Friday, January 27, 2017

A Father and Son Feud: Red River (1948)

For anyone doubtful of John Wayne's acting, Red River (1948) will disabuse you of that foolishness.
For anyone who isn't aware of the greatness of Montgomery Clift, this will set you on the right track. While dated at times and hampered by a sappy, slightly out-of-left-field end, this is one of the true Western classics.

Red River was directed by Howard Hawks. He was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood. Among his numerous films prior to this one were the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) and two Humphrey Bogart classics, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). In 1959, he made another one of the best Westerns, Rio Bravo, again starring John Wayne. 

The script is by Borden Chase (who wrote several of the important Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns) and Charles Schnee. It was adapted from an original story by Chase titled "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail" published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946.

John Wayne plays hard-headed cattleman, Thomas Dunson. He abandons a wagon train to start a cattle empire, leaving his best gal, Fen, to die in a Comanche raid. 

The conversation between Dunson and Fen suffers from the worst sort of Hollywood melodramatic overwriting and syrupy music. She wants to go south with him, but he insists it's no place for a woman. She doesn't care, telling him:

"Do I feel weak, Tom? I don't, do I? You'll need me. You'll need a woman. You need what a woman can give you"

Matters aren't helped that she's in full makeup and styled hair. It mars a scene that's already creaking under sentimental writing. Still, it sets up Dunson for the viewer as a man willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to fulfill his dream. Before the end, there are other grim prices he will pay as well.

After crossing the Red River into Texas, they wander south in search of good ranch land. The land on the Rio Grande Dunson later claims is owned by a Mexican grandee four hundred miles to south. To secure it, he guns down one of the grandee's men. Later we learn he killed several more men to hold his territory.

Montgomery Clift, fresh from Broadway, co-stars as Matt Garth. Sole survivor of the Indian raid, he's adopted by Dunson. Along with sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan in full-on wheezy mode), the pair establish one of the mightiest cattle empires in Texas, with over ten thousand head of cattle.

Groot, young Garth, and Dunson 
The film then jumps ahead fourteen years to 1865. The Civil War has left the South broke, without a dime to pay for Dunson's beef. His only option is to take them to a railhead and ship them back East. It's at this point the movie really kicks into gear.

Dunson puts together a team of cowboys, including gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland), to drive his herd north to Sedalia, Missouri. After telling every man the trail will be brutal, he adds that any man who signs on must agree to finish the drive or forfeit all pay. All agree, unaware of just how miserable the conditions will really be and how hard a man Dunson is.

The trail is rough, and when Cherry tells the rest of the crew he heard about a new railhead in Abilene, Kansas, they're all excited. Abilene is closer and afford more places to water the cattle. Without any eyeball proof of the new railroad line, Dunson rejects the idea and keeps pushing on to Missouri.

Things start to fall apart as the trek gets deadlier. There are storms, short supplies, and a stampede. Dunson becomes more dictatorial and obsessed with completing the journey his way. Matt tries to settle things and act as the voice of reason, but it's clear he can't do this forever. Eventually, it leads to a split between the two, that seems only able to end in death.

A lot of John Wayne movies and roles suck. There's no way of putting it any better. He found an easy persona that he stuck to in way too many movies: the slightly arrogant and steady tone, the tilted-hip-swagger, and the no-nonsense attitude. Sometimes he mixed it up with a little humor, but a performance he delivered time and time again.

Even in his weakest films, though, he filled the screen with a towering presence. When gifted with the right role, he blazed with a deep brilliance.  At his best, he was as good as most of his contemporaries, and better than many. I hope to look at some of his other standout performances later (Stagecoach, The Searchers), but his Thomas Dunson is as good as any of those.

Thomas Dunson (Wayne)
When we first meet Dunson, he's a hard man, but he's good-natured. When the wagon train master tries to bully him into staying, Dunson makes it clear that won't be happening. He does it, though, with a smile and a reminder to the boss that he signed no contract. 

After the Comanche raid, the death of his girl and the loss of his small herd (also to the raiders), his hard edges emerge. It's then that he guns down the Mexican cowboy. Over the ensuing years we learn he's killed numerous other men who tried to take his land. Later, he's ready to bullwhip a man and gun down any standing across his path.

Wayne had a public image of the true-blue American hero, but he never had trouble messing with that image on the screen. This role and that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers are some of his best work and both are damaged, nearly pathological men. There's an appealing raffishness to Dunson when he's introduced, but it's gone, replaced with a dead-eyed, affectless manner.

Matt Garth (Clift)
Montgomery Clift had a meteoric career that began burning up when, following a terrible car crash, lost himself to booze. Between 1948 and 1956, the year of his accident, he made eight movies and was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In 1945, after several notable Broadway roles, he went to Hollywood, and the very next year cast in Red River. Watching his ease and naturalness, it's easy to see how his role as Matt Garth made him a star. If Wayne is a dark, menacing figure, Clift practically glows with compassion and life.

Clift doesn't appear until twenty minutes into Red River electrifies the film in a way it isn't before.  Both Garth and Dunson are highly self-controlled, but Garth is a calming, reassuring man, whereas his adoptive father is a vortex of domination. At the movie's heart is the clash between the two once the cattle drive goes off the rails.

Garth is the voice of reason, striving to keep Dunson's worst instincts from destroying the expedition. When he proves unable to keep the peace, he is forced to make a terrible choice, driving the two men apart irrevocably.

The final part of Red River, introduces Tess Millay (Joanna Dru) as the wagon train she's part of come under Indian attack. After a meet-cute during the raid (she takes an arrow to the shoulder, then she smacks him, then she faints), she falls for him hard. So hard, that even after he flat leaves her, she still risks her life to thwart Dunson when he rides up a few days later gunning for Matt. 

Tess Millay (Dru) and Matt Garth
The movie climaxes in the inevitable showdown between Dunson and Garth. Dunson is all black rage and murder. Garth is ready, but unwilling, to kill his father. It's the moment the film's been building to from the beginning. And then it's ruined by a cop out of the first order. Diverging from the original story, it ends on an utterly false note of unbelievable reconciliation. Still, if I squint my eyes, I can see the proper ending of Red River

There's some serious weirdness to Red River. The obvious starting place is the relationship between Dunson and Garth. Dunson wants his adopted son to be as strong and commanding as himself, someone who will inherit everything from him one day and then make it even greater. After his split with Garth, Dunson offers Tess half of all his wealth to bear him  a son. His fury at Garth seems fueled by his loss of an heir as much as the loss of control of the cattle driver. 

Then there's the infamous "gun scene" between Clift and Ireland. Just watch it for yourself.

Watch the two gunslingers size each other (and guns) up. Here's how Valance introduces himself to Garth.
"That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? Maybe you'd like to see mine. Nice. Awful nice."
To call their conversation homoerotic in a film with only two speaking women roles would be a disservice to the word homoerotic. Sadly, Ireland fell afoul of Hawks during production and found himself written out of most of the picture.

Despite a flawed ending and sloppy, melodramatically written women, Red River is one of the best Westerns. It's a distinct turning point in the genre where it matured into something more than entertainments filled with cowboys, Indians, and villains in black hats. 

In Hawks' movie there aren't any white hats or black hats, but instead, gray ones. He gives us an exemplar of American frontier independence, but it becomes twisted and evil. The conflict between its two stars is rooted in their personalities and their actions flow from them as well. They are recognizable, adult characters.

This is an A Western. There were plenty of great movies before it (ex. Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again), but Red River represents a real step forward. Parts are dated, but this movie is one of the best classic Westerns to come out of the Hollywood system. 

Red River's Historical Locations

Map showing approximate position of Dunson's ranch, Sedalia, and Abilene
According to IMDB, Red River was filmed mostly in Arizona. 

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking;  one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: The utterly nutso Johnny Guitar (1954) starring Joan Crawford at her most glowering.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen Red River, but your review points out something I've notice. For a guy known for playing straight heroes, Wayne played a lot of anti-heroes.