Red River (1948)

Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee

This 300+ film marathon has two motives. One was a way to get to all the Western classics I had missed for all these years, while the other was to explore the genre at a deep, deep level, covering more than just the classics. Red River is considered a classic of the genre, so it would fall into that first category. I could have just as easily watched the “greatest hits” first and then moved on to the deeper cuts of the genre, but being able to see the large with the small, the great with the not so great is a good way as any to better understand the genre and the dynamics which make it one of the more American-specific representations of filmmaking (though we will get to the Italian spaghetti westerns in due time). So I’m supposed to love Red River, revere it, hold it up as a western classic. I know I am only 50 films into the marathon, with a few more later on the trail that I’d seen previously, but I came away from this viewing with a different opinion than I was supposed to.

Dunson (John Wayne) is am ambitious frontiersman who decides to break away from his wagon train with his good friend Groot (Walter Brennan) and head south to Texas to build his cattle empire, even as that means leaving his loving lady. As they approach the Red River, they realize the wagon train has been raided by Indians, who massacred everyone, except a shook young man named Garth (Montgomery Clift), who joins up with Dunson and Groot. Making their way south into Texas, the trio stakes their claim to a vast stretch of land. Over the years, they build their cattle ranch empire. Now the time has come to drive their beef to market in Missouri, but Dunson soon exercises his powers past their welcome, causing unrest among the cowboys, including Garth who is now grown. Can they make the long journey to the railway and survive their differences?

John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan are awesome. Howard Hawks is awesome. But Red River seems like less than the sum of its parts. It’s a good, solid western, that much I will not refute. I enjoyed the film while watching it. However, nothing about it really screamed “classic” to me, and perhaps those expectations hampered my experience slightly, but the point remains that I found Red River to be a good, enjoyable western, but not a great one. It’s director Howard Hawks’ first foray into the genre, and he will appear again later on down the line with other revered films like Rio Bravo, and perhaps I will have better luck with those films, perhaps Howard Hawks will have something more to offer. The cattle drive story has potential to be compelling, and even the character dynamics which lead to the rifts on the drive are compelling, but I found the characters themselves to be lacking.

Dunson, our hero turned fallen hero brings no sympathy from me. He was always a hardened, heartless man and nothing changes in his arc. Bringing on the young and promising Garth is nice, but Dunson attempts to bend him to his will, a point that Garth later pushes back against. Their relationship, that of a father/son dynamic, doesn’t ever seem manufactured or insignificant, and the changing of the guard can be seen as both noble and a long time coming, but that doesn’t change the fact that Dunson is a bad man, a man who dares to bury a man and then read from the Bible over him. There is nothing righteous about his ways. Which brings me to Groot, the loyal sidekick who has been with Dunson since they left the wagon train. Why? What are Groots origins and his motivations? Why does he cling to Dunson, because he never had to courage to stand up to him, as Garth eventually does?

The performances as are good, especially Clift, who I wish was in more of the upcoming films on my list. And the film has good production values. Even the concept is compelling to me, as we have not truly explored what it takes to undertake a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. The hurdles these men must jump, the incidents they encounter, and especially the undue stress placed upon them by Dunson is all real world drama, and Hawks handles the elements very well. And yet I failed to connect to the narrative at the core of the film, the relationship dynamics between Dunson, Garth and Groot, the changing of the guard from old man to young man. The film resolves itself in a very quick and tidy endings, so I will do the same with my review:

Red River is a good, enjoyable western, one with much promise, but also one which doesn’t quite live up to its lofty reputation. I hate framing good movies in a negative sounding light, but there you have it.

★★★ – Good

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