When it’s on: Sunday, 2 September (4.20 pm)
Rightly lauded as one of those Westerns that routinely makes it into Top Ten lists, Red River is an absorbing and epic piece of work, a retelling of Mutiny on the Bounty in post-Civil War America, and milestones for both director Howard Hawks and John Wayne, who reached into his dark side to produce an endlessly compelling and complex performance.
Wayne isn’t even the best actor in Red River. That honour goes to Montgomery Clift, making his film debut As Wayne’s protege and ultimately filling the ‘Fletcher Christian’ role. Clift is just perfect. Annoyingly handsome and clashing with Wayne’s acting style with his own more natural method, the camera clearly loves him and tracks his Oedipal challenge on the older man hungrily. I read somewhere that there’s a gay subtext to Red River, which I didn’t get, but I thought the tragic dimensions of Wayne and Clift’s relationship were writ large.
The Duke plays Thomas Dunson, who at the beginning of Red River is in a wagon trail snaking through Native American country to California. Determined to leave the trail and set up his own ranch in Texas, Dunson takes only his dogsbody, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), a fateful decision as, later, the wagons are ambushed by Indians and nearly everyone killed, including the woman he loves. The only survivor is young Matt (Mickey Kuhn as a boy; Clift later), a headstrong but loyal lad who joins Dunson’s fledgling cow-herding concern. The years pass. Whilst accumulating livestock and taking in a team of ranchers, Dunson realises there’s no money in Texas following the Civil War and decides to move his entire company north to Missouri. But it’s a trek plagued with perils. Hundreds of miles of hard journeying across unforgiving, harsh country, with the possibility of attack from nearby tribes and the sheer logistics of keeping the 10,000 strong herd moving. As the end remains a distant prospect and the men grow increasingly disconsolate, only Dunston’s stubborn determination keeps them going, yet as he drives them on he becomes an ever more alienated figure, especially with Matt.
Wayne prefigures his own revelatory turn in The Searchers as Dunson, and in certain ways is better because Ethan Edwards remains irredeemable and consistently rootless, whilst his character in Red River is an altogether more complicated prospect. In him is the raw determination to prevail in the developing and often hostile United States, mixed with the harsh treatment of his men, which overruns into outright bullying. The almost comic scenes where he reads the same oaths after burying someone again and again take on a far darker edge when he’s increasingly responsible for putting them there. It’s a real landmark for Wayne, playing against type and using his own inscrutability to make his character tougher and less malleable.
Clift and Wayne are supported by an excellent ensemble cast, including Harry Careys Snr and Jnr. There’s some really touching work put in by Brennan, who for the first half of the film is the comic relief, losing his false teeth in a poker game, but later emphasising Dunson’s loss of command when he finally stands up to him. If Red River has a downside, it’s in the lack of women. When they’re represented, in the feisty two minute cameo from Coleen Gray and Joanne Dru’s Tess, there’s either little to see or a sense, with the latter, of them being shoehorned in to provide a love interest that just isn’t necessary. Dru plays a pivotal role in the final clash between Matt and Dunson, one rewritten from Borden Chase’s original screenplay to give Red River a happy, redemptive ending, which is fine but isn’t the logical point to which the narrative has been driving.
Still, it’s a relatively minor quibble, particularly because one of Red River’s chief joys is the astounding cinematography. Much of the film tracks the mobile herd’s trek north, filling the screen with perfectly composed shot after shot of the thousands of cows, antlike herders and the big country. Russell Harlan often filmed from a low perspective, which helps to force home the sheer scale of Dunson’s journey. Imagining the effort that went into keeping all those actors and especially cattle in check seems almost impossible. Hawks was persuaded by Wayne to shoot in all weathers, leading to rewrites that accommodate rainy scenes and underlining the mens’ privations as they are forced to travel and sleep in all elements. The scene, not long before Matt mutinies, where Groot is serving mean gruel and weak coffee to herders who have to eat and drink in the driving rain, is one of the best, emphasised when Dunson drinks a cup of the awful brew to demonstrate its qualities and you sense the yawning lack of loyalty being shown towards him.
Red River: ****