Our review of Red River (1948) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 27th, 2014, is also available.
The quintessential western: lot of cows, big sky, big men, little women.
John Wayne (Rio Grande, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day) turns in one of his best performances ever under the watchful eye of one of Hollywood's great directors of the golden age, Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). This film captures the picture of the real cowboy while giving us real intensity when the son must decide when loyalty is not enough. This film has a lot of opposites in it, and contradictions. It can be inspiring, suspenseful, humorous, serious, and painfully trite all within minutes of each other.
Howard Hawks was a director in his prime when he began the first of five westerns he would do with John Wayne. He brought his ability to tell the story of men's men, who are strong, and of male camaraderie, showing loyalty, ethical choices, and the toll that an extreme task can place on those men. He also brought his belief that women did not count for much importance in the life of such men, and it is any scene dealing with women that this film really goes downhill fast. The performances of John Wayne, Montgomery Clift (The Young Lions, From Here to Eternity, I Confess), and Walter Brennan (Rio Bravo, Dakota, Hangmen Also Die) are top notch. In fact it is said when director John Ford (Rio Grande) saw the film, he said of the Duke's performance "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act." The camera work is superb, the settings of mood perfectly done, the storyline is well written; and tells a great story of the first cattle drive down the Chisholm trail. Enough gushing for now, I'll tell the story.
John Wayne plays Tom Dunson, who is one of those contradictions in the film, being both hero and villain. He begins the film as a sure and confident man who decides to leave a wagon train when he sees good land for a ranch in Texas. Tom's fiancée begs to go with him, but he tells her a woman isn't strong enough, and leaves her behind. The recurring theme of emotional bonds begins with a symbolic silver bracelet he gives her before he rides off with sidekick Groot Nadine (Brennan). Later that day, the two spy smoke coming from what must be the wagon train, and the Duke decides they are too far away to run back to help. That night Indians attack them, and Tom finds the silver bracelet on the wrist of one of them. He grieves for at least two seconds and it's back to the man stuff. The next scene introduces Montgomery Clift as Matthew Garth, a young boy who is the lone survivor of the wagon train, who finds them dragging a cow behind. The cow, along with Tom's bull, are brought into Texas where Dunson decides that this is now his land and he will build a huge ranch on it. When two Mexicans come to explain that the land actually belongs to their boss in Mexico, due to a Spanish land grant, the Duke nonchalantly shoots one of them and tells the other that this is now his land. He proceeds to bury the dead man and "read over him" a piece of dark humor we'll see again later.
The film takes up then 14 years later, and the Red River D ranch owned by Dunson is now a huge ranch, everything he said it would be. Matthew has returned home from years away at school and the Civil War, and is packing a pistol and wearing the silver bracelet. You see the beginnings of rivalry between the older and younger man here, when they see who is faster on the draw. The only problem now at home is the war has left the South broke, and the only hope for the ranch is to drive the cattle north for a better market. A humorous scene comes during the time they prepare for the drive, when Groot loses half interest in his false teeth to an Indian in a poker game. Groot is now only allowed to wear them while he eats and must return them to the Indian after. It makes for a recurring gag that lightens the mood.
The quintessential moment of all time in a Western comes when Tom says "Take 'em to Missouri, Matt" and you see the close-ups of all the cowhands whooping it up and driving the cattle onto the trail. It was only at this moment I realized I'd seen one of the opposites in the film, that before the drive Tom had been wearing a white hat, but from this point on he wears a black one. Another rivalry has begun by this time, between Matt and Cherry Valance (played by John Ireland), another young gun-handy man coming along on the drive. This rivalry never gets adequately resolved, but it doesn't take away from the film. These scenes of the cattle drive that follow are some of the best in the film, especially the scene of the cattle stampede, when the anxiety is palpable for both the men and the cattle and everyone speaks in hushed tones, trying to keep the cattle calm. A cowhand trying to steal some sugar for his sweet tooth topples some pots and pans, and sets the cattle off. They used a lot of cows in this film, and it's one of the best stampedes I've seen yet. You see the transformation of Tom Dunson from hero to villain, as he wants to horsewhip the man responsible for the stampede. When he refuses to be whipped, Tom shoots him, buries him, and reads over him again. One of the cowhands is heard to say, "You kill him, plant him, and read over him; I don't know why you want to bring God into it when you kill a man." Fortunately the Duke doesn't hear him. The drive isn't going well, and the men are getting frustrated and overworked. Dunson is working them too hard and won't listen when Matt and Groot try to tell him he's wrong. He never does listen when told he's wrong and most of the time he would have been better off heeding the advice, especially when he refuses to go to Abilene on a safer route instead of to Missouri. Three men leave the drive in the night and Tom sends Cherry Valance and a couple other men after them. Wayne's character really becomes darker after this, as he stays awake every night lest other hands decide to leave, and drinks continuously. When Cherry and the others return with two of the three deserters, having killed the third, the Duke decides he's going to hang the two. This is the final straw, when Matt realizes that his loyalty to the man he considers his father isn't enough and he must stop him. Garth takes over the drive and leaves Dunson behind, and decides to use the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. John Wayne tells Matt that he will hunt him down and kill him.
This sets up some great scenes where everyone is on pins and needles expecting Dunson to return with guns blazing any moment and jumping at every sound. But the Duke isn't coming alone. He has gone back to the nearest town to recruit help to come back after the herd. Meanwhile, the others come across a wagon train being attacked by Indians. They coordinate an attack to rescue them, but Matt comes in ahead to help the train from inside the circle. Here we meet the love interest of Red River, Tess Millay, played by Joanna Dru (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Vengeance Valley). I gagged as I watch this lady complaining that Matt thinks she is some kind of floozy when he's not even said anything to her yet and is in the middle of the Indian attack to boot. She doesn't even stop talking when she takes an arrow through the shoulder. Tess is played with some big opposites as well, being part hard talking card dealer and dance hall girl, and part simpering faint flower. After complaining that Matt thought she was easy or something earlier, she manages to come out and find him on watch and fall all over him underneath a wagon in the mud. Somehow in this two-minute scene, it's decided the two are in love. Like Tom before him though, Matt leaves her behind, saying she can't come on the drive because she isn't strong enough.
We cut next to when Dunson and his new men reach the same wagon train and find they're a week behind the herd. Tess brings Dunson aside and tries to convince him not to kill Matt. We really see the rivalry heat up when he not only refuses, but offers her half interest in his ranch to bear his son, believing he no longer has a son and heir. She isn't bearing his children, but does convince him to bring her with them. We see a semi-touching moment when he sees she is wearing the silver bracelet and remembers when he left a woman behind once.
Finally, the herd reaches Abilene and the railroad, just ahead of the Duke. Garth gets a great price for the herd, but knows that won't be enough to settle things between him and Tom. Tess comes ahead to warn him, but of course Matt is going to stand up for himself. In perhaps the weakest moment of Red River, the showdown between Tom and Matt is broken up by Tess, who shoots near them and scolds them like schoolboys. All is forgiven and they live happily ever after.
Seeing John Wayne put in such a performance as a tortured man with two sides to him was worth seeing the film all by itself.
Now for the disc: This B&W film was originally done in 4:3 format and is full frame on the DVD. Some graininess and dirt is seen periodically through the film, but considering it's more than 50 years old it's very sharp. Sometimes the shadows are a bit too sharp too, but I think that again this comes from working with such an old master. The sound is an unremarkable Dolby mono track, but gets the job done. Speech is intelligible but the sound levels do change somewhat; sometimes you can hear a whisper clearly but later need to turn the volume up to hear normal conversation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You have to almost wish there had not been women in this film at all. They frankly get in the way of the story and lower the quality of an otherwise great work. Of course Hawks could have given the women better roles to work with, but that wasn't his way; he only broke that rule once and gave a woman a real character to play in The Big Sleep. The sound levels were too low and I had to turn my amp up high enough that I would have raised the roof if I'd switched to any other source during the viewing. Lastly, this disc came in a snapper case instead of the preferred Amaray Keep Case, and has NO extras at all, not even the featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin you find on similar films like Rio Grande. Of course, this disc was by MGM instead of Artisan, and they seem to be of the school that people will buy the movie only discs anyway. Charge a budget price instead of full price, and they might see that happen.
Red River is a wonderful movie, one of the greatest Westerns of all time, and certainly one of John Wayne's best. You won't ever see it looking better than this unless MGM does a new release of it. No extras really hurt this for purchase, along with the snapper for those who hate that case, but it's certainly worth a rental. If you're a fan of the genre or the Duke, I'd buy it anyway.
Red River is acquitted, though if Howard Hawks were still alive I'd make him go to some gender sensitivity classes before directing another film. Still, I would be ranting at the prosecutor's office for bringing this disc up if we were trying the film alone. The lack of extras, yet charging a price that would make the consumer expect extras, force me to sentence MGM to a year of making commentary tracks for every DVD they release.
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