For anyone who has never driven across or seen the actual Red River, let me be the first to tell you that the river is red. The Red River acts as a natural border between northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. A few years ago I flew to the southwest for my job. After visiting my Irving, Texas office, I drove my rental car three hours north to Oklahoma City to visit our office there. I saw the sign indicating I was about to cross the Red River and thought about the John Wayne movie RED RIVER (1948) which I had never seen. I expected to see a typical river, blue or green or black in color, flowing underneath. But it was red, a deep brownish red. It must have been an easy name to come up with for the first explorer or settler or cowboy or Indian who saw it.
The film RED RIVER, directed by Howard Hawks with a screenplay by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase, is almost always referenced as one of the great westerns of all time. It is an epic western, the story of a huge cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. At first glance, RED RIVER would appear to be a John Ford film as it stars many actors from the Ford repertory including John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr, Hank Worden, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, and John Ireland. But it's the great genre director Howard Hawks not John Ford at the helm. Whereas Ford's Cavalry trilogy always had a feeling of family with some Irish humor thrown in, RED RIVER has the usual Hawksian elements: a group of men who live by a code of honor, a tough independent woman amongst all the men, and a hero finding redemption.
RED RIVER begins in 1851 as a wagon train out of St. Louis heads west for California through Texas. But breaking from the train to begin his dream of starting a huge cattle ranch is Thomas Dunson (John Wayne, with long blond hair). Joining Dunson is his irascible friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). Dunson's girl Fen (Colleen Gray) wants to come as well but Dunson will have none of that. The two parties go their separate ways. Later in the day, Dunson and Groot see smoke where the wagon train was headed. They suspect an attack by Comanche Indians. That night, a war party tries to attack them. Dunson kills a Comanche wearing the bracelet Dunson gave Fen, confirming his worst fears. The next day, a young boy named Matt Garth (Mickey Kuhn) emerges from the brush, the lone survivor from the wagon train massacre. With Matt's one cow and Dunson's bull, the trio ride south until they reach the right land near the Rio Grande. Dunson sets his stakes down to start his cattle ranch and the Red River D brand.
Dunson builds his cattle empire but then the Civil War calls and Matt and many other young men go off to fight. When Matt returns (played by adult Montgomery Clift), Dunson still has a huge ranch, but he's penniless. The Civil War has made the south broke. There's no market for beef in Texas so Dunson decides to drive his ten thousand head of cattle to Missouri to sell, a journey no one has ever done. With Matt leading the drive and Groot heading the chuck wagon, Dunson picks up a few other colorful characters to drive the herd including young hotshot gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland), dependable and loyal Buster McGee (Noah Beery, Jr), Native American Quo (Chief Yowlatchie), earnest Dan Latimer (Harry Carey, Jr), Teeler Yacey (Paul Fix), and eccentric Simms Reeves (Hank Worden).
Director Hawks alternates between cattle drive scenes during the day and camp fire dialogue at night as the drive begins. A stampede caused by the clumsy Bunk (Ivan Parry) ignites the first real drama of the drive as Dan Latimer is trampled and killed by the frightened herd. Dunson wants to whip Bunk but Matt steps in, saving Bunk's life. This is the first real conflict between Dunson and Matt. Forty days into the drive, the men are wet from rain and low on food. Sixty days into the drive, with morale low, a stranger stumbles into the camp. He's from another cattle drive that was jumped by Missouri border gangs. He tells the men that Kansas is where the cattle are being bought not Missouri. Some of the camp want to go to Kansas but Dunson stays firm with his plan to go to Missouri. Teeler and two other men flee the drive, tired of the tyrannical Dunson. Cherry is sent to retrieve them. Dunson starts to become paranoid as the cattle drive reaches the Red River.
Cherry returns with the three deserters. Dunson wants to hang them but Matt intervenes again. Matt disarms Dunson and takes over the drive. Matt makes the decision to lead the drive to Abilene, Kansas. Dunson promises to follow them and kill Matt. Buster returns from a scouting mission with news that there's a wagon train up ahead with food and women. When they arrive, the wagon train is under attack by Indians. Matt and Cherry help the wagon train fight off the Indians. Both men fall in love with the lovely Tess Millay (Joanna Dru). Tess wants to come along with Matt to Kansas but he won't have it. Matt fears they won't find the town but they see a nearby train that leads them to Abilene, a town hungry for cattle. It's August 14th, 1865 as Matt and his men drive the herd down Abilene's Main Street. Matt makes a deal with Mr. Melville (Harry Carey, Sr) who buys the cattle at a good price. Dunson, now with some new, armed men, follows the cattle drives trail all the way to Abilene. Dunson comes across Tess and her wagon train. Tess convinces Dunson to bring her along. Dunson and his gang ride into town for the big showdown between Dunson and Matt, a showdown that ends with a satisfying Hawks ending
Like the river in Ford's RIO GRANDE, the river in RED RIVER symbolizes many things. The river carries the sweat and toil of settlers heading east and west; north and south. It's hope when Dunson, Matt, and the drivers cross it with their ten thousand head of cattle, one step closer to making some money in Missouri or Kansas. The river also represents blood and death. Early in the film, Dunson and a Comanche fall into the river fighting and Dunson kills the warrior in the dark water. Dan Larimer is one of many men who die during the cattle drive, his blood sowing the land that leads to the Red River.
RED RIVER is a western version of Mutiny on the Bounty with Dunson as Captain Bligh and Matt as Fletcher Christian. Dunson is a taskmaster, driving his men as hard as his cattle, pushing them relentlessly through long days and dwindling food. His word is law and the wranglers respect his monumental plan until Dunson begins to lose their trust when he first wants to whip Bunk for starting the stampede and later, tries to hang deserters Laredo, Teeler, and Kelsey. Dunson has become a crazed tyrant and the drive almost comes apart because of it. Matt is the intermediary between Dunson and the drivers. Cherry and later Dunson call Matt "soft" but he's the one human being on this drive, caring for his buddies just as much as he loves his surrogate father Dunson. Matt has seen too much of man's inhumanity during the Civil War. The drivers respect Matt's wisdom and when Matt leads the mutiny, Cherry, Buster, and even old Groot have no problem switching alliances or pointing a gun at Dunson. The men still respect Dunson but he's lost his way, gone mad on this cattle drive and they put their trust with Matt that he'll lead the way to Abilene and prosperity.
Director John Ford has been quoted after watching Wayne's performance in RED RIVER stating that "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act." I think Ford knew Wayne was a fine actor but he liked to put Wayne down to remind him Ford was boss. That changed with Hawks casting Wayne in RED RIVER. Dunson is a different type of character than Wayne had played in Ford's Cavalry trilogy. Physically, Wayne sports blond hair. Dunson's metamorphosis from settler to surrogate father to ruthless cattle baron to villain is an actor's dream. Thomas Dunson would prepare Wayne later for one of his most memorable performances as the multi-layered Indian racist Ethan Edwards in John Ford's THE SEARCHERS (1956).
RED RIVER is the first film to find a younger actor like Montgomery Clift strong enough to stand toe to toe with the John Wayne mystique. Hawks casting of Clift as Matt Garth is essential to the success of the Dunson/Matt relationship. Clift's smoldering persona and cool cockiness makes him a perfect choice to play Matt. Other young actors like John Agar (FORT APACHE), Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS), and even Glen Campbell (TRUE GRIT) never could hold their own against the formidable Wayne. Dunson and Matt have a love/hate relationship. Matt the wagon train orphan that Dunson takes in, demanding that he be a part of the Red River D brand. Dunson telling him not until Matt earns it. Matt will earn it in more ways than he can imagine, having to overthrow the father-like Dunson on the biggest cattle drive of his life. This was only Clift's second feature film but his career would take off after RED RIVER in films like A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953). Sadly, like Marilyn Monroe (who he acted with in THE MISFITS in 1961), Clift would die way too young.
Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot is an interesting character. Groot is there for many of RED RIVER'S humorous moments including losing his false teeth to Quo in a poker game. Groot will have to borrow his teeth back during meal time from Quo. But Groot is also the conscience to his friend Dunson and a grandfather to Matt. In the beginning, Dunson listens to Groot, laying off Matt when Groot thinks he's being too harsh on the young man. But Dunson begins to stop listening to Groot as paranoia and fear set in, as Dunson begins to lose his hold on the drive and the drivers, doubting his destination, resorting to threats of violence against the men who love him.
There aren't a whole lot of women in RED RIVER and there's too big a gap between the appearance of Fen at the beginning and Tess near the end. Tess Millay (Joanna Dru) is the poster girl for the tough Hawksian woman with one of the greatest introductions in a Hawks film as she takes an arrow to the shoulder while flirting with Matt during an Indian attack on her wagon train. Ironically, actress Joanna Dru hated acting in westerns yet her two noteworthy performances are RED RIVER and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949). Sex is used as a bartering commodity by both the women and men on the range. Fen (Colleen Gray) basically tells Dunson when he's done herding cattle for the day, she'll be waiting in bed for him each night. Dunson still turns down her request to join him as he starts his ranch. Haunted by Fen's death and still not married fourteen years later, Dunson asks Tess if she'll bear him a son, a real son as Dunson's hatred of his adopted son Matt festers. Dunson has planted the seeds for his cattle kingdom in Texas but he hasn't fathered a son to take over when he dies. Tess declines his request, her heart beating for Matt. Look for a young Shelley Winters as a Dance Hall girl briefly in RED RIVER as well.
Many Hawks films have a good band of supporting characters, usually men, who live by a code of respect and honor even if they don't always agree. Standing out in RED RIVER are Noah Beery, Jr as Buster McGee and John Ireland as Cherry Valance. Buster is honest and trustworthy, the type of friend any ranch hand would want. Buster has the best line in the film when he races back from a scouting trip, yelling to the boys about the wagon train he found. "Women and coffee, I tell ya!" he yells. Actor Noah Beery, Jr would later become famous as James Garner's father on the television series THE ROCKFORD FILES. Cherry Valance could have his own movie. He's a gunslinger who seems to have no loyalties as he jumps from one cattle rancher Meeker (Davison Clark) to Dunson. He's a loner but has a friendly rivalry with Matt, trading fancy shooting shots with him and later vying for Tess's affections. Matt and Cherry are almost like brothers. Cherry seems to only think about himself but when Dunson comes looking to kill Matt, Cherry's loyalty to Matt steps up. Actor Ireland starred in a lot of westerns before moving on to a long television career but he also appeared in ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949) and SPARTACUS (1960). Ireland would even be married to co-star Joanna Dru for a time after the film.
Many think Hawks' RIO BRAVO (1959) is his best western (also starring Wayne) but right now, I would stick with RED RIVER. Like Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), RIO BRAVO has a bit of a TV western back lot feel. RED RIVER feels big and open. Hawks handles the logistics with all the cattle, horses, and wagon trains effortlessly and the exteriors of Arizona (filling in as Texas) are excellent. His storytelling is economical. When Hawks needs to get some information to the audience early in the film, he uses Wayne's voice over to explain Dunson's vision or briefly shows the written words on pages from an anonymous story of the drive to punctuate plot points. Dimitry Tiomkin's score grows on the viewer and the theme song Settle Down also by Tiomkin is catchy. But it's the growing conflict between Dunson and Matt to lead and finish the greatest cattle drive ever that powers RED RIVER.
RED RIVER is beloved by western fans and Billy Crystal's recent film CITY SLICKERS (1991) is a modern tip of the cowboy hat to maybe the first epic western ever. RED RIVER would prove to director John Ford and many others that John Wayne was a talented actor capable of playing flawed characters. If a trip to the Red River Valley is not on your next travel destination, then catch director Howard Hawks RED RIVER, an enjoyable two hour diversion.