Montgomery makes Wayne see Red
Howard Hawks's "Red River" is held in high esteem as one of the greatest westerns ever made and I am not going to disagree because this is a powerful movie on so many levels. The storyline is full of powerful moments as it tells of an arduous cattle drive across country tackling subjects of loyalty and choices along the way. It has action and drama plus a smattering of romance and features top performances from the cast especially John Wayne who in his one character gets to play a combination of hero and villain. "Red River" is by no means perfect, the occasional moment of humour and a couple of too sappy romantic scenes blight it but it is still a great western which so few westerns have come close to matching.
After parting company with a wagon train, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne - Fort Apache), his friend Groot (Walter Brennan - My Darling Clementine) and a young lad called Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), who finds them after the wagon train is attacked by Indians, head off in search of land to build themselves a cattle empire. Man years later and with Matt (Montgomery Clift - A Place in the Sun) having grown up into a young man Thomas Dunson has his cattle empire and plans to drive all his cattle and anyone else's he can get his hands on, North to the Missouri railroad. But it is a hard journey and Dunson is ruthless in his treatment of the men he has employed to herd the cattle. So ruthless that it pushes Matt's loyalties to the limits as he wrestles the herd away from Dunson and heads them along with the men to a new railroad in Kansas, leaving Dunson swearing to get his vengeance and kill the young man he raised as his own son.
To describe "Red River" as just a trail movie about a cattle drive is to it an injustice as this cattle drive is just the vehicle for much more. And to be honest it starts before the actual cattle drive arrives as we watch Thomas Dunson take the decision to leave a wagon train and the woman he loves to strike out on his own as he plans to build himself a cattle empire. In that opening scene and the following one where Dunson and his loyal friend Groot observe from a distance the wagon train being attacked by Indians speaks volumes of this man, his determination to create his empire at all costs and his cold hearted nature when it comes to the people in his life. These opening scenes also act to introduce us to young Matt Garth, a survivor of the Indian attack who Dunson takes under his wing, you could say adopting him as he teaches him about being a man. It's a powerful series of scenes which combine action, drama, romance and humour and the rest of the movie is just as powerful.
Following these opening scenes we pick up the story some years on, Matt has grown up and Dunson has built his cattle empire, in fact he has been so successful in building up a vast herd of cattle that he is on the verge of financial ruin, which leads to him planning to drive a huge herd of cattle across country and through dangerous territory to sell. Even here in the actual build up to the actual cattle drive it is full of power as we see that Dunson is willing to brand cattle belonging to another rancher as his own. And there is just as much power as we meet the various men who will join him especially when it comes to Cherry Valance a quick draw who alongside Matt are two of the quickest guns in the land. All of this build up again has both drama and humour as on one hand we have Dunson who has turned into a tough old coot who doesn't suffer fools, yet some of his team have that quirky factor. And of course this leads through to what is an iconic scene where the men start the cattle drive with Howard Hawks panning the camera not only across the men's full of character faces but also across Dunson's empire as he surveys it.
To be honest there is a surprising amount which happens before the actual cattle drive but there is 100 times more as the cattle drive commences. We watch as things go wrong as they head across country, there are deaths, stampede's, encounters with Indians allowing plenty of drama, action as well as some humour. But more importantly it builds up the character of Dunson, this hard man who is so single minded he won't listen to anyone else even when things seem futile. And on top of that we realise that he is ruthless so ruthless that he is willing to kill any of his team who either let him down or cross him.
Expectedly this leads to an uneasy atmosphere amongst the men especially with Matt who disagrees with not only Dunson's plans but also his ruthless nature. He's still willing to protect the man who raised him and taught him how to shoot but he eventually has to go against him taking control of not only the herd but also the men leaving Dunson wounded and behind, cursing him and saying that he will kill him.
As I said there is a lot which goes on throughout "Red River" and a lot more follows as Matt heads the men off in a different direction whilst Dunson having recovered comes after him with a group of cowboys looking to kill him. But the most significant thing about all of this is whilst there is plenty of western action for those who just want a stunning cowboy movie it does explore these deeper elements of loyalty, betrayal and family bond. And Howard Hawks does it so well, never being heavy handed in the approach but making it all so powerful and easy to understand. There are occasions when the humour and the romance encroach a little too much but not to the point that they ruin what is a stunning movie which works on different levels.
Now there is a lot of talent on show in "Red River" and in his first big screen appearance Montgomery Clift does a wonderful job of playing Matt. He not only delivers the believable gun man but also that of a man conflicted who on one hand feels loyal to Dunson and a need to protect him but on the other one who despises the tough no nonsense ways of his 'father'. You can see how Matt grows more and more frustrated by Dunson's hard nosed ways and you do get a sense that when he wrestles control from him it is in fear for the life of the men who Dunson is willing to kill. Clift is not alone as whilst John Ireland's part as Cherry Valance was reduced to his off screen antics he still manages to create this fascinating character who you feel has no loyalty to anyone. You can add to these good performances from a whole list of people including Walter Brennan and Joanne Dru plus of course Harry Carey and his son Harry Carey Jr.
But of course central to all of this is John Wayne as Thomas Dunson delivering one of his finest performances in any genre of movie. In Dunson Wayne creates basically a tough bastard a real hard ass who is so single minded that nothing will stop him from doing what he sets out to. But at the same time there is another side to his character the decent side as he takes young Matt under his wings. It means that Wayne delivers this conflicted character of both hero and villain and does such a wonderful job doing it. So impressive is Wayne's performance that it is said that when John Ford watched "Red River" he said "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.".
What this all boils down to is that "Red River" truly is a magnificent western, one of the best which delivers all what you expect from a western but with more depth. It has drama, action, humour and romance but it also has tension and atmosphere as we watch loyalties pushed to the limit. And it also features one of John Wayne's greatest performances playing both hero and villain in the role of the very memorable Thomas Dunson.