Directed by: Howard Hawks
Screenplay by: Borden Chase & Charles Schnee. From The Saturday Evening Post Story by Borden Chase
Cast: John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Collen Gray
Run Time: 2 Hours and 12 Minutes
Availability: Digital Rental or Purchase from Amazon, Google Play, Vudu. On DVD & Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection
Howard Hawks’ 1948 film “Red River” is a critically-acclaimed western. The American Film Institute put it at #5 on their list of the best westerns. However, I cannot agree with the critics on this one. “Red River” to me is a dull film with a poorly told story. It’s not a good representation of the western genre.
Thomas Dunson (Wayne) is traveling across the country in a wagon train with his good friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). At one point, they break off from the group and head for Texas. See, Dunson is a man with a dream. He dreams of owning his own cattle ranch. After they leave, the wagon train is attacked by Native Americans, and the only survivor is a young boy named Matthew Garth. Dunson becomes a surrogate father to the boy, and this small, unique family ends up starting their own cattle farm.
14 years later, there is no market for beef in Texas. Dunson, Groot and Matthew (now grown up and played by Montgomery Cliff) hire some guys to join them on a journey that seems impossible, taking these 9,000-10,000 cattle all the way from Texas to Missouri. During the journey there is a change in Dunson. He becomes power hungry, and a “tyrant.” Even when the group learns of a buyer in Kansas, which is a shorter and more-convenient trip, Dunson refuses to listen to this. A “mutiny” occurs when Matthew decides he is going to over the group and take them to Kansas. Dunson leaves but swears he will catch up and kill Matthew.
How is this a Best Screenplay nominee?
Critics praise the film for its portrayal of the rivalry between Wayne and Cliff and their struggle for power. While the film is about this rivalry, it does a very poor job in telling the story. How this was nominated for a screenwriting oscar is beyond me.
The “mutiny” does not happen until 1 Hour and 17 Minutes into this 2 Hour and 12 Minute film. At the 21 minute mark is when the journey to Missouri gets underway. What happens in between those two moments is just very weak and inconsequential material. That time could be spent showcasing Wayne’s descent into becoming a “tyrant,” as the film calls him, or perhaps we could spent time showcasing the groups reaction to this tyranny. Or we could spend time with Matt and see how he reacts to this tyrant. Nope. Perhaps a defender of the film could make the argument that it subtly builds this madness. However there is a difference between subtlety and just not acknowledging something. I never felt the film properly showcased this “tyranny” and the group never seemed to react to it. In fact, nobody makes any comment about Dunson’s “craziness” until the 1 Hour and 17 minute mark. When the big turning point happens and Matt takes over, I felt nothing. Everything was so underdeveloped.
“Red River” also has one of the cheapest endings I have seen in a long time. According to James Kendrick of qnetwork.com, Hawks had to change the original ending of the film to avoid a lawsuit from Howard Hughes, who accused Hawks of stealing the ending of his film “The Outlaw.” Nothing can be done about that, I suppose. However, how any one can defend this ending is beyond me. Keith Phipps of The Dissolve said the of the films ending: “After spending two hours in a big, beautiful, but unfailingly harsh world, Hawks ends the film with the suggestion of gentler possibilities. It’s a Hollywood ending that doesn’t play like a cop-out, so much as an unexpected moment of grace.” Yeah, I think you are trying to hard there buddy.
Important Film for John Wayne
Despite all I said about the film, fans of John Wayne should still seek it out, as it is marks an important turning point for the actor. According to Kendrick, the film “mined previously unknown depths to his now familiar on-screen persona” and that it also “inaugurated the second, more intriguing half of his career, enabling him to be cast in roles that were more than just macho posturing and gruff heroism.” Because of this film, Wayne was able to get roles in film such as “True Grit” and “The Shootist.”
Here is an interesting story: When John Ford, who made Wayne a superstar by casting him in “Stagecoach” saw “Red River,” he said of Wayne’s performance: “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.”
Overall Thoughts and Impressions of the Film
Needless to say “Red River” did nothing for me. There are certain artistic elements that are great: Performances all around are fantastic, and the direction from Howard Hawks is great. I had a read an interesting tidbit that Hawks was only able to use 1,000 or so cattle. If that is true then the use of perspective is fantastic as it really does look like there are 9,000 cattle on screen.
However the story is just so underwhelming. The critical acclaim for this film baffles me. Yes, it is a John Wayne movie and a Howard Hawks movie, and both of these artists usually have high quality products. “Red River” though is not a good representation of both of these talents. I would only recommend “Red River” to those that are already active John Wayne fans, if only for its significance in the actors career.
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