Many westerns have been self-consciously conceived on an epic scale, but Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), in its deepest channels, actually feels like an ancient epic. It is measured in long breaths and offers up scenes eroded to their fundamentals. Yet for all the hundreds of cattle that fill the screen, this saga of the first great cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail, dramatized through the struggle between cattle rancher Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), is never cumbersome. In fact, the monotony of inexorable slow progression provides something like an energizing bass pattern for the movie, with accents provided by moments of flavorful banter by an assortment of trail hands, including Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Noah Beery Jr., and Hank Worden. There’s a steadiness of emphasis through the film’s long central movement, a sense of emotions held in check in order to get on with what has to be done, so that when violence and something like madness do finally emerge, the effect is all the more jolting.
Red River has from the first imposed itself by its iconic visual force and the sheer logistics of what unfolds on-screen. Manny Farber—while characteristically qualifying its themes of loyalty and leadership as “romantic, simpleminded mush”—admired the film as “a feat of pragmatic engineering, working with weather, space, and physiognomy.” James Agee, reviewing it for Time, wrote: “There is a constant illusion that you are watching an extraordinary effort to get cattle across a certain immense expanse of difficult and threatening country, that you are learning a lot about how such a job feels and gets done, and that the perpetually wrangling players are important not so much of themselves but because the whole success or failure of the attempt depends on these people.” It is an epic made by a director constitutionally averse to grandiosity and inclined more toward unsentimental comedy than soul-stirring melodrama. If that comic sense led him to an ending that many have found unexpected and disconcerting, it also imparted a restraining tartness.
The spatial sprawl and empire-building theme of Red River surely owe something to the fact that it was the first, and as it turned out only, film made by Hawks’s independent company, Monterey Productions. The director was approaching fifty when he bought the rights to Borden Chase’s Saturday Evening Post serial novel The Chisholm Trail, a suitably ambitious project to launch his new venture. Hawks had been directing movies since 1926 and over the years had worked for every major studio—Columbia, MGM, RKO, Twentieth Century-Fox, and, above all, Warner Bros., for which he had recently directed such hits as Sergeant York, Air Force, To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep—but he had never fallen easily into the role of company man. In the event, Red River went over budget and Hawks (along with his partner, Charles Feldman) went into debt financing it, and so found himself shut out of most of the profit from what turned out to be an enormously successful film.
Red River stands roughly in the middle of a singular career that in its own day was taken very much for granted. Not until the Cahiers du cinéma critics, notably Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, began to make extraordinary claims for Hawks’s art in the mid-1950s did anyone appear to notice that this seeming paradigm of the Hollywood professional, deftly switching from gangster movie (Scarface, 1932) to screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, 1938) to war picture (Air Force, 1943), might be a deeply, indeed obsessively, personal creator. Hawks’s films were the epitome of apparently unostentatious, unpretentious Hollywood product, and it was only in retrospect that the persistent underlying motifs came into clear view: the stoic resistance to every appeal to tear-jerking grandiosity, the hard-boiled sparring that was the preferred mode of courtship, the cult of professional skill as something to hang on to in a world that might otherwise prove meaningless.
In Red River, Hawks had chosen a story centered around an archetypal independent operator, another entry in a gallery of self-willed types, including Paul Muni’s world-devouring gangster in Scarface, John Barrymore’s maniacally egotistical stage director in 1934’s Twentieth Century, Cary Grant’s unflappable mail pilot in 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings, and the ultimate freelancers Harry Morgan (To Have and Have Not, 1944) and Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, 1946), played by Humphrey Bogart. As embodied by John Wayne, Tom Dunson is perhaps the most relentlessly driven of them all. He aspires to build a cattle empire in Texas and brooks no obstacles. He takes leave of the woman he loves, Fen (Coleen Gray), who then falls victim to an Indian massacre. He kills anyone who contests his right to the land he settles on, starting with an agent of its ostensible and faraway Mexican owner. With his sidekick Groot (Brennan) and young Matthew Garth, the orphaned survivor of the massacre that killed Fen, he creates something like his own polity south of the Red River. All this is prologue. Fourteen years later, in 1865, he finds himself economically devastated by the collapse of the Southern economy in the Civil War and must initiate a cattle drive through dangerous territory to Missouri.
The drive becomes the movie. In the course of it, Dunson, transforming into a figure of Ahab-like implacability, will push his men beyond endurance, until Matthew, whom Dunson has raised as a son, reluctantly takes charge, leaves him in the wilderness, and changes course toward the more desirable destination of Abilene, Kansas, where a new rail line has opened. Dunson follows in vengeful pursuit. Everything at this point suggests that we are heading toward something like the fatal climax that figures in Chase’s original story. Hawks, however, had determined that Dunson would not die. The director, as Todd McCarthy notes in his definitive biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, “increasingly refrained from killing off remotely sympathetic characters.”
The final conflict is resolved through the intervention of a late-emerging character, Tess (Joanne Dru), a young woman Matthew has rescued from yet another Indian attack and who in separate encounters with Matthew and Dunson pieces together the story of their relationship. Storming into the midst of their showdown, she delivers a tirade that more or less shames them into acknowledging their love for each other. It’s a jolting transition, like emerging from one era into another. Dru’s very line readings echo those of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, a masterpiece about stoic aviators in which Hawks had crystallized the elements of his personal universe, and anticipate those of Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, the hugely successful 1959 western that many regard as the great summing-up of his work. Tess seems far removed from the dark and tortuous trek we have been on until this moment. The mood all at once is pure Hawksian comedy: salty and combative and thoroughly of the late 1940s. If the ending can feel like a letdown—and this remains a subject of contention for everyone who sees the film—it is perhaps because it wrenches the story away from the more devastating ending it seemed to be preparing.
Red River—not least because of the fifteen hundred or so head of cattle in the supporting cast—was the biggest collective enterprise Hawks had supervised, and he relied on a team of exceptional collaborators: Charles Schnee, a young screenwriter who would go on to write They Live by Night and The Bad and the Beautiful; cinematographer Russell Harlan, who would shoot five more films for Hawks; Christian Nyby, who had edited To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep and was here, taking over from two other editors, given quite a free hand in putting together the pieces of an immense and scattered story; Dimitri Tiomkin, whose commanding score, a template for those of many future westerns, infuses the film so thoroughly that it is not surprising to see him given a title credit almost as prominent as the director’s; and second unit director Arthur Rosson (credited as codirector), a longtime friend of Hawks’s who took charge of much of the large-scale action, including the stampede that is one of the film’s most memorable sequences. Even though shot only partly in the natural settings of a vast ranch in southern Arizona—many campfire scenes were staged in the studio, and liberal use was made of rear projection—Red River manages to sustain an almost Platonic sense of the outdoors. When Matthew and Buster McGee (Beery) become startled at finding themselves under a roof for the first time in weeks, the spectator for an instant shares the sensation.
The finished product was inflected by a variety of offscreen maneuverings. The carefully set-up rivalry between Matthew and the sharpshooter Cherry Valance (John Ireland), which clearly points toward an inevitable duel, comes to nothing because Hawks had a falling-out with Ireland (various reasons have been given) and pretty much wrote him out of the second half of the picture. Additional tinkering led to the existence of two distinct versions of the film, the shorter of which adds narration by Brennan to replace the book pages that link the episodes. (Hawks preferred the shorter version, which is the one that was released in theaters at the time; some have found the extended finale of the longer one to be more satisfying.) The concluding confrontation between Dunson and Matthew had to be reedited, to choppy effect, because of a threatened lawsuit by Howard Hughes, who claimed persuasively that the ending had been lifted from The Outlaw (1943), on which Hawks had been director before Hughes took over.
Additionally, Todd McCarthy relates how a whole layer of sexual realism was scraped away by the Breen Office before the film got under way: “The original script was spilling over with . . . very frank and natural remarks from men without women—dreams, fantasies, braggadocio expressed in terms unlike anything ever heard in a Hollywood western.” A taste of the intended erotic tone remains in the brief but unusually passionate last embrace of Dunson and Fen and, more subtly, in the implied sexual affair between Matthew and Tess. (In another key, we are left with the phallic one-upmanship of Matthew and Cherry comparing guns: “That’s a good-looking gun . . . Can I see it?” “Maybe you’d like to see mine.”)
For the central pair, Hawks decided on two actors as different as they could be. Montgomery Clift, in his first film role, radiates a charm he never quite recaptured, while at the same time projecting a detached intelligence that is central to the film: he is the son who has come home knowing more than his father, and who must gradually shift from affectionate loyalty to an open rebellion rooted not in animosity but a pragmatic sense of what is best for the situation. Clift is so different from John Wayne that there is never any question of his character’s vying to become Dunson. Matthew represents something new, an abandonment of Dunson’s benevolent despotism in favor of discussion and consensus, values altogether alien to the qualities with which Dunson carved out his cattle kingdom.
Wayne had made many films before Red River, but here we see the full power of his presence for the first time, an event memorialized in John Ford’s often-quoted reaction: “I never knew the son of a bitch could act.” At thirty-nine, he was playing, for most of the film, an older man, and in doing so created the actor he would be for the rest of his career. Tom Dunson remained a singular role in that career. If the film at moments suggests a note of archaic tragedy, it is largely due to the way Wayne projects Dunson’s hubris without melodramatic exaggeration. The hubris is there from the start; if he seems to change in the course of the film, it is because the circumstances change around him and he refuses to recognize that. Embodying a granitic force that cannot deviate from its determined course, he keeps uncovering different aspects of that force, and hints of every contrary impulse he has had to bury, even as he seems to wear down before our eyes. The only blurring comes at the very end, when there is simply not enough room for him to turn around in to register the profound and abrupt change of perception that the script requires.
It is Wayne who in the opening scenes makes plausible the idea that we are present at a foundational moment, when a single person, by deciding to move in one direction rather than another, changes the world. Although the film tells us the story is drawn from a fictitious chronicle called Early Tales of Texas, the mood is more of wary awe than of reverent glorification. Dunson walks away from his beloved—telling her he will send for her later—and leaves her to be massacred, even though there have been ample warnings of an Indian attack. He shoots down anyone who challenges his land rights and then reads from the Bible over their bodies, words that do much to set the tone from the start: “We brought nothing into this world, and it’s certain we can take nothing out of it.” An alternation of killings and burials is established as part of the way of things, a harsh musical structure: “Fill ’em full of lead, stick ’em in the ground, and then read words at ’em,” as one of the trail hands sums it up.
There is an austere grandeur about these early scenes. The immense cattle herd springs up out of isolation and emptiness. Dunson’s kingdom is established by the crossing of a river and the shedding of blood. What he has sacrificed is symbolized by a serpentine bracelet that binds together the whole film: Dunson received it from his mother; he gives it to Fen and then retrieves it from the dead body of the Indian who killed her; he passes it on to Matthew; Tess (by her account) steals it from Matthew after they have spent the night together; she wears it when she meets with Dunson to persuade him not to kill Matthew. The urgent intimacy of the last embrace of Dunson and Fen is the farewell to pleasure, the necessary sacrifice enabling Dunson to become conqueror and nation founder. In close-up, it has a sexual force, emphasized by Fen’s impassioned dialogue, that shuts out the rest of the world. In long shot, it becomes a hieroglyphic representation of parting.
All this recurring imagery—river, grave, serpent bracelet—has a folkloric quality, all the more impressive for being introduced in such an apparently natural way. Things just happen, as in the most ancient narratives: abruptly, and sometimes with inexplicable gaps in between. When Dunson shoots down the Mexican rider who attempts to evict him, it feels like a line from a primeval chronicle, a bare notation devoid of rhetorical flights about moral ascendancy or the mission of civilization.
The killings, when they come, are sharp and swift, as Hawks always preferred. The gunning down by Dunson of three malcontents takes only a second. The effect is at once shockingly brutal and perversely elegant. But even more shocking are two acts of violence that do not come to pass: the threatened horsewhipping of Bunk Kennelly (Ivan Parry) for having accidentally precipitated a stampede, and the announcement by Dunson—by now hobbling from a leg wound and dosing himself with whiskey—of his punishment for the recaptured deserters: “I’m gonna hang them.” Wayne’s uninflected reading of the line is the vocal sound of a stone wall, the sound of a degenerated authority in the moment when it passes beyond what is tolerable. This is the Dunson we remember, even after Hawks has found a way to save him by bringing him back at the last possible moment into a comedic world.
In another sense, it doesn’t matter. After the cattle have reached their destination, the humans can revert to a more comfortable mode; the drama is done. What persists beyond all else is the movement of the herd itself, that slow and weighty progression that threads the film together, those interminable linking shots of cattle herded across plains and down slopes and through dense rain. All the high passion of human conflict is subverted by the elemental immediacy of the cattle crossing the Red River, the almost tangible presence of their bodies in the water resonating unexpectedly with the Italian neorealism that was also of this moment. A few years later, Luchino Visconti would incorporate the scene into Bellissima, as Anna Magnani, watching the film with other denizens of a Roman slum, goes into ecstasies at how “the cows are all getting wet!” The cattle drive is not the movie’s background but its essence, and no ending could be more satisfying than the exhilarating moment when the cattle pour at last into the streets of Abilene.