywood as he began to appear in movies. Dru worked in theater until she was spotted and cast in her first film in 1946, “Abie's Irish Rose”. That film proved a major disaster, nearly ending her film career before it began. Her next three films (“Red River”, John Ford's classic “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” again with Wayne, and the Best Picture Oscar winning “All the King’s Men”) found her at the height of her career. For the most part, lesser films followed. A starring role in the Western, "Wagon Master” came next, and she became pigeonholed into appearing in Westerns - the genre for which she is best remembered. In the mid 1950s, Dru began working in television, appearing in only a few more films. Her last appearance was in the 1980 film, "Super Fuzz”. She was married four times (including her marriage to Haymes and to actor John Ireland who plays “Cherry” in “Red River”). Her brother was Peter Marshall (best known as the original host of the classic game show, “Hollywood Squares”). Joanne Dru died in 1996 at the age of 74.
Walter Brennan is fabulous as “Nadine Groot”, “Dunson’s” older trail mate who becomes the cook for the journey. One of Hollywood’s most popular and recognizable character actors, Brennan appeared in over 240 films and TV shows and was best known for playing crotchety but lovable old geezers and sidekicks (often in Westerns). While being the voice of reason, “Groot” also provides most of the film’s comedy. A running joke centers around his false teeth and the fact that when he doesn’t wear them “Dunson” can’t understand what he says. Brennan’s reaction as he emphasizes each word with a mix of anger and impatience is hysterical - especially in the scene in which he convinces “Dunson” to take him along on the drive as the cook. In actuality, Brennan lost most of his teeth when an actor kicked him in the face during a fight scene in a 1932 film. From then on he wore false teeth, and when he took them out he looked much older. Along with his distinct gravely voice (which was a result of exposure to mustard gas while serving in WWI), looking older greatly helped his career as a character actor. His unmistakable voice narrates the film from the point of view of “Groot”, and gives “Red River” a rugged Western texture and a personal edge. There’s a preview version of “Red River” with no narration which was often shown on TV but never intended for public view - so make sure to watch the narrated version.
Walter Brennan first acted in school plays and vaudeville. After some odd jobs, he made major money selling real estate in the 1920’s, until losing everything due to a market dive in 1925. He turned to movies for money, beginning as an extra in silent films in 1925. After ten years of mostly small roles, his first break came in the 1935 film, “The Wedding Night”, which earned him an MGM contract. He began getting good roles including one in another Hawk’s film, “Barbary Coast” that same year. His big breakthrough came the next year with another Hawk’s film (co-directed by William Wyler), "Come and Get It”, which earned Brennan his first Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. He won two additional Best Supporting Actor Oscars for “Kentucky” in 1938 and “The Westerner” in 1940. To date, Brennan is one of only seven actors to win three or more Oscars, and the only to win them exclusively for supporting roles (the others being Ingrid Bergman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Frances McDormand, Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep - and Katharine Hepburn, the only actor to date with four). Brennan worked steadily in films through 1956 and then began appearing on television as well. He worked alongside Wayne in six films and in seven directed by Hawks. Among Brennan's countless classics are "The Pride of the Yankees", "Sergeant York” (which earned him a fourth and final Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), "How the West Was Won", "To Have and Have Not", "Northwest Passage", "Rio Bravo", "My Darling Clementine", "Meet John Doe”, and his last appearance in the 1975 Western, “Smoke in the Wind”. Unfortunately, towards the end of his career his true colors were revealed as he was a vocal member of the John Birch Society, he actively opposed the Civil Rights movement (claiming it was run by overseas communists), and reportedly sang joyfully and danced a jig on the set of the TV series, ”The Guns of Will Sonnett” when he heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. He was married once, from 1920 until his death. Walter Brennan died in 1974 at the age of 80.
John Ireland plays “Cherry Valance”, who joins “Dunson” and “Matt” just before the cattle drive. Ireland impeccably portrays a no-nonsense, expert marksman who is threatening enough to keep the men in line. One of the film’s most famous scenes is when “Cherry” and “Matt” compare guns. The scene brims with homoerotic subtext and chemistry as “Cherry” says to “Matt”, “That’s a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? Maybe you’d like to see mine”. The two also curiously lock eyes several times in the film, making for a subtle gay undercurrent between the two (this is coded 1940s Hollywood after all). According to Hawks, the part of “Cherry” was drastically shortened because of Ireland’s unprofessionalism and drinking. Others (including story and screenwriter Borden Chase) say it was because Hawks was pursuing Dru, but lost her to Ireland (Ireland and Dru married the following year).
Canadian born John Ireland moved to New York as a young child and began his acting career in the theater. He first appeared on Broadway in 1941, got a contract with 20th Century Fox Studios, and began in films in 1945’s "A Walk in the Sun”. This started a fertile film and TV career which includes just over 200 credits. Often playing men with a dangerous edge, he appeared in mostly B-pictures with occasional smaller roles in A-listers. His other notable films include "Little Big Horn", "Joan of Arc", "Gunfight at the OK Corral”, "My Darling Clementine.", "I Shot Jesse James”,"Spartacus", and "All the King's Men" in 1949, which earned him his only Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). Including his marriage to Joanne Dru, Ireland was married three times. His half-brother was actor Tommy Noonan. John Ireland died in 1992 at the age of 78.
If you are watching the films on this blog each week, you might recognize Harry Carey, Jr. from “The Searchers”. Here he plays "Dan Latimer”, the man who wants to buy his wife a pair of red shoes. A character actor known mostly for Westerns, his first role was as a baby in the silent Western, "Desperate Trails”, which starred his father Harry Carey - one of silent film’s biggest stars (Harry Carey Sr. also appears in “Red River” as “Mr. Melville”, the man who purchases the cattle). Carey Jr. appeared in over 150 films and TV shows, including "Tombstone", "Gremlins", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", "7th Cavalry", "Mister Roberts", and "The Exorcist III”. He was married once (just shy of seventy years) until his death. Harry Carey Jr. died in 2012 at the age of 91. I wrote a bit more about him in my post on “The Searchers”.
Another actor in “Red River” you might recognize from “The Searchers” is Hank Worden who plays “Sims Reeves”, one of “Dunson’s” wranglers. A very recognizable character actor who appeared in well over 200 films and TV shows spanning 1935 to 1991, Worden appeared in at least five films directed by Hawks, twelve films and TV shows directed by John Ford, and seventeen films with John Wayne. Though his screen time often is often short, his tall thin build, bald head and unmistakably colorful manner have him stand out every time. Some of his other films include "Fort Apache", "3 Godfathers", "The Music Man", ""Every Which Way But Loose", "The Alamo" and his most famous role as "Mose Harper" in "The Searchers”. His final role was that of "Walter" in the 1990 TV series, "Twin Peaks". He was married for thirty-six years until his wife’s death. Hank Worden died in 1992 at the age of 91.
Because most Westerns were produced as studio bread-and-butter B-films, it became a largely overlooked genre when it came to awards. Happily “Red River” was nominated for two Academy Awards - Best Motion Picture Story (for Borden Chase), and Best Film Editing (for Christian Nyby). The film’s grand and heroic musical score was written by Dimitri Tiomkin (who I wrote about in the “High Noon” post), adding just the right mix of Western grandeur.
This week’s film is an abundantly absorbing and picturesque delve into the world of the American Frontier, cowboys, intricate relationships, and topnotch filmmaking. Get out your popcorn and escape with this supremely entertaining film. Enjoy “Red River”!
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