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Red River (1948)

by on 2012/06/26

“You was wrong Mr. Dunson. I’ve been with you a lot of years, and up to now, right or wrong, I’ve always done what you said. Got to be kind of a habit with me, I guess . . . so thanks. Thanks for making this easy for me.”

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Howard Hawks’ classic western Red River is one I’ve been meaning to review for years now, literally. With a core of camaraderie and cheesy decoration, its apparent appeal is the triumph of man over his environment.

Fascinating in a pseudo-documentary way, the story is practically a catalogue of what might go awry, and a cautionary tale about handling adversity. We’re talking a cattle drive, so the overt obstacles include: death, dissenters, dusty deserts, floods, native attacks, quicksand, rivers, a shortage of food, stampedes, and torrential rain.

The sprawling cast of character vets features John Wayne as aspiring baron Tom Dunson, Montgomery Clift as his adopted son Matt Garth, and Walter Brennan as the old irascible Groot. We meet them in 1851, when Dunson declares with arrogant optimism he’ll stake out “his land” to raise “his beef” and, by large, doing everything his way, all others be damned. No gratitude or “live and let live” for him.

With pride like that, guess what happens soon enough?

Nearly fifteen years later, he’s almost irretrievably corrupted by his ambition, despite having achieved no success to speak of. He marks others’ cattle with his own brand, and gathers them by the thousands. His end-of-the-line desperation drives him to take the herd a thousand miles up to Missouri.

Along the way he faces various demons, his age and other personal failings: exhaustion, reliance on alcohol, and an inability to be genuinely appreciative. Perhaps his most tragic failing is failing to see or conquer his flaws, and inheritors might need to take over for the drive to be completed. There are definite shades of Moby Dick in this tale.

That said, not everything here can be described as shaded. While Hawks has moments of circumspect, like disguising onscreen violence, there are so many instances of “tell” over “show” I sometimes found it all heavy-handed. The scripted inter-titles are a good example. “That was the meeting of a boy with a cow and a man with a bull.” Oh, good. I wasn’t sure I understood. “To Dunson it was just a job, a big job.” So much for the actor’s eyes being a window to the soul. He also “became a tyrant” we are told. Well shouldn’t his actions have increasingly conveyed it?

Other minor blemishes on an otherwise fine portrait include terrible rear-projection effects, with their distractingly clear foregrounds, over-sped footage in the stampede scenes, and obvious day-for-night work.

Other aspects are less shortfalls than aesthetics I simply don’t care for. The writing is frequently melodramatic, especially early on. The “yee-haw” refrain and men’s chorale at the start of the drive is cringe-worthy. The acting is stagey, nearly to a man, and with John Wayne in particular.

Ironically, one rumour I’ve heard about Red River involved Wayne’s performance specifically. His frequent collaborator, director John Ford, said “I didn’t know the big lug could act.” I’m not yet convinced he could, though he does show occasional glimmers in his, er, darkness. His wooden hamminess notwithstanding, this struggle of — and between — the old guard and next generation is a great Wild West success. Corny, quaint, and sappy, yes, but still a lot of fun.

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Not rated

133 minutes

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