Original release: September 30, 1948
Running time: 133 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Borden Chase, Charles Schnee
Cast: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan
There comes a time in a boy’s life when he knows he’s gotta step out of his father’s shadow and be his own man. Sometimes it’s a pretty big shadow to step out of, but it’s a necessary rite of passage. Without going through it we’d never make that transition from boyhood to manhood.
For me, that time came when I was a teenager; choosing to leave home amidst the cries of my mother that I was too young and breaking my father’s heart. As the youngest child, I knew it was something I had to do, if only to prove to myself I could make it on my own without his help. I can see in hindsight how I could’ve made better choices to lessen the tension between us that lasted long until he died recently, but when I look at father/son relationships in films as well, especially when there’s a struggle for one to get out from under the other, it also reminds me of that time.
Howard Hawk’s classic western Red River is certainly one of those films. Starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift it’s a film that’s remained a favourite of mine for many years, not least because it stars two of my screen idols. It’s a sweeping, epic story about a cattle drive, based on the opening of the Chisholm Trail in 1867.
Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a somewhat stubborn man who dreams of having a cattle ranch in Texas. After setting off on his journey with trail hand, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), they encounter an orphaned boy, Matthew Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn and as an adult by Clift). He’s the sole survivor of Indian attack, and Dunson, who only recently learned his true love had been killed in such an attack, decides to adopt him as his own son.
After crossing into Texas via the Red River with only a bull and cow, Duson claims the land as his own, and a dispute with two Mexican men prompts him to draw his weapon, leaving one dead and the argument settled. Dunson calls his land Red River D, after his chosen cattle brand for his herd and promises Matt to add M to the brand, once he’s earned it.
We then see 14 years pass. The ranch is fully operational and Duson has over ten thousand cattle, but as a result of widespread poverty in the southern United States due to the loss of the American Civil War, no one can afford Dunson’s beef. His only option is to steer his herd north to Missouri where he hopes they’ll sell for a good profit.
Among the men he’s hired to help with the drive is professional gunman Cherry Valance (John Ireland), whom Matt strikes up a bit of friendly rivalry with. There’s trouble ahead though; with Dunson’s stubborn and heavy-handed ways and only beef for the men to eat, morale is falling low. This together with stampedes that leave a couple of wagons destroyed, who can blame a couple of men for wanting to drop out along the way, but Dunson responds by threatening they’ll be lynched for deserting.
Eventually Matt can’t sit back any longer and watch Dunson get away with things he knows are wrong. He decides to stand up against the man who’s been his father all these years. With Cherry’s help he manages to take control of the cattle drive and they head to Abilene, Kansas instead, leaving an injured Dunson behind but knowing he’s likely to recruit a posse to pursue and attack them.
Getting caught between Matt and Dunson is Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) whom Matt saves during an Indian attack. When Dunson meets her later on in the film as he’s trying to catch up with Matt and his cattle, he sees in her the same desperation when left his true love all those years ago. Still, that’s not enough to thwart his rage and he catches up to Matt in Abilene, determined to kill him.
Red River’s been described by many as one of the best westerns to have ever been made, and there’s no denying that. It’s right up there alongside The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) with its complex themes of rivalry and rebellion playing out against a bleak journey.
As tensions boil between the youngster and his father figure, both Wayne and Clift deliver performances that are impossible to forget. While the Duke had already played in countless films, his turn as the ruthless Dunson stands out in a career that was already impressive to begin with. Meanwhile Clift, starring in his second movie, but the first to be released, steals the film with his impossible good looks and Method acting. The final showdown between these opposing forces takes its time to arrive, but is well worth the wait.
Despite the ending being watered down from the original story, it’s still a remarkable film that continues to live on in film history, and I don’t mind that at all. Whenever it plays at the BFI I’m always there, and even though it makes me a little sad when I think about my father, at least I can always be thankful we never had to reach for our guns to settle our disagreements.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .