Judge Clark Douglas once drove a herd of burgers into his mouth.
Our review of Red River, published December 6th, 1999, is also available.
Greatest Spectacle Ever!
"Plantin' and readin', plantin' and readin'. Fill a man full o' lead, stick him in the ground an' then read words on him. Why, when you've killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?"
Facts of the Case
Thomas Dunson (John Wayne, The Cowboys) has been raising cattle on his Texas ranch for over a decade. Due to economic hardships in Texas in the wake of the Civil War, Dunson determines to attempt a long, dangerous cattle drive north to Missouri. The journey is sure to be filled with all sorts of dangers: the general wear and tear of the long trip, weather, Indians, bandits, etc. Even so, Dunson is certain it can be done. A host of men sign up for the mission, but Dunson always keeps his two most trusted allies by his side: his life-long companion Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan, Rio Bravo) and the talented young gunslinger Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift, The Misfits), whom Dunson unofficially adopted when he first started the ranch.
As the mission proceeds, Dunson begins to show a cruel streak, pushing his men beyond their breaking point and making violent threats. Initially, Matt and Nadine determine to support their friend through this difficult time, but eventually they begin reconsidering their loyalties. How long will it take before the slow-boiling conflict between these seemingly inseparable friends finally reaches its climax?
When looking back at the career of the iconic John Wayne, most would agree that his most important collaborator over the years was director John Ford. After all, it was Ford who instantly put Wayne on the A-list with a flashy central role in Stagecoach, and the director would eventually push the actor to considerable heights in the critically-acclaimed The Searchers. Even so, I think there's a strong case to be made for the idea that Howard Hawks played just as significant a role in Wayne's career. While Stagecoach demonstrated that Wayne was a commanding presence, Hawks' Red River was arguably the first film to make a strong case for the idea that Wayne was a terrific actor. After seeing the film for the first time, Ford allegedly approached Hawks and declared, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!"
The film was based on a novel by Borden Chase, who openly admitted that his story was a western-themed variation on Mutiny on the Bounty. Casting Wayne in the Captain Bligh-esque role was a brilliant move, as the actor embodies a certain brand of righteous stubbornness which can seem charming under the right circumstances and terrifying under the wrong ones. Hawks' first choice was Gary Cooper, but the actor turned it down due to fears that the part would conflict with his noble image. Frankly, I can't imagine him pulling it off half as effectively. The manner in which Wayne slowly shifts from determined hero to belligerent villain is so subtle that it might catch first-time viewers off guard. Hawks pulls off an impressive tonal balancing act of sorts, making room for boisterous comedy and intensely dark drama without compromising either. It's a film which boasts some of the most joyful moments in western movie history (the rousing "Take 'em to Missouri, Matt!" scene has been celebrated on countless occasions), yet it's also one of the darkest genre offerings of its era. The film makes another huge tonal shift during its closing moments—it might have felt like a studio-mandated cheat in the hands of another filmmaker, but Hawks makes it work.
It's worth noting that most adaptations of Mutiny on the Bounty tend to feel a little lopsided, as the actors cast as Fletcher Christian tend to have trouble holding their own versus the veteran actor cast as Captain Bligh. Not so in this dusty re-telling, as Montgomery Clift brings a great deal of conflicted dimension to his role and plays off Wayne rather masterfully. Allegedly, Clift and Wayne didn't get along particularly well, but that only serves to add a nervous energy to their scenes together. Their alliance gets shakier as the film proceeds, and there's a nice contrast between Wayne's loud forcefulness and Clift's gentle demeanor. Walter Brennan is terrific as the old man essentially stuck in the middle, uncertain of whether his ethics mean more to him than his loyalty to Wayne. Brennan is often used as comic relief (and he's very funny), but as in Rio Bravo, his character adds up to more than a few good jokes.
It must be admitted that the film falters a bit in its handling of the female characters. An early scene involving Wayne's ill-fated beau is pitched at a tone which doesn't quite fit with everything else, even if it does feel like a fairly standard love scene for the era. Later, a subplot emerges involving a prostitute (Joanne Dru, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) who gets romantically involved with Clift and is eventually forced to confront Wayne. Alas, this character is a sloppily-written cliché who isn't given nearly as much complexity or realism as the script's other key figures. Dru's performance is fine, but inserting her particular plot strand into the film makes about as much sense as shoehorning a love story into Mutiny on the Bounty.
Even so, the occasional missteps are hardly enough to significantly damage the film's power. It's difficult to say precisely how much of this is intentional, but Red River offers an exceptionally compelling examination of murky frontier morality. By modern standards, Wayne would be regarded as a villain from the outset: he gets his ranch by stealing land from another man (admittedly, a man who stole that same land from Native Americans), and then proceeds to murder anyone who attempts to challenge his claim. It's only once Wayne starts turning violent towards his own allies that those around him (and the filmmmakers?) begin to regard him as anything less than noble. Even in a kill-or-be-killed sort of world, you don't just go shooting your friends.
Red River (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection has received an exceptional 1080p/1.37:1 transfer. The flick definitely shows its age at times, but the level of detail and clarity is still impressive. Full restorations have been offered for both the 127-minute director's cut and the 133-minute preview version, but the latter is in slightly better shape due to the fact that original material for the former were more difficult to find. Even so, both look strong under the circumstances. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is sturdy, too, presenting Dimitri Tiomkin's rousing score with crisp energy. Distortion is rare, and the louder cattle-driving/gun-fighting scenes never get too muddy.
Criterion has gone all-out in the supplemental department for this particular release, spreading the two versions of the movie across two Blu-ray disc and adding tons of extras. The first thing you'll notice is that the packaging is much thicker than usual. That's because Criterion has generously included Chase's original novel as a bonus. (I didn't have time to read it before writing this review, but I'm looking forward to checking it out). Elsewhere, you'll be treated to a new interview with filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdonavich (16 minutes), an old interview Bogdonavich conducted with Hawks (17 minutes), an interview with critic Molly Haskell (16 minutes) and an interview with western literature expert Lee Clark Mitchell (14 minutes). You also get a Lux Radio Theatre version of the story starring Wayne, Brennan and Dru; an audio interview with Borden Chase, a trailer, and a booklet featuring a new essay by Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1991 print interview with Hawks. Plus, two DVDs containing both version of the film and all supplements. While an audio commentary would have been appreciated, this is still a top-notch package.
Red River is one of Hawks' best films, one of Wayne's best performances, and one of the great westerns of its era. Criterion's Blu-ray release is impressive from top to bottom. An essential purchase for movie buffs.
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