Howard Hawks is a mainstay of the Sight & Sound list, contributing more entries (six) than any other American director. This will be the fifth Hawks film we’ve tackled here at Fan With a Movie Yammer, and it is readily apparent that the director is a master of many styles. So far we’ve seen an adventure drama, two screwball comedies, a noir whodunit, and now with our latest film — Red River (1948) — a Western. And a very expansive Western at that, as the movie finds cowboy film legend John Wayne and the tightly wound Montgomery Clift (in his first major film role) at the head of a massive herd of cattle as they seek to drive their way to fortune and glory in post-Civil War America. Red River is an unusual Western, passing over the black-and-white morality of so many of these films by presenting a deeply flawed hero/villain in Wayne’s iron-hard rancher. It also serves as an interesting snapshot of a transitional moment in American cinema as a new breed of actor was starting to emerge that eschewed the heightened (some might say stagy) performing styles of Golden Age Hollywood in search of something more real and emotionally resonant. This, of course, comes in the form of Clift, whose twitchy performance as Matt Garth stands in sharp contrast to the old school styles of his fellow actors, and set the stage for the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the decade to come. (133 min.)
S. – Right up front I have to just get it out that Red River was not really my cup of tea. I didn’t find the story that engaging and there were quite a few exchanges between key characters that I found awkward. Despite this, I can see how it found its way onto the Sight & Sound list. Some of the story elements, as well as the way the film was shot, bend the expectations of the Western genre. For instance there are some stunning sequences of cattle driving, which is not an activity that I would have guessed was bursting with cinematic appeal and I imagine a fairly challenging one to orchestrate. Patience, know-how and a good eye had to have been behind revealing the beauty in that mass movement of clumsy beasts. Almost all of the action takes place out of doors where the hardened cattlemen are most at ease, yet it is not an overly romantic view of life on the range. Across the course of events we see both the reward and the punishing conditions entwined in the logistics of moving stock across the country without the aid of modern transportation. We also get to see a few different versions of the type of men it takes to make this happen, and that isn’t always pretty.
J. – Cows!
Yeah, the actual cattle driving in Red River is rather amazing. Even the basic things like a river crossing have a certain elemental power in this movie. And that really comes together in the stampede sequence, which is genuinely terrifying and undoubtedly resulted in the actual death and injury of quite a few heads of cattle — absolutely wild stuff. But it says a lot about the film that we are starting with the cows rather than the characters.
I’m not a huge fan of the Western genre, but there are quite a few Westerns I enjoy immensely — Red River just isn’t one of them. I actually struggle a bit to understand why this movie made the list — especially when one compares it to our last Western, My Darling Clementine, which is a much more intriguing tweak of the formula for me. And that is a pity, because Red River is bursting with promise, but it never seems to quite deliver — in large part because of those awkward character moments you mentioned. I’m sure we’ll get back to that failing, but I will say that the fault for those moments lies primarily with the supporting cast. I can’t find much to gripe about with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, who were great throughout (or at least until the script fails them at the end). There’s frequently a crotchity streak to Wayne’s characters, but it was nice to see that trigger happy, “get off my lawn” demeanor go someplace much darker and obsessive. I particular like that the film initially presents Wayne as a typical frontier hero but basically takes those traits to their logical conclusion: If you take land that likely belongs to other people and use violence to defend your claim, well, you might be a thug, not a “settler”. That was a nice revisionist twist on the Manifest Destiny nonsense that lays behind so much Western heroism. (Not that the movie has anything nice to say about American Indians.)
S. – I did find it very satisfying that the macho tough guy of the piece paled into quite a sad figure as events progressed. The bullying tactics that won Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) his earlier success lose their impact when it is his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) who stands up to him. The evolving power shift and the angst of Garth as he comes to accept that he must openly defy Dunson are great themes, even if they were not always executed to their full potential. I agree with you, J., that both Wayne and Clift did their part to bring these two characters to life. The smart, brooding and thoughtful Garth seemed to very naturally develop into a man that would find himself on a collision course with the brutish and entitled Dunson. The exploration of loyalty as a burden rather than a mark of good character was an intriguing one, unfortunately this aspect felt a little under-developed. But my disappointment that the full potential of the clash between the central characters wasn’t realised is not the main reason for my lukewarm response to Red River though. I had much larger problems with the sickening portrayal of American Indians and the crazy intense couple of female characters that were thrown into the mix, I ended up feeling quite disconnected from the world presented here.
J. – Clift is particularly excellent in this movie. I like how his Matt Garth is so twitchy and uncertain, definitely not the kind of thing that one would expect from a leading man performance. Clift stutters his words and seems to contract and expand from scene to scene, but it a way that makes his character convincing and engaging rather than an oddball. For all Clift’s tics, it’s a performance that is much more grounded in emotion and experience than those of the other actors, who are very much performing. It really puts him at odds with Wayne not just in terms of the story (adopted son standing up to hard-ass father), but in terms of the performance — in this regard, Red River becomes a passing of the torch in more ways than one.
But it is the other performances in the film (and the ending) that are the real problem for me. Walter Brennan is so, so good as the bad guy in My Darling Clementine that it was almost troubling to see him in the super-stereotypical guise of the salty old cook. Even in this hackneyed role I felt like there was room for interesting developments (the loyalty as a burden thing you mentioned, S.), but the story doesn’t really let that play out, which is a shame. And John Ireland presents an interesting figure as a rival and antagonist to Clift, only to essentially disappear from the movie, leaving the rivalry built up in the first half pretty much nowhere (apparently Hawks was concerned with Ireland’s drinking and had him largely written out of the latter half of the film.) But these character failures are nothing compared to the two women in the film. Though this is a Western, both Wayne’s love interest in the opening of the movie and Clift’s love interest later on act like they’re from the shadowy streets of a noir picture. It’s very discordant, particular in scenes that pair these women with John Wayne. And this is unfortunate, because one thing we’ve noted over and over again is that Hawks’ movies have great, strong women in them — but this makes one wonder if Hawks only knew how to present one strain of female strength. Of course, it could also be that he doesn’t have a Hepburn or a Bacall doing the performing.
But I think this might bring us to the ending of the film — I have a few choice words on that score, how about you, S.?
S. – The ending feels like a complete mess to me. I consider the true finale to be when that endless flow of cattle streams through the town and Garth has this look of mingled tiredness and disbelief on his face that Abilene actually exists and that he along with countless head of cattle have made it there. I found the showdown with Dunson insipid, belabouring a point that had been well made long before. The emotionally overwrought intervention by Garth’s love interest made me cringe, and that the fighting men were able to bond over the observation that Tess is crazy but hot and no doubt has a heart of gold was nauseating. I feel quite let down by Hawks here, I have enjoyed many of the feisty female characters that have populated his other list movies, but this just seemed lazy. Stubbornly my lasting memory will be Garth reaching his oasis in the desert.
J. – The ending is very perplexing, and an anticlimax of the highest order. I don’t want to condemn a film for straying from the standard models of storytelling, but there needs to be a justification for doing so. A film that immediately comes to mind here is the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men — the parallels are there, a guy in a tough situation and out to make it rich is pursued by an unstoppable monster of a man. But the anticlimactic ending of No Country for Old Men is part of its power, showcasing the grim grip of fate. The weirdly happy ending of Red River, however, is unearned and makes no larger point other than “audiences like happy endings.” And on top of that, if Wayne was never going to kill Clift’s character, why did he have to drag out the charade to the point where he shoots poor John Ireland — has everyone forgotten that this happened two minutes earlier as they chuckle in the dirt? And for that matter does everyone forget that Wayne is basically a murderer and a tyrant who tried to lynch a bunch of men?
It makes little sense, and utterly deflates the growing tension and menace of the last half of the film (and that tension is built up quite well). And it does so without providing either catharsis or a larger, more thoughtful conclusion that perhaps avoids resolution but presents a greater question. For all of Hawks’ many strengths, I wonder if perhaps he wasn’t a bit too much of a doer and not enough of a thinker to reach for those kinds of heights.