BIG AS THE MEN WHO FACED THIS CHALLENGE! BOLD AS THE WOMEN WHO LOVED THEM!
John Ford was the man behind the movie that made John Wayne a star, Stagecoach (1939). When he saw Red River nine years later, he is reported to have said, ”I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”. Indeed, there was always more to Wayne than the simple role of a hero. In the decade that followed, Ford would cast Wayne in one of their best films together, The Searchers (1956), that offered Duke a more complex character. There was always a dark side to Wayne and whenever a filmmaker knew how to use that energy, the audience was in for a treat.
Driving a big herd north
Texas cattle rancher Thomas Dunson (Wayne) has an adopted son, Matt (Montgomery Clift), whom he met years earlier when he was aiming to start his ranch, heading to Texas together with his trusted trail hand Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). Matt, who was then a teenage boy, wandered into their camp, the sole survivor of an attack on a wagon train. The boy turned out to be good with a gun and Dunson ended up adopting him.
Years later, the Civil War has made Dunson poor and he decides to drive a big herd north, to Missouri, where he hopes to get a good price. Dunson, Matt and Groot hire men to help them, but it turns into a troubled adventure, where Dunson becomes increasingly cruel to the men…
Changing an important part of the story
Borden Chase wrote the original story, titled ”The Chisholm Trail”, for a magazine called The Saturday Evening Post. The screen adaptation was written by him and Charles Schnee and it changed a very important part of the story. In the original, Dunson was killed by a gunslinger (played in the film by John Ireland) and Matt buries his body on the Texas ranch, finding some reconciliation in that, I suppose. In the screenplay, Dunson gets to live after Matt and the other hired men rebel against him, and the rancher turns into a haunting threat as they continue on to Missouri, only to face him in a final showdown. It is certainly a more dramatic move that increases tension.
The story is reminiscent of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), with Dunson serving as a new kind of Bligh, a rancher who believes in driving his men hard and offering no mercy to those who disappoint him; his murderous tendencies are opposed by Matt, the Fletcher Christian character, who is loyal to the leader as long he’s reasonable. Montgomery Clift plays Matt, his first role on-screen, filmed in 1946 (it took a couple of years for Red River to be released) and it’s quite a debut – the stunning 25-year-old is perfectly cast as the son who turns against his father. The independence and guts are obvious from the start when we meet Matt, which makes us realize that this will be a formidable enemy to Dunson. Brennan is a lot of fun as the trail hand who shares dentures with Two Jaw Quo (Chief Yowlachie), an Indian cook whom he has a testy relationship with.
But Wayne is the one we primarily remember, both brilliantly charismatic and intimidating as Dunson. The outcome of the climactic fight between him and Clift may not come across as entirely logical, but the stars make us believe in it. As for Joanne Dru, she capably plays a tough ”Hawksian woman”, especially in that wagon train scene where she and Matt meet.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s music score is one of his most memorable. The film was one of the finest achievements of a lot of people involved in it, including the director. Hawks had special belt buckles in silver and gold made for a few chosen cast and crew members. Wayne ended up using his in several subsequent films. The legacy of Red River lived on; it still does, as a major classic.
Red River 1948-U.S. 133 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Borden Chase, Charles Schnee. Cinematography: Russell Harlan. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Editing: Christian Nyby. Cast: John Wayne (Thomas Dunson), Montgomery Clift (Matthew Garth), Walter Brennan (Nadine Groot), Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr… Harry Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Shelley Winters.
Trivia: Burt Lancaster was reportedly considered for a role. A separate, slightly shorter, version of the film has narration recorded by Brennan. Remade as a TV movie, Red River (1988).
Last word: “There were no script notes to speak of. Usually, there’s a number for each shot and a line drawn through the script indicating its duration and whether it was a long shot, medium, or close-up. I didn’t have anything like that because the script supervisor had failed to keep consistent notes. I just had to run the film and find out for myself what each shot was, and then start to cut it by keeping it all in my head. And because Hawks made so many changes, you couldn’t cut to the script. You had to cut to the picture, which had no correlation with anything else. I just had to do it on my own. And Hawks was still shooting.” (Nyby, Criterion)