Red River - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1948

Director: Howard Hawks

Production: Monterey Productions; black and white, 35mm; running time: 125 minutes, some sources list 133 minutes. Released 1948.

Red River
Red River
Filmed in 85 days. An extract of the film is featured in The Last Picture Show directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Producers: Charles K. Feldman with Howard Hawks; screenplay: Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, from the story "The Chisholm Trail" by Borden Chase; photography: Russell Harlan; editor: Christian Nyby; sound: Richard de Weese and Vinton Vernon; art director: John Datu Arensma; musical director: Dimitri Tiomkin; special effects: Donald Stewart and Allan Thompson.

Cast: John Wayne ( Thomas Dunson ); Montgomery Clift ( Matthew Garth ); Joanne Dru ( Tess Millay ); Walter Brennan ( Groot Nadine ); Coleen Gray ( Fen ); John Ireland ( Cherry Valence ); Noah Beery, Jr. ( Buster ); Harry Carey, Jr. ( Dan Latimer ); Mickey Kuhn ( Matt as an infant ); Paul Fix ( Teeler ); Hank Worden ( Slim ); Ivan Parry ( Bunk Kenneally ); Hal Taliaferro ( Old Leather ); Paul Fierro ( Fernandez ); Billie Self ( Cowboy ); Ray Hyke ( Walt Jergens ); Dan White ( Laredo ); Tom Tyler ( Cowboy ); Glenn Strange ( Naylor ); Lane Chandler ( Colonel ); Joe Dominguez ( Mexican guard ); Shelley Winters ( Girl in wagon train ).



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* * *

Red River is a film about a cattle drive. To depict this story of Texas cattlemen driving thousands of cattle across thousands of miles northward to Kansas, Howard Hawks, the film's director, in effect recreated that original task to make the film. In both 1865, when the narrative was set, and 1946, when the film was shot, the epic task confronting a group of men was that of moving all those animals across all that space. The epic task is mirrored by the film's vast, epic shots of men, cattle, sky, and space.

The epic story is both a view of American history and a view of the American civilization as a successor to those of the past. Set just after the Civil War, the film's journey reaffirms and re-establishes the oneness of the American nation and the oneness of the American continent. The journey to bring Texas beef to the north reveals the conquest of space and distance to produce one whole nation. But this journey has a relation to Homeric epic as well as to American history, for, like the Odyssey , the film chronicles a vast and epic task in which the threatened dangers are external (in Red River , the threat is from Indian attack and cattle rustlers) but the real dangers are internal (in the will, the judgment, and the dedication of the travellers themselves, and in the tension between the leader and his followers).

In converting a sprawling serialized story by Borden Chase into his own taut film, Hawks chose a metaphoric title, Red River , which has little specific meaning in the story (crossing the Red River signifies the departure from the familiar homeland and the journey into the unknown) but which has obvious Biblical parallels to the epic journey of the Israelites in "Exodus." Hawks anchors these epic and metaphoric suggestions with a sensitive psychological study of the journey's two leaders, Thomas Dunson, the older man who founded the cattle spread in 1851, and Matthew Garth, his adopted son. In the role of Dunson, Hawks cast John Wayne, giving Wayne the kind of role that became indistinguishable from his own persona for three decades—tough, hard, absolutely committed to accomplishing the task before him no matter what the cost, old but not too old to get a tough job done, bull-headed but bound by personal codes of duty, honor, and morality. Opposite Wayne, Hawks cast the young Montgomery Clift in his first film role. The contrast between the sensitive "soft," almost beautifully handsome Clift and the hard, determined, indomitable Wayne not only provides the essential psychological contrast required for the film's narrative but also provides two brilliant and brilliantly contrasted acting styles for the film's dramatic tension.

In the film's narrative, the more supple leader, Garth, replaces the unbending Dunson when the inflexible older man's decisions threaten the success of the enterprise. Dunson vows to take revenge on Garth for this ouster, and the climax of the film, after Garth has successfully delivered the cattle to market, promises a gun battle between the vengeful Dunson and his own spiritual son. In what has become the most controversial issue about the film, that gun battle never takes place. While some see Hawks's avoidance of the climactic duel as some kind of pandering to Hollywood taste. Hawks has carefully built into his narrative pattern the terms that guarantee that a man with Dunson's sense of honor and morality could never kill a man who does not intend to kill him first. Matthew Garth demonstrates he could never kill his "father," and Dunson, despite his previous verbal threats and his unswerving commitment to his word, could never kill the "son" who loves him. As is typical of a Hawks film, beneath the superficial talk the two men love one another, and they demonstrate that love by what they do rather than what they say.

—Gerald Mast

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