Howard Hawks westerns are always about men. They deal with the complex relationship between them and how they exist in a world of difficulties. Red River is no different; it’s a sprawling epic tale starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift that touches this core Hawksian theme.
Red River follows Wayne’s Thomas Dunson as he herds cattle on the notorious Chilsom Trail, along the Rio Grande. He is aided by adopted son Matthew (Clift), who he met following the death of his betrothed fourteen years before. The film sees their relationship deteriorate as Wayne’s character becomes obsessed with his task of herding his cattle across the country, ignoring the advice and feelings of those around him.
Hawks is a masterful director who has tackled many genres, putting his unique stamp on them. Red River deals with the relationship between Wayne and Clift as they are torn apart by the blind obsession of Wayne’s character. Throughout the film, Clift is attempting to emerge from Wayne’s shadow, trying to strike out as his own man. The plot is complicated by John Ireland’s gunfighter – the infamous scene where they compare their ‘pistols’ is all about the ‘hombre action’.
This 1948 film (although shot in 1946) is epic in scope. The black and white photography soaks in the American landscape, helping define the western as an important part of the county’s culture. It also features a great performance from John Wayne, an actor who is never given his due credit. His role as Dunson is a difficult one, he’s not a likeable character but Wayne brings his movie star quality to the performance. He brings audience sympathy to a character who could be unappealing (rumour has it that even John Ford was impressed). Meanwhile, Clift brings his mean and moody style to the role of Matthew, the son who sees that the man that he loves is running the risk of losing his reputation.
Red River isn’t a gun-toting western. It’s a character piece set in the west. In lesser hands it could have been more melodramatic, but Hawks was always about the material. He digs deep, extracting what’s important and polishing it into something perfect. And Red River is perfect.
Red River comes with a decent smattering of extras. It has a bizarre (if informative) video conversation between Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley and a great Lux radio play of the film featuring John Wayne. The disc also comes with an interesting booklet that (like all Masters of Cinema releases) is a great read.