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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ebert's Greats #10: Red River (1948)

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Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift

John Wayne is probably most closely associated with John Ford, for whom he starred in such classics as The Searchers, Stagecoach, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon amongst others, but it was Howard Hawks who brought out one of Wayne’s best performances (Ford’s reaction upon seeing Red River? “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”). Red River is one of the great classic westerns, a grand entertainment (the stampede scene alone makes the film worth seeing) and a finely wrought character film.

Red River features Wayne as Thomas Dunson, a man determined to start up his own cattle ranch in Texas. En route he loses his fiancĂ©e (she’s killed by the genre’s usual suspects) but gains a son, an orphaned boy named Matthew Garth, whom he adopts (albeit not legally). With his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) and Matthew, Thomas stakes his claim in Texas, not particularly caring that the land he’s decided to make his own actually belongs to someone else. So confident is he that he has every right to take this position, he actually kills one of the messengers who comes to inform him that he’s squatting on someone else’s property. Fourteen years later, however, karma comes around to take its revenge and Dunson is broke, having lost his money in the Civil War. He decides to pull up stakes and move his herd to Missouri where he hopes to sell for a better price than he could get in Texas.

Dunson hires some extra hands to help on the cattle drive, one of whom is Cherry Valance (John Ireland), a marksman who will later help Matt mutiny against Dunson’s dictatorial rule. Once Matt takes over he changes course to take the cattle to Kansas but instead of killing Dunson, simply leaves him behind to plot his revenge. Dunson vows to kill Matt and attempts to make good on it when he arrives in Abilene, leading to a fight between the two men. Fortunately, Matt’s love interest, Tess (Joanne Dru), comes along just in time, convincing them that they’re behaving like idiots while holding a gun on them.

The finale of the film is memorable, though not necessarily for the right reasons. Tess’ melodramatic plea to Matt and Dunson – “Can’t you see that you love each other?!” – gives the scene an oddly campy vibe and it brings about the resolution between the two men in a way that is, perhaps, a little too simple. There’s also an unspoken element to it that derives from the fact that prior to catching up with Matt, Dunson met Tess who, upon learning of his intention to kill the younger man, offered to bear him a son if he would let Matt live. Dunson rejected her offer in favour of continuing his pursuit of Matt and if the situation between the three can be considered a romantic triangle, then it’s one in which Tess ends up left behind by both men, whose relationship to each other is the one that ends up being consecrated (not only do they, in fact, realize that they love each other, Dunson also allows the letter “M” to join the “D” in the brand that marks his cattle). The homoerotic undertones of the finale, however, are a lot more subtle than an earlier scene between Matt and Cherry in which they lovingly examine and compare their guns and Cherry remarks, “There are only two things more beautiful than a gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good... Swiss watch?”

Still, while I think that the resolution to the big confrontation between Dunson and Matt has the effect of letting the wind out of the story’s sails, on the whole Red River is an excellent film. Hawks was a director who could work in pretty much any genre with ease and Clift, in his first film role (though not his debut with audiences as Red River’s release was delayed so long that his second film, The Search, actually came out first), shows why he became a star so quickly. He’s got that quality that only a few actors have, a timelessness and a way of drawing the eye of the audience. His performance here is terrific and, like Ford said, Wayne’s is great, too (in many ways his performance here reminds me of his performance in The Searchers, where he was arguably at his best as an actor). Times and tastes may change but Red River is the kind of film that never really goes out of style because it’s so entertaining and so well made.

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