|In a world of men,|
The Duke and Monty
are ultimate bedfellows.
Red River (1948) *****
Dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift,
Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Harry Carey Sr, Harry Carey Jr,
Chief Yowlachie, Noah Beery Jr, Hank Worden, Joanne Dru, Coleen Gray
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act."
- John Ford upon seeing John Wayne in Red River
Everyone and their goldurn' egg-suckin' hound brings up Ford's exclamatory ejaculate upon Wayne's towering performance as the mean-ass cattle baron Tom Dunson in the immortal western by Howard Hawks, but how can one not? Wayne's had the ludicrous bad rap of being a dreadful actor since he first appeared on-screen in Raoul Walsh's 1930 western epic The Big Trail. For decades afterwards, far too many boneheaded pseuds have made this erroneous assumption. Walsh's film was a huge box-office flop. This was due mainly to the astronomical price-tag of being shot in duplicate, once in 35mm, again in an early 65mm wide-screen process and then twice more in French-and-German-language versions. Yes, Wayne's a tad unsteady in it, but then so are all the actors. This was 1930 and The Big Trail was one of the first major sound pictures and a monumental undertaking at that. Poor Wayne suffered in the subsequent ignoble purgatory of Grade-Z westerns until John Ford cast him in Stagecoach.
Though that was a hit, Wayne continued to toil in one picture after another that misused his talent. There were exceptions, of course, like Ford's They Were Expendable and The Long Voyage Home (great movies, but flops nonetheless), Walsh's wonderful Dark Command, William Seiter's rousing Allegheny Uprising, Edwin Marin's thoroughly enjoyable Tall in the Saddle and a clutch of solid war efforts like Edward Dmytryk's Back to Bataan and David Miller's Flying Tigers, plus, lest we forget, Cecil B. DeMille's utterly berserk action-adventure melodrama Reap The Wild Wind, but none of these were big enough to entrench Wayne as a bonafide star.
It wasn't until 1946 that Hawks cast Wayne in Red River and began shooting his stunning film adaptation of "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail", the Borden Chase magazine serial (turned novel), that John Wayne would eventually become a genuine star. It was also at this early juncture when John Ford saw a cut of the film to render feedback at Hawks's request as the filmmaker encountered considerable production and editing snafus. When Red River was finally released in 1948, it was the same year that Wayne also starred in two great John Ford classics Three Godfathers and Fort Apache. With Red River and the two Ford films, Wayne finally shot to the all-important list of guaranteed box-office success as determined by the association of theatre owners in America. Wayne remained on the top ten for 25 years!!!
Red River has oft been described as a cattle-drive version of Mutiny on the Bounty which, at its most basic level it most certainly is. The first chunk of Hawks's picture has a much younger Tom Dunson (Wayne), leaving a wagon train behind, as well as the woman he loves (Coleen Gray) and setting his sights, not westward, but south to Texas. With his old pal Groot (Walter Brennan), Dunson stakes a huge parcel of prime Texas cattle country all for himself. After killing a Mexican emissary who informs him that the land belongs to a wealthy landowner living hundreds of miles away in "Old Mex", Dunson and Groot see clouds of smoke from where they left the wagon train behind.
Matt Garth (later to be played as an adult by Montgomery Clift) is a young boy, delirious with shock, who wanders onto Dunson's land with one lone cow and a tale of the entire wagon train having been decimated by Redskins. When a few of the varmints attempt to make similar mincemeat out of Dunson, Groot and Matt, they end up tussling with the wrong son of a bitch and they're handily dispatched to the Happy Hunting Grounds in the Sky. Upon discovering the keepsake he bestowed upon his lady love adorning the wrist of an Indian he's killed, Dunson's eyes fill with the blankness of a shark. Nothing is going to stop him.
With only the single-minded desire to raise as many cattle as humanly possible, Dunson transforms into a man possessed with pure, almost psychopathic ambition - so pure, so mad, that when the tale leaps ahead twenty years, the number of graves filled with those who would dare threaten the man's resolve dot the now-huge and bustling Dunson cattle ranch with the same frequency as tumbleweeds blasting across the rich Texas grassland. Our tale proper begins then, in Post-Civil-War Texas where thousands upon thousands of heads of Dunson's cattle are ready to go to market. But what market? The South has been ravaged by unscrupulous carpetbaggers and Dunson's herd needs to be driven thousands of miles away to garner the fair price they're worth.
Matt has grown into a strapping lad. The recipient of Dunson's tutelage in the manly arts of fighting and killing and home from fighting with the Rebel Army, Matt has, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Dunson's son and he's a chip off the old block in most ways, except one. When the drive begins, Dunson leads his cowboys with the force and fury of a Captain Bligh. If anything, Matt is the voice of reason. As Dunson becomes increasingly unhinged, ordering whippings and killings of those who would dare make a single mistake, or worse, attempt to abandon the cattle drive, the step-son eventually needs to take control of the herd and the drive.
Dunson, left with no weapons and enough rations to keep him until Matt takes the cattle to market, becomes even more insane and promises that he will eventually hunt Matt down and kill him in cold blood.
There's so much to admire in this tale of the Old West. The action is furious, the suspense often unbearable and the drive itself a thing of utter, sweeping beauty. A stampede sequence is so overwhelming, you need to pinch yourself a few times to prove that the magnitude and force of what you're experiencing is unlike anything you've ever, or will ever see. The drive itself is also a thing of beauty. It's one of the few times in the entire history of cinema where the drudgery and tedious nature of the actions on screen are so naturally life-like that they're anything but tedious.
While there isn't a single performance in the film that's less than perfect, John Wayne towers above everyone and everything. Yes, there's no doubt Wayne's now fully in command as one of the greatest stars in movie history, but his performance runs rings round everyone, including the great Montgomery Clift who was certainly no slouch in the thespian department. And for all the spectacle of this monumental undertaking, Hawks infuses the film with sheer immortality by placing so much emphasis upon the great cast of characters, but always finding ways to exploit Wayne's sheer physically powerful and expert abilities in terms of how he moves and carries himself on-screen.
Wayne barrels through this film like a Sherman Tank and Hawks's instincts with respect to casting this genuine giant were right on the nail. Borden Chase's novel describes Dunson thusly:
"A bull of a man. A brute of a man. Thick-necked, low-jowled, with eyes that looked out at you like the rounded grey ends of bullets in a pistol cylinder."This is John Wayne. This is Red River. This is a world of men as raw and rough as can be. In spite of all the seemingly insurmountable difficulties Hawks faced at every level to get the film made, he like Tom Dunson, like John Wayne, triumphed beyond all expectations.
And for those so inclined, the movie features the most delightfully homoerotic exchange between two stars ever committed to celluloid. It's a western, of course, so it involves guns. It never gets more phallic than glistening rods - in both life and the movies.