John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River
AFI has Red River at number 5 on their list of top 100 best westerns. It is based on Borden Chase's Saturday Evening Post story "The Chisholm Trail" which he helped adapt to a screenplay. It is not always as fast paced as I would like, but it does feature John Wayne in a unique role.
The film starts with Wayne leaving a wagon train to go off with an old friend and claim his land and start a ranch. No sooner does he go his own way, when Indians attack the wagon train and kill everyone but a boy, Matt, and his cow. He joins with Wayne and the old coot who raise him as a son. The three run the ranch together.
Some 14 years later, Matt is all grown up and the ranch is full of steers. The gist of the plot being a huge cattle drive through dangerous territory. This includes crossing the red river, dealing with a stampede and some angry Indians. Most importantly is the relationship between Wayne and Clift. It has been described as akin to Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh. Wayne shows in a dramatic scene that he could actually act.
What makes this role unique for Wayne is that his character is not the most honorable. He is not above taking a few of his neighbor's cows who happen into his herd. As the movie opens he is saying goodbye to a girl he clearly has had sex with. The clue is when he says to her, "Last night I made a decision." Most important is that he likes being in charge and does not take shit from others, even when he is wrong.
This was Clift's first film role, but not his first release. It sat on a shelf for a couple of years for legal reasons. Clift was a homosexual and John Ireland was reportedly well endowed. They share one scene that is the gayest to be found this side of Brokeback Mt. Ireland rides up. He and Clift smile at each other while they look each other in the eye. Then they play a game of you show me yours and I will show you mine. They hold each other's guns in their hands waist high, handling them with gentle care and admiration.
Another interesting cast member is Mickey Kuhn. This kid worked on several classic films. He was quoted years later as saying, "I remember John Wayne telling me, 'Never apologize, never say you're sorry, but never forget to say thank you.'"
As with these old black and white westerns, it drags a bit in places but has much to offer. The scene where Clift mutinies Wayne's authority is a dramatic highlight. The best action scene is when Clift helps to defend a wagon train from an Indian attack and a girl gets an arrow in her shoulder. The best scene is the film's most famous, when Wayne catches up to Clift and beats the snot out of him at the end.
John Ireland and Montgomery Clift compare revolvers in Red River.
Thomas Dunson is, along with Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, one of John Wayne's least sympathetic characters. He is not only a selfish, domineering, son of a bitch, he is also a thief and a murderer. At the beginning of the movie he bids a temporary farewell to his girlfriend, who he plans on sending for once he's settled (he isn't merely running out on her as my brother made it sound). He gives her his mother's bracelet, which plays an important role throughout the movie. However, he shows his true colors when he squats on land already legally owned by a rich Mexican. He shoots a man in cold blood for this land and kills another half dozen defending it over the years.
Dunson's meeting with the young Matt Garth and the ensuing 14 years are summed up in a written passage across the screen (the original version with Walter Brennan narrating the story is no longer available) that says, “And that was the meeting of a boy with a cow and a man with a bull and the beginning of a great herd.” Due to financial hardships caused by the Civil War, Dunson is broke when the story proper begins, hence the idea of a great cattle drive.
Red River is famous for two scenes in particular. Eric mentioned both of them. The first is the meeting between John Ireland's Cherry Valance (a name that was recycled for a female character in The Outsiders) and Montgomery Clift's Matt Garth. It is filled with gay sexual innuendo. The two men examine each others' guns with admiration (see photo), but it is the dialogue that really sends it over the top. Here's what Cherry says to Matt by way of introduction, “That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? And you'd like to see mine. Nice, awful nice. You know there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever have a good Swiss watch?” They then proceed to have a shooting contest.
The other iconic scene is the climactic fist-fight between Wayne and Clift. And although Dunson gets the better of Garth at the beginning of the fight, Garth does eventually fight back and land a few good punches as well. It is believable that the skinny Clift can trade punches with the much larger Wayne only because Dunson is shot in the side (by Cherry coming to Garth's defense) before the fight begins. Unfortunately this leads to the horrible ending where, completely out of character, Dunson sees the error of his ways and abruptly makes nice with his adopted son, the man he has sworn to kill. It is an unrealistic happy Hollywood ending. In the original story Cherry shoots Dunson dead and Matt takes his body back to his ranch to be buried. That ending makes more sense.
Monty Clift was a great actor. He brings a sensitivity to the role of Matt Garth that was rare for a western. Wayne gives one of his best performances as well. He wasn't afraid to play unlikable characters. Walter Brennan plays his usual cantankerous old codger with a heart of gold. This movie has the distinction of being the only time Harry Carey and his son Harry Carey Jr. appeared together. This was Harry Carey's last movie before his death and his son replaced him as a regular in John Wayne's pictures from then on.
This was John Wayne's first collaboration with Howard Hawks. They would make a total of 5 movies together. In fact Hawks' last movie was 1970's Rio Lobo, starring John Wayne. Hawks could direct any genre of film. He was as adept at screwball comedies as he was action movies. Red River suffers from some obvious shots of the stars on fake horses in front of rear projection in some of the action scenes and the cattle drive looks suspiciously like it takes place in the same valley, only shot from different angles. But there is no denying that Hawks got great performances from his two male leads.
Red River was a huge hit. It was the third highest grossing movie of 1948. Only Road to Rio and Easter Parade earned more at the domestic box office. It remains a classic western and one of John Wayne's best movies.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1948)