Red River is a great film from a great filmmaker. Director Howard Hawks was responsible for some of the best comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), thrillers (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) and adventure movies (Scarface, Only Angels Have Wings, The Thing) ever to have emerged from Hollywood, but Red River and, ten or so years later, Rio Bravo (which also starred Wayne and Brennan) proved that he was equally adept at epic westerns.
Often seen as a reworking of Mutiny on the Bounty, Red River features two of the best performances from two diametrically-different Hollywood stars: John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, the latter making his debut here. Wayne stars as Tom Dunson, owner of a vast cattle empire in Texas. A tyrannical leader, he’s aided on the ranch by his old friend Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan) and his adopted son (Clift). But when Tom decides to drive a herd of cattle north to Missouri, his callous manner soon promotes ill-feeling among the cowboys on the trail. And following several altercations with his men, Tom is faced with the ultimate act of rebellion when his own son decides his father’s in the wrong and chooses to lead the cattle drive himself.
With mesmeric scenery captured by cinematographer Russell Hartan, gunfights aplenty, epic shots of cattle drives and a gripping showdown between Wayne and Clift, Red River really does have it all. Leading American critic Pauline Kael called it ‘a magnificent horse opera’, while Variety said; ‘It’s a spectacle of sweeping grandeur, as rugged and hard as the men and the times with which it deals.’
Over 6,000 cattle were used in the film and Hawks and his team travelled over 15,000 miles in search of the perfect western vistas, which were eventually found in Arizona and around the San Pedro River. However, not everything was perfect on the set. Rumour has it that Hawks substantially cut the role of Cherry Valance, which John Ireland was playing, after the actor struck up a relationship with one of the film’s actresses, Joanne Dru, who Hawks himself had taken a shine to – Ireland and Dru were subsequently married, while Hawks went back to his wife.
USA | United Artists – Monterey | 133 minutes | 1948
Director: Howard Hawks
Script: Borden Chase, Charles Schnee,
John Wayne as Thomas Dunson
Shelley Winters as Dance Hall Girl in Wagon Train
John Ireland as Cherry Valance
Paul Fix as Teeler Yacey
Montgomery Clift as Matthew ‘Matt’ Garth
Joanne Dru as Tess Millay
Walter Brennan as ‘Groot’ Nadine
Coleen Gray as Fen
Harry Carey as Mr. Melville
Noah Beery, Jr. as Buster McGee
Harry Carey, Jr. as Dan Latimer
Chief Yowlachie as Quo
Hank Worden as Simms Reeves
Mickey Kuhn as Matt, as a boy
Ray Hyke as Walt Jergens
Hal Taliaferro as Old Leather