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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Red River (1948)

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: John Wayne and Montgomery Clift



I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

This one proved to be something of a coincidence. Red River is a western, made in 1948 by one of the legends of the genre, Howard Hawks, and starring another legend of the genre, John Wayne. The coincidence is that while Red River is very much a western, all about the first cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail, it's also something of a rerun of 1935's Oscar-winning film Mutiny on the Bounty, very much not a western. I watched Mutiny on the Bounty as part of a quest to educate myself in the films of Clark Gable that was brought on after watching It Happened One Night for my IMDb Top 250 project. Both films are classics, but while only Red River makes the Top 250, only Mutiny on the Bounty makes the AFI Top 100. Which is better? That could be argued both ways, but personally I'd go with the original.

Instead of a long sea voyage to fetch breadfruit trees back from Tahiti to populate the West Indies, Red River follows a long cattle drive to take prime beef from Texas to Missouri. Other than that the plots are very similar. The leader of each quest is unceasingly stubborn and stern with his punishments. John Wayne as Tom Dunson, the owner of the ten thousand head of cattle heading north, isn't as sadistic as Charles Laughton's Captain Bligh, but he's just as stubborn. When each set of men has enough of their leader, they stage an impromptu rebellion. Neither Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian or Montgomery Clift as Matt Garth have any clue that this is coming but both end up in charge anyway. Bligh is set adrift with a few men in a small boat that he incredibly sails to land over three thousand miles; Dunson is let loose with a horse and some supplies. Both swear to return to kill their former colleagues.

Moreover both of these wonderful films are driven by a pair of superb acting performances. In Mutiny on the Bounty, it's Laughton who steals the show as Bligh. He exudes authority, power and control, even when stripped of all of them. Gable isn't far behind as the strong but kind Fletcher Christian, but the rest of the cast, as well as the entire rest of the film, takes a back seat to these powerful performances. With Red River, the roles are quieter but are essentially the same. John Wayne is dominant and sometimes almost scary as Tom Dunson but he doesn't have the same forceful presence of Laughton, even though when John Ford, who directed Wayne in no less than 22 features, watched this one, he's reported to have said, 'I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!' Clift also shows a subtler kindness as Matt Garth than Gable showed as Christian, but maybe this merely comes with the territory.

These old westerns are showing me that putting men in the great outdoors cuts away much of the excess baggage that most films carry and leaves us with very human stories. Emotion can be a lot quieter but it's heard even stronger without all that background noise. Silence means that Dunson and his sidekick, the unfortunately named Nadine Groot, can count Indians by their signals even when they can't see them. It also means that a coyote in the distance one night on the drive north spooks the cattle enough to be ready to stampede at the slightest provocation, which of course they get, courtesy of a sugar thief and a rickety stack of pans.

It's quiet in 1851 because Dunson and Groot are heading west on a wagon train to California and the country is empty but for Indians. They leave the train in Texas because Dunson sees good land to take for his own, but his girl Fen was with them too and he makes the mistake to think it'll be safer to leave her on the train. He leaves her his mother's bracelet and intends to call for her when he's settled, but the smoke that soon rises in the distance tells them that the Indians have burned the train and one that attacks them has his mother's bracelet on his wrist. Fen is the last woman we see for an hour and a half until we get to Kansas. And yes, as you'll have noticed if you're paying attention, I said Kansas not Missouri, because that change is where we find our tension.


Dunson establishes his ranch on land that he effectively steals. After all he points out to the couple of Mexicans who ride up to complain that they just took it from the Indians so he's just taking it from them. He shoots one of them dead too, which is pretty ballsy given that there are only three of them at this point: Dunson, Groot and a boy called Matt Garth who survived the massacre at the train and becomes Dunson's right hand man. Dunson's bull and Garth's cow are what provide the basis for the Red River D, a ranch that they build over fourteen long and tough years into almost ten thousand head of prime cattle.

The catch is that the market for beef just isn't there in Texas any more, prompting them to decide on a risky thousand mile drive north to Missouri where they know there's a market. There's a railroad in Missouri and buyers that they know, but a thousand miles is a long way and it's hardly an easy ride. A hired gun called Cherry Valance who signs up at the beginning of the drive tells Dunson that the railroad is in Kansas too, in Abilene, but he hasn't actually seen it and neither has anyone else. So they aim at Missouri through dangerous country, full enough of natural dangers even before you factor in Indians and border rustlers. No other drive has made it but Dunson swears to be the first.

He certainly has the guts to do it but he drives his men as hard as he drives himself and they can't all take it. Gradually he alienates all of them, even stooping to some pretty low depths to make his point. After Bunk Kenneally triggers the stampede that costs one human life and much more than that in heads of cattle, Dunson plans to take a whip to him. That situation gets diffused but later, when three men desert and two are brought unwillingly back he plans to hang them for theft. That's when Matt takes over, in an inadvertent mutiny, the men back him and they go to Abilene instead, leaving Dunson behind swearing an oath to hunt Matt down and kill him.

Montgomery Clift was my big discovery here. I don't think I'd previously seen him in anything else even though he is renowned as being the first method actor to hit the screen, a couple of years before the much more recognisable Marlon Brando. He only made seventeen films, mostly due to a horrific car accident in 1956 while filming Raintree County. He recovered, in a manner, though it took something as serious as plastic surgery to his face, and he completed the film, but what came after has been called the 'longest suicide in Hollywood history'. When he made The Misfits in 1961 with Marilyn Monroe, she called him, 'the only person I know who is in worse shape than I am.' He died in 1966 at only 46 years of age, of natural causes, even though his destructive lifestyle of the last decade must have contributed to no small degree.

Seventeen films in a career split in half doesn't leave a lot of material but he shone, brightly and often. This was his first film, shot in 1946 but not released until after The Search in 1948, for which he was Oscar nominated. He was nominated three further times, for A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity and Judgment at Nuremberg, but he never won. He's known for his slow, brooding performances, mixing sensitivity with intensity, that brought him massive acclaim. It's obvious from his performance here that there was a little outsider in him, and his biography details that no less an outsider than James Dean used to ring him up just to hear his voice. While this was my first Montgomery Clift movie, I've seen five more since and while not all of them are as good as this one I haven't seen him give anything less than a magnetic performance yet.

He had a tough time on his first picture though, not because of inexperience because he had over a decade of stage work behind him but because he was bisexual, and he was starring opposite some of the most conservative actors in Hollywood, people like John Wayne and Walter Brennan. When Cherry joins Dunson's crew early in the film, he says, 'Take care of him Matt,' perhaps not realising at that point what that actually meant. The following scene where they compare guns and shooting is a macho thing to begin with but given Clift and John Ireland, who plays Cherry, were apparently having an affair at the time it becomes downright phallic. Bizarrely Ireland would marry Joanne Dru the next year, the actress here who plans to marry Clift's character.


While relations between the leads were professional and civil, Wayne and Brennan kept away from Clift when not actually shooting. The Duke even tried to have Clift replaced when he discovered the affair and Ireland's role was severely reduced given the 'unprofessional and lecherous' behaviour the alcoholic actor got up to during shooting. Clift's role in The Misfits was his only other western, though he had been offered the part of Borachón in Rio Bravo that eventually went to Dean Martin. He turned it down because he didn't want to work with Wayne and Brennan again. That's a shame because whatever they felt about each other in real life, they played very well against each other here and bizarrely, as the film runs on, it has Clift and Brennan's characters more and more united in their opposition to the Duke's.

While Clift wasn't known for westerns, most of the rest of the cast were. Most notably, of course, there's John Wayne, the biggest icon in the genre. Of the eleven westerns in the IMDb Top 250, eight are American westerns from his era and he's the star of five of them. He dominates the entire genre just as much as he dominates those westerns in this list, rarely leaving it and even more rarely succeeding at something else, The Quiet Man being a notable exception. He's a little different from his usual character here, bringing a much darker edge than normal and it's more than welcome. Walter Brennan, one of Wayne's closest friends, was his co-star in many movies and he usually found some way to keep his irascible sidekick role fresh. Here he has a couple of false teeth, but loses a half interest to them in a card game to an Indian who takes custody of them whenever he isn't eating.

Behind them are many recognisable faces, including Noah Beery Jr, Paul Fix, even a young Richard Farnsworth who had started out in the movies as a cowboy stuntman. It's also the only film to feature both Harry Carey Sr and his son Harry Carey Jr, though they didn't share a single scene. Carey had been around since the silent days working for Francis Ford, his first credit as far back as Bill Sharkey's Last Game in 1909 for D W Griffith. When he created his own unit at Universal in 1917 he took Ford's younger brother with him to learn his trade shooting two reel western shorts with him as Cheyenne Harry. That younger brother was John Ford, who dedicated his 1948 film 3 Godfathers to him, calling Carey, 'the Bright Star of the early western sky.'

Of the five John Wayne westerns in the Top 250, three are John Ford movies and two were made by Howard Hawks, the other being Rio Bravo. This was the first of five films the Duke would make for Hawks, which include my wife's favourite, El Dorado. These names just keep coming up when it comes to American westerns, to the degree that whenever I read of a filmmaker taking heavily influence from the genre, such as Akira Kurosawa for instance, the two names that always seem to get dropped are those of John Ford and Howard Hawks. This project has been helping me to understand why and one good reason is that neither of them hesitated to go beyond to create their art.

While the Duke has to be seen as the star here, he's run a close second by the herd that he drives north. Hawks didn't skimp in the slightest with his production, least of all with the cattle. While he didn't run them a thousand miles, he put over 9,000 steers into his herd drive, a few dozen Texas Longhorns prominently placed for effect because the breed was nearly extinct. To settle the dust that the herd stirred up took 25,000 gallons of water just to be able to film. He also used real cattle drivers at great cost and had to use walkie talkies to liaise with his crew who were often spread out over three miles apart. He even built dams across the San Pedro River in Arizona to raise the water level to an appropriate height for the scenes where the herd crossed. All this effort provided a thoroughly believable atmosphere for the drive of the story, with apologies for the pun. And yet above all that John Wayne still stood out. I guess the big son of a bitch really could act.

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