Red River (1948). 127 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring John Wayne (as Thomas Dunson), Montgomery Clift (as Matthew Garth), Walter Brennan (as Groot Nadine), Joanne Dru (as Tess Millay), Coleen Gray (as Fen), Harry Carey, Sr. (as Mr. Melville), John Ireland (as Cherry Valance), Harry Carey, Jr. (as Dan Latimer), Ivan Parry (as Bunk Kenneally), and Chief Yowlachie (as Two Jaw Quo). Music by Dmitri Tiomkin.
Red River ranks among the greatest celebrations of the open-air American West. During its over two-hour running time, only two scenes take place indoors, and both seem contrived. The fact that they feel out of place thus only reinforces our sense that this movie belongs outdoors underneath a wide, expansive sky. Red River seeks to impart its spirit of hugeness not only in the mass movement of its central cattle drive but also with the mass enthusiasm of its men. Take a look at the scene where John Wayne as Thomas Dunson tells his adopted son and ranch hand Matt to start off the big drive and “take ’em to Missouri”: we see a lengthy montage of Western faces yee-hawing in exuberant close-ups as they begin to move the livestock to their destination. Although the movie’s dusty backdrop also becomes a charged canvas on which the men enact an ethical story, and Dunson is a morally complicated character who is not obviously admirable, nevertheless Red River leaves us with the impression that the West was a place of greatness, full of great men, great deeds, and great opportunities.
In the 1850s, Thomas Dunson leaves a wagon train headed west to establish his own claim in Texas past the Red River with his friend Groot Nadine. Dunson soon learns that the train has been attacked by Indians and his love interest killed; a boy, Matt Garth, is the stunned sole survivor, and Dunson takes him in, raising him like a son. The movie fast-forwards 14 years, where we see Dunson’s herd has grown tremendously, but Dunson is broke—he cannot sell his beef profitably in the South because of the Civil War. He determines that in order to make money, he will have to drive the cattle to Missouri where they will be sold and slaughtered. He hires a group of men, and they, Dunson, Groot, and Matt head out on the trail.
Dunson’s endeavor to move the cattle is plagued with difficulties. The days are long and tiring, and Dunson is a brutal leader who drinks too much and does not sleep. After he kills some of the men and threatens to kill more, Matt fires him from the wagon train. Dunson vows revenge. Matt, listening to the counsel of the men, leads the herd to Abilene, Kansas rather than Missouri. Once in Abilene, Matt and his herd are greeted by Mr. Melville, who agrees to pay him a large sum for the cattle. Meanwhile, Dunson catches up with Matt and challenges him to a fight. The men tumble in the dust until they are pulled apart. Dunson and Matt are reconciled, and Dunson agrees to make Matt a partner back on the Red River ranch.
Red River is the kind of western that offers us a difficult character and challenges us to watch him as he descends into areas of increasing moral complexity. John Wayne as Thomas Dunson is mean and intolerant for most of the picture. If the towering figures who got things done in the old West were like Dunson, they were shrewd, profit-minded businessmen, rough-and-tumble gunmen, brutish enforcers of their own laws and ethical codes. It may not seem at first to a modern audience as if a cattle drive would be a physical and spiritual trial, but under Dunson in the 1860s it is grueling, wearying, and lethal. Wayne is spectacular as the morally murky cattle driver who becomes a tyrant as he moves his men and livestock towards Missouri. He is, like the enormous sky and wide plains that are the focus of so much of the movie’s cinematography, focused on the big picture, the greater good, but he will stop at nothing to safeguard that good, even if it means trampling over his men along the way. Although Dunson as a rugged individual is the sort of character dear to Westerns, nevertheless his lack of regard for the individuals he employs means that he must be tamed in this universe.
When I learned about the old West in school, what I was taught was laced with a fair amount of fantasy. Although my teachers never referred to Red River or, interestingly, any other western films, they nevertheless implied that by adopting practices like Dunson’s, American pioneers flourished out there in the barren deserts and prairies that either made people into men or did away with them. Red River, however, provides us with the character Matt to show us an alternative to this fable of the West. Although Matt is a tough character and has proved himself to be an exceptional master of firearms, in contrast to Dunson, Matt uses his revolver to save people from destruction. He shoots Bunk Kenneally, the man who accidentally causes the stampede, in the shoulder to prevent Dunson from shooting him in the head, and he grazes Dunson’s hand with a bullet to keep him from initiating a gunfight. He refuses to let Dunson hang two deserters, and he also objects to fighting Dunson while armed in the movie’s final scene.
Matt’s behavior also reveals that there are alternatives in westerns to Dunson’s leadership style. He shows that the seemingly impossible cattle drive can be made shorter and more profitable when he takes a risk and listens to his men, who claim that the railroad has reached Abilene, which is closer than Missouri. And he demonstrates that worn-out men on the verge of mass desertion will still follow a leader, even if the food and coffee he offers are terrible, if he looks out for their interests and is generous to them. Moreover, this does not make him seem weak. Montgomery Clift as Matt is completely and utterly cool throughout. Young, beautiful, and skilled with a gun, his Matt is enviable and worthy of emulation, a kind of James Dean on the back of a horse rather than a motorcycle.
You might be tempted to dismiss Matt’s alternative ways as the fancies of screenwriters who are writing a fictional account of the first cattle drive up the Chisolm Trail. But in addition to being compassionate, Matt’s approach actually makes a great deal of business sense. The movie strives to give us the impression of economic feasibility and authenticity. I noticed that there were a slew of precise numerical references, which ground the story in an almost historical accuracy: $100 for every man who completes the drive, the number of cattle that are lost and maintained at any given point, the price per head that Matt fetches from Melville, the tally of how many days they are on the trail, and the number of chuck wagons they start with and later lose.
These numbers remind us that Matt and Dunson are running a business and that much of the movie is transactional. The cowherds sign a contract with Dunson before taking off on the trail, not only to secure their $100 but also to promise that they will last until the end of the drive. Dunson gives his girlfriend Fen his mother’s bracelet as a promise that they will reunite. When he finds it on a dead Indian’s wrist, he gives it to Matt, who in turn gives it to his own love interest as a promise when he leaves her. And just as the characters are performing these exchanges, Dunson is observing some semblance of religious propriety when he buries and reads over the deceased, mostly people he has killed. This compulsive need to properly dispose of dead bodies is Dunson’s own kind of transaction with a higher authority. The movie’s many burials, which would grow humorous because of their frequency were they not so unsettling, call for a fair amount of cognitive dissonance on the part of Dunson, who seems equally at home shooting men for deserting and praying for their souls. Interestingly, as part of these burial ceremonies, he never asks forgiveness for himself.
For a movie about tough guys like Dunson and his thousands of cows on the wide, open range, we see some lovely small moments that reveal sensitivity. The movie shows us early on that the cook Groot gambles away his false teeth to an Indian cowherd. The two strike a deal that will enable Groot to use his teeth for meals only, but this means that most of the time Groot is toothless, and Dunson complains that he cannot understand him when he is. This makes for some comic relief, but it also makes Groot vulnerable.
I also find delicacy in the Kenneally character, whose weakness is his sweet tooth. We see him repeatedly licking his finger before sticking it into the sugar bags on the chow wagon. One night when the cattle are already spooked, he fumbles for sugar in the wagon and clumsily knocks over an assortment of pots and pans, inadvertently inspiring the devastating stampede that claims the life of another vulnerable character, Dan Latimer. We hear Latimer singing to the agitated cattle in an effort to calm them during a tense and eerie scene before the stampede. While caring for the herd, he shares with Dunson and Matt that he will use some of his money from the drive to buy his wife a pair of red shoes, seeming hesitant and slightly embarrassed to be talking of such things among men. We never see his wife, but the image of her and the red shoes lingers after Latimer’s death as one of the few female connections that the movie shares with us; it reveals the sensitive side that is presumably present in many of the men but is buried under the difficult work they do.
Over the years I have come to know film snobs who do not rank westerns very highly. I think that for some people, appreciating westerns means finding the right one to function as a gateway film that will lead them deeper into the genre. For me, that movie was High Noon (1952). High Noon seemed to me then, as it does now, like so much more than a so-called horse opera. It tells a riveting story about ethics and how much we can or should rely on other people to help us in times of need. Red River can function as a gateway film to the genre in the same way. Much deeper than the long line of cattle whose incessant drive its camera traces, the movie is also a study of ethics—but whereas High Noon explores the tension between our need for others and self-reliance, Red River focuses on how in an enclosed community one person can become a tyrant, neglecting to treat his fellow men with compassion and imbuing himself unjustly with the ultimate rule of law and order. It is a masterful portrait of what it takes to lead people through difficult times and the way that a generous temperament can succeed even in the difficult environment of the old West.