Thoughts On Films: Red River (1948)


Name:  Red River
Year:  1948
Runtime:  2h13m
Directors:  Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson
Cast:  John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan
Watched:  30 December 2018

Now this is the perfect way to while away a lazy Sunday over Christmas. Finally getting home and chilling out, watching an old Western on ITV4. In black & white! And followed up with two WW2 films made in the 1960s. Glorious.

At over 2 hours 15 minutes – plus ITV’s adverts – it is quite a long film but I didn’t mind at all. The set up takes a bit of explaining both here and in the film.

I would imagine this is a harder film to find these days, unless you catch it on TV, so this’ll be a much longer piece than normal. My usual reviews should cap out at about 800 words and will have considerably less plot explanation, I’m including it here because I’m guessing you can’t fire up Netflix and find it. But do have a look on Amazon or iTunes and watch it!

The West

It is the old West and a wagon train is heading across the plains from St Louis to California with settlers looking for a new life. In the apparent middle of nowhere, as they pass somewhere near the border with north Texas. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) announces he’s leaving and settling in Texas.

He’s leaving the love of his life who desperately wants to come with him. But he insists life will be too hard as he’s planning to set up a cattle farm from absolutely nothing, him and Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), an older man who always stays at his side, plus a bull and a couple of cows of course, all tied to the back of Groot’s wagon. He leaves her his mother’s bracelet and says he’ll send for her.

At the end of the day’s riding they reach the Red River, the border with Texas. They look back and see black smoke in the distance. Indians.

[American Indians of course, Native Americans. How times and terminology have changed. I’m sure I’ve seen an old Western which also looked from the other point of view, that attacks on wagon trains were their way to defend encroachment on their territory, even if the ways were not good. But this assuredly isn’t that film. But neither is it an excuse to have ‘good guys’ shoot ‘Injuns’ just for the sake of it. In fact, other than one attack much later on, this is the last we see of them.]

Too far away to help and knowing if they’re good they’ll follow their tracks and catch up, the two set up watch overnight. Sure enough, a group of braves shoot lighted fire arrows at them and kill one of the cows. Dunson and Groot are good shots though and after a battle they are the last men standing. But one was wearing that bracelet, which Dunson takes back off the body. If she’d come with him, or he stayed with the wagons, she might still be alive.

Next day, a young man is wandering toward them with a cow. He’s talking gibberish and in a trance. After being snapped out of it, not before he pulls a gun which Dunson has to get off him, he says he’s Matt (in this part played by Mickey Kuhn). He was the only one alive. I must admit I wasn’t sure if he came from the same wagon train, some write-ups say he was and he’s the only survivor, but if that were true then Dunson & Groot would’ve known him. I thought he was a survivor from another one.

The trio continue until the Rio Grande, where Dunson stops and declares all the land he can see north of the Rio Grande is his, that in 10 years he’ll have the biggest ranch in Texas with enough beef to feed the country, all branded with his Red River D. After setting up camp two Mexican men approach, saying the land is owned by their boss Don Diego who is based 400 miles away. As they argue one Mexican goes for his gun. Dunson shoots him dead, sends the other man away, and buries and reads the bible over the dead man.

And yes, all of that, which takes up a good 45 minutes or so, is the first act.

From here in this piece there are story-relevant spoilers, but I’ll go into less detail in the hope of avoiding as many as possible.

The Drive

I like the story-telling device here. Hand-written pages of a book, in close-up so you only see parts of it. It says 14 years have passed, the farm had grown just as Dunson had said it would, through hard work and just giving it time.

We fade back up to a scene of thousands of cattle all branded with the Red River brand, a big house and farm buildings and many men working for him – and more burial crosses of those who tried to take the land. Matt (now an adult played by Montgomery Clift) is back home from fighting the US Civil War. But there’s no money, the war has drained the South. The cows are worthless here. Dunson decides on a desperate move: drive 10,000 head of cattle the 1,000 miles north to Missouri where prices are good.

And that’s the second half of the film. The trials of the men as they drive North, risking attack both from Indians and in Missouri by those who don’t want cheaper Texan beef in their markets.

Cattle from other ranches had wandered across and Dunson orders them branded with the Red River brand too even if they’re already branded. He’ll take all of them. Another farmer rides up with his support, looking to take back his cattle. After exchanging threats the other man backs down and agrees to take a cut of the money Dunson makes for any cattle with the other man’s brand on it. But one of his hands Cherry has heard about Dunson and on the spot offers to join him on the drive.

Back at the ranch, Dunson offers to any man that he can stay behind, no hard feelings, but if anyone comes long he must stay with it all the way, no matter what. It’ll be 10 miles per day, maybe 12, so it’ll take about 100 days.

He works them hard. The men get tired. At a river crossing where the could camp and rest to cross in the morning he insists they cross that evening. Not easy with 10,000 cows. And after losing a wagon load of food when the herd stampedes, the men are hungry and want to get out of it, there are several attempts to quit. Especially since there’s a clear path to Kansas, where they’ve heard there’s a railway and cattle market. But nobody knows for sure if it’s there.

He even kills a deserter. Shoots him dead and buries him. After that he stays awake on watch for hours. His judgement impaired by days awake and driving for miles, he tries to whip the man who caused the stampede, he tries to hang three more men who desert!

Enough is enough for Matt. Matt takes control and heads for Kansas. Dunson is left behind, seething and injured he swears to kill Matt if he ever catches him – and promises he will catch him.

The tension between the two is palpable. I later read this was in part because Wayne and Clift really didn’t like each other on set, a real personality clash and very much disagreed politically. I have to say that adds something to the performances.

There’s a whole subplot here where Matt runs into a wagon train under attack, meets a woman, Tess (Joanne Dru), and the two immediately fall for each other. Matt has to make the same decision Dunson did 14 years ago.

That takes us to about half hour left and I’ll leave it there, just in case you find it and don’t want the end spoiled! Does Matt get the cows there? Does Dunson catch up? And what of Tess?

Stubbornness & A Modern Link

Dunson is a hard, stubborn man who knows what he wants, takes what he wants, when he wants it. Never wrong in his own mind. Exactly who you’d stereo-typically picture a John Wayne character to be from the actor’s reputation!

And this film does feature some absolutely nailed-on John Wayne cliche dialogue. And they’re all brilliant lines. They’re classics for a reason. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Matt: “You’d have shot him between the eyes!”
Dunson (Wayne, in his drawl): “Just as sure as you’re standing there.”

And with such conviction and ruthlessness, fending for yourself, having no qualms about shooting your own men dead but then reading the bible over their bodies after they are buried – this type of morality is even questioned by another character in the film – you start to understand why parts of the US are the way they are, why the current Republican belief system is so strong. It may be that the 1850s were like this. It’s just as likely, if not more so, this is the creation myth of the United States which has over time developed into a legend rather than actual history, this film shot in 1948 being among many to reinforce it. Perhaps this whole sense of self is harking back to a mythologised past.

The trail itself though, the drive across 1000 miles from Texas? That did actually happen!

Yet a recurring motif throughout the film is Dunson getting it wrong. And Groot telling him so. Whether it be about Fen, the fiancee he left behind. Or working the men too hard. Or the way he treats those who try to run.

And about Matt’s chances of getting to Kansas.

Comedy & Delivery

I love the quips in this film.

“I never like seeing strangers, guess it’s ‘cos no stranger ever good newsed me.” – Groot

“There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch? – Cherry

“I don’t like things going good or bad, I like ’em in between.” – Sims

The timing of the delivery of lines is really well placed as well. You can tell there was some level of freedom for the actors. It isn’t managed to within an inch of its’ life and it works all the better for it.

And yes, much of the style is dated, like the way they turn slightly, to better face the camera, when they want to speak. Yet much is very well done. Without CGI they made barely 1,000 cows look like 10,000. The actors all seem good riders to an untrained eye.

They included the questions about involving religion after you kill a man, about being gung-ho and making rash decisions. It isn’t a film about “killing injuns”.

Once you get used to the black and white and the style of writing, Red River really is well worth spending a couple of hours of your chilled out day.

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