Red River (1948)

“Take ’em to Missouri, Matt.”

I’ve heard and read that quote a few times now–first I read it in Garth Ennis’ Preacher, one of the John Wayne quotes Jesse Custer’s father had him repeat as he tried to raise him with an appreciation for the Duke, and later in The Last Picture Show where the scene containing the line was shown in the theatre. Of course, I was quite miffed, believing I’d just seen the ending scene (something suggested to me this was the ending, mostly the energy of it, but possibly some dialogue) and now knew how the film ended. Whoops. If you’re reading this, I imagine you’ve seen Red River before (as I know few people who would willingly keep reading after “John Wayne” unless they already liked his work), so you know that it’s nothing of the kind. It’s even fairly early, for that matter. Still, I tried to push it from my mind–forget who said it, whether perhaps it was Montgomery Clift repeating it in “tribute” to Wayne at the end to commemorate his death or something. No, it was that scene from early in the film, and there was no repetition of his lines to commemorate his character of Dunson (who may or may not die–you’ll have to watch, sorry).

Thomas Dunson (Wayne) and “Groot” Nadine (Walter Brennan) split from a wagon train to take up land in Texas where Dunson plans to start a ranch. He refuses to take along Fen (Coleen Gray), suggesting the road he’s on will be too tough for a woman. She tries to prove in an embrace that she’s not so weak as he think, but he is immovable, and off the two of them set. As Dunson makes camp some miles off, they notice that there is smoke in the distance behind them. The Comanche have destroyed the wagon train, and Dunson and Groot lie in wait for them to reach their own, lone wagon. They arrive in small groups, enough for Groot and Dunson to take down, but one is wearing a bracelet of Fen’s, and Dunson realizes that she is lost for his decision to keep her back. Out of the distance finally wanders a small boy, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), leading a cow. He’s in shock, but Dunson brings him out of it. They make their way out toward the Rio Grande and Dunson lays claim to the land north of it, killing representatives of Don Diego, who maintains ownership of enormous stretches of land north and south of the river. Dunson plans for his ranch, and creates his brand for the two cattle they have so far, and we come forward fourteen years to see a herd of cattle that numbers in the thousands. Matt has returned older (now played by Clift), and they prepare to drive the cattle to Missouri to bring some worth to fourteen years’ work. Gathering gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and many restless inhabitants of the dying town, they begin the thousand mile drive. They deal with ranchers whose cattle have wandered into Dunson’s herd and a stampede caused by an innocent vice, all of which slowly build into the increased drinking and sleeplessness of the increasingly cruel and strict Dunson, until Matt decides he must take over the drive and leave Dunson’s methods behind.

I think I was expecting something entirely different from this, which is something I know I say a lot–but this was indeed the movie my father kept suggesting when I said I was starting to watch John Wayne movies. I think I forgot why over the course of time, and that John Ford said of him after seeing the movie that he “never knew the big son-of-a-bitch could act.” The opening scenes in particular led me to low expectations, with some stilted acting, both physically and vocally, from most of the early cast (who left the film after it flashed forward, barring Wayne). I thought I was in for a pretty standard western, with dialogue (based on Borden Chase’s newspaper-published story and scripted by Chase and Charles Schnee, whose name simply made me titter as I thought “Snow?” and said “Schnee” aloud for fun) that borders on an intensity of melodrama I really can’t quite stomach–“Those two are going to come to a conflict, and it will be something to see,” sorts of things, just terribly obvious “foreshadowing” (almost more like in-movie spoilers, really). Oddly, the film seems to wander out of this territory about a third of the way through as Dunson begins to overreact and decide he is judge, jury and executioner, doling out severe punishments for mistakes and offenses that, while possibly horrendous in end result, do not exactly deserve such a response.

Suddenly Dunson is effectively the villain and I’m left wondering why this is a role that fit into the context it was used in by Garth Ennis. This is not a positive role for Wayne as a character, though it is indeed an excellent one for him as an actor. He’s stubborn and impulsive, but not in that irascible (but lovable!) way he is in, say, Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys some decades later. He’s a colossal jerk, and none of the other characters (especially Matt) are unwilling to tell him this. Perhaps this may have some relevance to Wayne’s homophobic distaste for Clift, I can’t be sure, but it feels authentic and right, and not as if the other characters are misleading us away from Dunson. The film itself condones their condemnation of his actions, and I was quite surprised by this–though of course it was not at the height of Wayne’s career, but far enough along that I’m sure he had an existing fanbase. There’s a certain level of Ethan Edwards at play here, but more openly and obviously condemned than that role, where I think I expected something more like Rooster Cogburn, Wil Andersen or John T. Chance (as this was, of course, also a Howard Hawks/Wayne collaboration). It was a pleasant surprise really, in, I suppose, the same way it was for Ford himself.

I’ve talked about the three primary approaches to stuntwork before, at least in action films, but I neglected to mention earlier ones, which tend to bear a resemblance to the approach of 70s film but seem even more ludicrously unsafe. It’s as if they turn on the camera and cross their fingers as they set an actor or stuntman out to do something. The stampede is magnificent–brilliantly set up with a tense discussion of how likely a stampede will be, and how scary their results can be–but some of the fear from it is a little knotting of the stomach over wondering what on earth possessed some of these stuntmen to take part in the scene. There’s no easy way to control a herd of thousands of cattle (apparently Herefords disguised as the then-near extinct Texas longhorns by putting a handful of longhorns in front of scenes where the herd appears) while making them appear to (hopefully not actually) stampede that I can imagine, but there they are, expert riders or not. There’s always that moment of “all-too-visible” danger that looks not even remotely dangerous as they relied on editing (perhaps double exposure) to make it appear that someone falls into the herd, made effective by good editing this time (though not always effective in other instances).

Dmitri Tiomkin puts in an excellent score, too, which is very brassy in that classic western way, but gives itself its own identity at the same time, making this in general an unusual western that seems to nest politely in genre confines like many an animal, circling and rearranging the padding of the box it’s choosing to place itself in, but not disturbing the outer boundaries too terribly much. This is probably the movie to show anyone who doubts Wayne’s ability, or suggests he always plays the same character. This isn’t to say it’s without flaws, as I was left a little bewildered by a few dangling threads (what happened to Cherry at the end, exactly? what about Meeker’s payment?) and felt that there had clearly been some fat excised from the film, but felt some of it was a little clumsy in its removal, with lead-ins for plots (the claim that Cherry and Matt will come to blows or shots, for instance) that go nowhere, not even with anticlimactic resolution. Still, the film around these odd patches is excellent and holds to itself very well, despite its rocky beginning and becomes thoroughly engaging and interesting.

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