Howard Hawks and John Wayne Defined a Genre with ‘Red River’

It’s nearly impossible to not get roped in by the easy banter of the dialogue, the epic drama, and the luminous images of this quintessential Western.

How does one write about something that one loves to death without killing it?

Red River, producer-director Howard Hawks’s (Scarface 1932; Bringing Up Baby 1938) first Western, is a film of such visual and dramatic impact and entertainment that it is somewhat difficult to assess beyond effusive slavering. It has a cattle drive and stampede, gunplay galore, Indian attacks, John Wayne, two Harry Careys (junior and senior), and a fair share of both romance and bromance. The great French film critic Andre Bazin called the Western genre “American cinema par excellence”; Red River, newly released by Criterion, is the Western film par excellence.

The film stars Wayne in the template-defining role of Tom Dunson, a self-made cattleman commercially forced to drive his stock along the Chisholm Trail, with the help of his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first feature film) and lifetime sidekick Nadine Groot (character actor extraordinaire Walter Brennan). The film hitches this cattle drive to a very basic Mutiny on Tthe Bounty dynamic: As Dunson becomes increasingly driven and Captain Bligh-tyrannical along the trail — threatening to whip and hang various trailhands — the more judicious Matt is encouraged into a kind of mutiny in order to finish the drive. As Matt pushes ahead, Dunson pursues hard behind, a vengeful, betrayed father.

Although by the time of Red River Wayne had headed countless B westerns, as well as the ultimate A western, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), in Red River the actor proved he was capable not only of saturating the screen with his towering presence but of delivering a truly discerned, even subtle performance. The common notion of Wayne as a one trick acting pony is as much a myth as many Westerns themselves. Despite being cast repeatedly and inevitably as the Laconic Man, Wayne achieved a huge emotional scope within often-proscribed roles.

Dunson is a man haunted by one bad decision: in the film’s first scene, a younger Dunson (Wayne sans wrinkle make-up and gray hair powder) breaks off from a wagon train, leaving his girl behind to send for her later; the party then gets attacked and massacred, prompting Dunson’s sidekick Groot’s response: “We shoulda took her along.” That line tinges Wayne’s performance, which only gets better as he “ages” within the film, with a regret that never quite dissipates despite the ensuing action and humor.

The power of Wayne’s acting is set into higher relief against that of Montgomery Clift, a New York stage actor with Method training. The father/son tensions of the film’s narrative are mirrored, in a way, in those between the two acting styles. Old Hollywood star acting, of which Wayne was a pinnacle, went from the outside in, so to speak. You read your character’s lines, listened to the other actors and infused your character with as much natural reaction as possible. Wayne famously called himself a re-actor, responding to the outside impetus of direction and situation. Method goes from the inside out; you dig down for the emotion and act as if you’re living it.

In the middle of these styles sits Walter Brennan, arguably the greatest character actor of all time. Character acting is where naturalism textures with realism, and Brennan inhabits his role so fully, and delivers with such finesse, that he doesn’t seem to be acting at all, merely being. He even handles his own six-horse wagon.

But then there is always a kind of easy-going naturalness to the performances in a Howard Hawks film, a spirited camaraderie that is mostly male (Only Angels Have Wings 1939), sometimes male/female (Bogart and Bacall in To Have And Have Not 1944), and almost always wised-up and intimate. Red River contains pure Hawksian mannerisms, such as Clift rubbing a finger against the side of his nose, a gesture not exactly ostentatious but weirdly conspicuous and indelible (and copied by Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo 1959); or the lite-gay gunplay between Matt and hotshot sharpshooter Cherry Valance (John Ireland): “That’s a good-looking gun…Maybe you’d like to see mine?”)

There’s also plenty of Hawks’s trademark “cushioned” dialogue, that is, lines that ricochet like a billiard ball around a point rather than stating it directly: In the film’s opening scene, as Wayne kisses his girl goodbye — a really supercharged sex scene of sorts — the girl tells him, “I want to be with you so much my knees feel like they have knives in them.”

It’s nearly impossible to not get roped in by the easy banter of the dialogue, the epic drama of the drive itself, and especially the relationship of Dunson and Matt (and, by extension, Groot). But just the images themselves, already luminous in most prints, are incandescent on these new DVD/Blu-ray releases. Shot by veteran Hollywood cinematographer Russell Harlan, with impressive second unit direction, including the stampede, by Arthur Rosson, the film has a silvery precision that intensifies all the dust, dirt and horseflesh.

Even though the film is in black and white, there’s a kind of blue atmosphere to some of the nighttime images, as in the strange, spooky charge of light playing around the cattle horns which screenwriter Borden Chase describes to great effect in his serial novel The Chisholm Trail, upon which the film is based; or in the foggy forest where Matt embraces Tess (Joanne Dru), a woman he’s rescued from an Indian attack.

The stampede is one of the most visually exciting pieces of film in all of cinema, an extended montage cut with what Russian filmmaker/theorist Sergei Eisenstein might’ve called “spatial dynamization”. Accompanied with fierce music by the indefatigable Dimitri Tiomkin, the action has a kind of compositional pageantry, with cattle charging in different directions — vertically down one part of the frame, horizontally in another. Hawks punctuates his usual eye-level camerawork with increasing close-ups — close / Closer / CLOSEST — that push the action right up against the screen, into the viewer’s face.

The film’s final scenes, with the inevitable face-off between Dunson and Matt, are infamously polarizing. Though the resolution is a bit clear-cut and counter to the established dynamic — a simplification worsened by the stilted line-delivery of actress Joanne Dru — by that time the magic has already been woven. Just the vision of John Wayne striding heedlessly through the cattle, pushing the animals aside through sheer force of purpose, is enough to redeem any slighted feelings.

Criterion has put together a fine package. Along with the dual DVD/Blu-ray format there are two versions of the film, the version as most know it today, with pages of an imagined chronicle linking individual scenes, and the original theatrical release, with a voice-over provided by Walter Brennan, as Groot, telling Dunson’s story. Though Brennan’s voice and dentured mouth suit the idiom, I prefer the familiar unnarrated version.

Also included: Illuminating interviews with director Peter Bogdanovich, critic Molly Haskell, and film scholar Lee Clark Mitchell; a 1970 audio interview with writer Borden Chase; a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the story with John Wayne, Joanne Dru and Walter Brennan; a booklet with a really fine essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, and interview with editor Christian Nyby; and a paperback edition of Chase’s original novel.

RATING 10 / 10