erik lundegaard


Red River (1948)

Red River is reminiscent of The Searchers. Both star John Wayne as a man on a mission, who, in the midst of that mission, becomes less hero than villain.

Written by:
Borden Chase
Charles Schnee
Based on the short story "The Chisholm Trail" by Borden Chase

Directed by:
Howard Hawks
Arthur Rosson

John Wayne
Montgomery Clift
Joanne Dru
Walter Brennan
Coleen Gray
Harry Carey
John Ireland
Noah Beery Jr.
Harry Carey Jr.
Chief Yowlachie

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Writing (Chase)
Best Editing

"Planting and reading, planting and reading. Fill a man with lead, stick him in the ground, then read words at him. Why, when you've killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?"

In both films, too, he has a sidekick, a dark-haired, handsome "son" — never biological — who accompanies him on the mission. It's here, really, where the films diverge, and to me this divergence favors Red River. It's not simply that Montgomery Clift in Red River is a better actor than Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers; it's that Clift's Matt Garth provides a model of manhood that Hunter's Martin Pawley never does. Clift actually usurps Wayne in his film. He overthrows him — defeats him — and for a time the film forgets Wayne. In The Searchers, no matter how maniacal Wayne's Ethan Edwards becomes, he's always "The Man," because Pawley, a floppy-haired, impulsive clown, is so obviously not.

Red River begins with a wagon train heading west. Thomas Dunson (Wayne) decides he likes the look of the land to the south, and leaves the train, and his girl, behind, accompanied only by his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). That night they see fire in the direction of the wagon train, and — after a great shot of a flaming arrow heading straight at the camera — they, too, are attacked. They're victorious but Dunson finds the bracelet he gave his girl on one of the Indians. She's dead. Afterwards, a young boy wanders into their campsite; he's dazed — a remnant of the wagon train — and the men take him under their wing as they head south into Texas, squat some land off of Don Diego, and raise cattle.

For a moment, in a voice-over by Wayne, the movie becomes a Beef commercial: "I'll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country," he says. "Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make 'em strong. Beef to make 'em grow." Then 14 years go by, the Civil War has just ended, times are tough, and the boy, Matt Garth, has turned from a stiff-armed, bad little actor and into the lean, laconic, Montgomery Clift, the gay man's Marlon Brando, and one of the best actors of his generation.

Dunson decides to drive his cattle from Texas, where no one's buying it, to Missouri, where buyers and trains await. Cowboys are gathered - including sharpshooter Cherry Valance (John Ireland). In one amusing scene, Valance and Garth admire and even shoot each other's guns. Later, Valance says "I've taken a liking to that gun of his." Not sure what Freud would say about this, but modern critics, particularly gay critics, have had a field day.

On the thousand mile trail Dunson becomes more and more tyrannical, driving the men as much as the cattle and hunting down deserters. He kills men, then reads the Bible over their grave, causing one cowboy to comment plaintively, "Planting and reading, planting and reading. Fill a man with lead, stick him in the ground, then read words at him. Why, when you've killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?" Brilliant.

Eventually Dunson tries to hang some deserters, Garth intervenes, and the men back Garth. Dunson — truly the villain here — is left behind.

The film's resolution is a little too neat, and there seems an unresolved gunfight between Cherry and Matt. But Red River knows how to turn an ongoing gag (a cowboy with a sugar fixation) into tragedy; it knows how to turn John Wayne into a villain; and it knows a star when it sees one.

—November 4, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard