Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, Harry Carey Jr., John Ireland
Written by: Borden Chase, Charles Schnee
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 133
Date: 08/25/1948

Red River (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cattle Royale

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It can be argued that John Wayne's best performance is in John Ford's The Searchers. In it, he plays uncle Ethan, who returns home from the war, only to find his home attacked by Indians and his niece kidnapped. He becomes obsessed with finding her, even though it takes years. We can see obsessions boiling beneath his surface, and can tell that it has a lot more to do with just his niece. But in Red River, his character, Thomas Dunson, is equally obsessed, first with driving cattle to California, then with catching up with and killing his surrogate son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Here he is hell-bent with fury in his eyes. "Aging" 20 years over the course of the film, it's a more exterior performance, but equal in precision and power. Maybe both performances are great, but Red River is the better film.

Red River -- a movie Wayne made 8 years earlier, and with Howard Hawks, the story-teller, not John Ford, the myth-maker -- is the clearer of the two films. A loose variation on Mutiny on the Bounty, it has a more tangible goal in mind. Clift (in his first and best role) is the orphan Wayne raises to be a cattleman and son-figure. Along the way, Wayne begins to grow obsessed to the point where he gets dangerous. Clift and the rest of the men mutiny and send Wayne on his way without supplies. They ride on, trying to figure out how many days it will take Wayne to catch up to them and kill them.

One of the most telling remarks about Red River came when Ford saw the film. His comment was, "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act." Hawks is the most gifted storyteller in cinema. The movie breezes along, and he completely immerses us in the cattle drive and the surrounding events. He doesn't do anything flashy, just establishes a good, sharp pace, and a well told story. The movie is a bit long, at 2 hours and 13 minutes, but after the film is over, we think back and remember how beautiful and crisp the photography is, the incredible motion of the cattle, and how sublime and perfect it is. Hawks never did anything self-consciously. You always realize how great his films are after you're through enjoying yourself.

The gorgeous, fluid black-and-white photography is by Russell Harlan.