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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: NR
Running Time: 133
Date: 08/26/1948

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. Walter Brennan brings a good deal of warmth and humor as the outfit's cook, spouting his prairie wisdom from time to time ("You were wrong, Mr. Dunson.")

Perhaps the key sequence -- aside from the memorable "take 'em to Missouri, Matt" -- is the stampede sequence, begun by a cowpoke with a sweet tooth sneaking a scoop of sugar and upsetting a series of pots and pans. One of Hawks' major themes was honor and honesty among men (and women), and this act -- introduced by Brennan's line "Your sweet tooth is almost as bad as having a whiskey tongue or liking a woman" -- is viewed by the men as the greatest of all betrayals. The death of men and cattle is one thing, but the deception is something else entirely.

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 was the most gifted storyteller in cinema. With gorgeous, fluid black-and-white photography by Russell Harlan, the movie breezes along, completely immersing us in the cattle drive and the surrounding events. Hawks 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.

Many years after I wrote the above review, the Criterion Collection released Red River on a glorious dual-edition DVD/Blu-ray set (as well as a cheaper DVD-only edition). It's their first-ever Hawks release, and it was a good choice. It's probably the best-looking of Hawks' films. First off, the set includes two different cuts of the film, the pre-release version of 133 minutes, which is the most common version, and Hawks' preferred cut of 127 minutes. In a video interview, Peter Bogdanovich informs us of the difference between the two cuts, and indeed, offers a solution to find the best possible compromise between the two. (Bogdanovich recorded many hours of interviews with Hawks back in the 1960s and 1970s, and included a clip of Red River at a crucial point in his own film The Last Picture Show.)

Other extras include interviews with critic Molly Haskell and historian Lee Clark Mitchell, audio interviews with Hawks and Borden Chase, a radio show, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien. If you buy the dual edition, the liner notes also includes an interview with Hawks' longtime editor Christian Nyby. Best of all, in the dual edition, we get a paperback copy of Borden Chase's novel! This will surely be one of my favorites of 2014.

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