Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)I’ve been eager to watch/revisit Red River (1948) for a few weeks now, last night I finally took the time to sit down and watch this epic western. I remember the first time being drawn to Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) after killing a man, buried him and read the bible over them. A guilt ridden man who at first wants to do right after leaving the love of his life in an ill-fated wagon train up north to settle on open ground north of the Rio Grande river, taking with him a cow, a bull and Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). And not soon after a massacre survivor Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift in his debut role).

We catch up with these men and young boy 14 years later, after seeing a dream of a successful cattle ranch had taken root in the land, strewn with graves of Dunson’s enemies. We learn he has been affected by the civil war that left the south almost penniless. Meaning a massive drive up north to Missouri of 10,000 cattle was the only answer.

Joined by an impressive supporting cast who all become victims of Dunson’s drive and anger to finish the drive north. A hard task-master to say the least. A complex man riddled with guilt anger and determination to make good to survive. Along the way he begins to really unhinged and break down in front of the men who can see he’s going “plum crazy”. Moral breaks down as the men are treated almost like the cattle they are moving on the dangerous trip over the Red River, over open land filled with danger in the form of Native American, to themselves scaring the cattle into a stampede at night. Red River is jam-packed with it all.

Dunson, the natural leader and respectable man begins to lose his grip, everyone can see this, especially those close to him. His actions become irrational, as he stops sleeping becoming consumed with making the drive, pushing the men to extremes and break point. They begin to turn on him. Going back to the shoot and bury action which runs through the film, it becomes away to right a massive wrong, to ensure some justice and righteousness is maintained. Which loses all meaning, how can you kill a man out of anger, then bury him?

Throughout the film there is time to pause and reflect as the character digest the days events over the long journey, as they set up camp, allowing for strong character development. we also see a cast of actors who become synonymous with the genre, such as Harry Carey. Jr, John Ireland, and Hank Worden to name but a few. Director Howard Hawks leaves his mark on the genre, showing that the scale of drama can and does apply to the Western. Complex characters can exist in a simplistic world, developed more in the following decade by the likes of Anthony Mann and John Ford.

Red River is more than just a cattle drive is the growth of the men as well, namely Dunson and Garth, both polar opposites of what a man can be in the west, but can still survive and earn the respect of each other.


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