Posted by: dougery | February 23, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Four: Red River (1948)

Truth be told I watched 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Red River (1948) as part of an arbitrarily selected double feature over the President’s Day weekend and could have merged their reviews together if I was so inlcined. In retrospect that idea seems like a disservice to both films and perhaps I was too hard on Yuma because the impression of Red River was still so fresh in my mind. While I’ve already said my piece on the former, the latter is an amazing western, one of those that transcend the genre and can just be spoken of as an amazing film, period. This, even though Red River is easily the western-iest work I’ve encountered to date.

For one thing, the men of this film are honest to God cowboys. As in they are actual ranchers, not outlaws, not bounty hunters, not train robbers, or any of the other assorted malcontent western types that have featured so prominently in the Wild Bunch, the Professionals and Yuma. The land, while still a character in all of these films, becomes a major player here. As much as I’ll get into the central relationship between John Wayne’s Tom Dunson and Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth (and it’s a doozy), Man against Nature is the main event here. Nature (a force which includes Native Americans in a typical early western backhanded brand of racism) is the prime mover and shaker in this story, it is what drives these men, what sets up their squabbles and arguments, what fashion’s the film’s central mutiny. It would be a great exercise to go back and log the amount of screen time that does not feature a relentless tide of cattle streaming through the frame.

The cattle, over Nine thousand strong, began from just 3. The biblical overtones at the beginning of the film are unmistakable. Wayne’s Dunson masters the land with the help of his ‘son’ Matt (Clift) and when he finally runs out of money decides to drive the herd to Missouri and sell. Like most American bible stories, religion here is inextricably bound up in capitalism. The promised land here are the killing floors of Chicago and Cincinnati. The exodus is long and hard on these men and several times we find Wayne reading bible passages over the buried corpses of deserters and thieves. He becomes so intractable that an internal division won’t be avoided when rumors of a train station built in Kansas prove too tempting to his exhausted field hands. It is the son, of course, that comes to lead the mutiny, further complicating an already rich father / son storyline.

I’ve seen Wayne a few times before and have a hard time taking him seriously. His delivery is so wooden and unchanging, his emoting skills limited to mumbling, talking and yelling, (and always with the. same exact way of. emphasizing his. point.) with none of the subtlety and shading between. Yet here he excels. John Ford famously said after seeing Red River “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” I’d argue Wayne’s performance is 50% great story to work with, and 30% the excellent directing of Howard Hawks, but there is something else here, something that Wayne delivers all by himself that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It might even be Clift that draws some of it out.

Of the ‘Son’ I have to admit he’s one good looking dude. My wife came back from skiing halfway through the film and stopped to take in a scene or two before hitting the bath. She said, “Montgomery Clift, huh? I woulda watched this one with you.” He’s almost distractingly handsome, and unlike Wayne, Clift doesn’t yell or ham it up to get his point across. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous ‘gun comparing’ scene between Clift’s Garth and fellow slinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland). It is one of the most blatantly homoerotic moments I’ve ever seen in film.

The less said about the end the better. While the movie is too strong to be undermined by its wretched ending, a lot of its drama is undercut by some deus ex vagina, where one of the few women of the film puts a halt to 2 hours of building resentment between father and son with one (entirely unconvincing) 2 minute speech. The two prideful men suddenly let all that water pass under the bridge for no reason. Women are often used as mere plot devices in westerns, but in Red River the usage is egregious. They bookend the movie, appearing for just moments on either end, and contribute (or allowed to contribute) next to nothing. Its not alright to just say “well it was 1948.”

Grade: 10 High Straight Flush

Next Up: The Tall T (1957)



  1. Welp, partner, thats…..good enough for me.

  2. I’m gonna have to… agree with you on… this one, Jake.

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