30 Great Westerns
Red River

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River.

Howard Hawks’ epic Red River tells the story of failed leadership.

Tom Dunson (John Wayne), a hard man who has taken land from the Mexicans and built a cattle empire, walks with fear in the days following the Civil War. On his make-or-break cattle drive, the first of the Chisholm Trail, he becomes paranoid, surly, and tyrannical. When Matt Garth (his adopted son, played with sensitivity by the slender-shouldered Montgomery Clift) suggests that the men break for water, Dunson with sulky rancor refuses, "I’ll do the thinking," he says. "Keep them going." Later, when a cowboy sneaks sugar from the wagon train pantry and causes a stampede, Dunson grabs a whip. The cowboy, refusing to be treated like an animal, nervously backs up with fear, and trying to preserve his dignity reaches for a gun. Before Tom can draw, Matt intervenes, shooting the cowboy in the shoulder, knocking him down. Matt, gaining distance from Dunson’s darkness, says "You’d a shot him right between the eyes." "As sure as you're standing there," Dunson coldly replies as the rest of the cattle men look on with growing displeasure.

And the failure in leadership continues. Paranoid, drinking too much, and lacking sleep, Dunson gives the men short rations and bitter coffee, and when three men try to leave the drive, Dunson, with the help of Matt and Cherry Valance (John Ireland), kills them. "I don’t like quitters, especially when they’re not good enough to finish what they started." His words echo Howard Hawks’ professional code of men being good enough to get the job done, but the way Dunson does that job makes him an unfit Hawksian hero and thereby unfit to rule.

Red River is a tale of generational conflict: younger men are more fit to rule than their fathers (a theme Nicholas Ray strongly carries in Rebel Without a Cause). Matt/Clift is one of filmdom’s first quiet rebels, a nonconformist who refuses to follow the father’s law for a more just law that springs from within. Eventually, he takes over the quest from the sickened Ahab figure. After Cherry Valance tracks down two men who abandoned the cattle drive and returns them to Dunson, the hardened leader, his eyes slits, his hair white, his face unshaven, passes sentence: "I’m going to hang you." Matt, wanting his father’s respect (the large trajectory of the narrative is Matt’s quest to gain his letter "M" on the Red-River D brand), but also wanting to do right by his fellow cattle men, finally has to rebel. "No. No, you’re not," he says, his voice full of calm trembling. Matt takes over the herd and decides not to take them to Missouri (a dangerous land full of carpetbaggers and warring Indians) but on to Abilene (a wiser choice, and an option Dunson refused to consider). Groot (Walter Brennan), a member of the older generation, represents Hawks’ voice of reason, "You was wrong, Mr. Dunson."

Like Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers, Wayne plays a hard-headed ambiguous figure--strong but corrupt, a man who smiles and says "pretty unhealthy job," before shooting Mexicans off horses. And like Ethan, Dunson’s quest changes midway through the picture. No longer in charge of the drive, he desires not to deliver cattle, but to hound Matt across the Western frontier and eventually kill him. Moreover, without Wayne’s stellar characterization in Red River, a performance that John Ford said showed that "the sonuvabitch could act," The Searchers wouldn’t be possible (it’s also interesting to note other cross-fertilizations between these two great directors: Ford’s hospital barracks death scene in The Were Expendable [1945] owes a lot to Hawks earlier scene in Air Force [1943] and Hawks’ camaraderie amongst flyers in Ceiling Zero [1936] echoes Ford’s rendering of flyers in Air Mail [1932]).

Along with the generational conflict and the question of leadership, Red River contains several nice cinematic touches. There are sharp, elegiac images. The cattle drive almost always moves from right to left, creating a mood of manifest destiny. The film’s tone is full of epic grandeur, with the "Tales of Texas" sections inscribing the actions of the first ride across the Chisholm Trail for the history books. Hawks frustrates narrative expectations, as the film’s two guns (Matt and Cherry) flash their wares, dent a can in target practice, but never faceoff against each other. Hawks also offers us another strong woman, Joanne Dru, who talks non-stop, even with an arrow in her shoulder! Borden Chase and Charles Schnee’s script is full of wonderful ellipses, as men try to convey how they feel without being too sentimental, and the film itself is a surprisingly great 134-minute tribute to beef, or as spokesman John Wayne richly intones, "I’ll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make them strong, to make them grow."

--by Grant Tracey