Red River (1948) – Howard Hawks

John Wayne gets paired with Montgomery Clift as Howard Hawks directs in the next western recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book.

Wayne is Thomas Dunson, a cattle driver, and a fast gun who is a bit of a tyrant as he seizes land for his cattle ranch, and heads to the Missouri.  Despite his big dreams, his propensity for violence, and his vicious controlling behaviour causes a mutiny amongst those who work with him, including his adopted son, Matthew (Clift).

The story spans fourteen years, sees Dunson grabbing other people’s cattle and getting them to sign off with him, but even Matthew starts to see what sort of man Dunson really is – greedy, obsessed, and more willing to fight than negotiate, all to follow the dream of having the biggest cattle ranch.

Dunson’s violence and tyranny increases daily, and he deals out his judgement with fiery words and gunsmoke. Matt begins to realise that his oldest companion, the man he looks up to as a father, is becoming increasingly cruel, ignorant of any thoughts contrary to his own, and intent only on driving his cattle, claiming his land, owning his ranch.

Hawks keeps the story going, and makes Wayne’s character increasingly unlikable and unstable. His outfit is slowly replaced by all blacks, the traditional outfit of the western baddie . The makeup work on Wayne is impressive, his stubble and greying hair as well as some subtle make-up, combined with his performance makes him seem untrustworthy, not quite evil, but really not a nice guy.


Hawks has always had a talent for script and pacing, and while this is very much a western, there is little time spent on panoramas, showdowns, or any of the typical Western stereotypes, instead, the river, the cattle, and the men serve as a backdrop of a tale of a man who grasps for too much, and ignores the advice and assistance of others.

Dunson takes what he wants, often brutally, in a perverted take on the American dream. Matt goes through a rites of passage like any son and their father, chafing against them, striking out on their own, and standing by themselves, even if it is in opposition of their father.

As Matt leads the mutiny to take control of the herd, he brings them in successfully, and he and his men make a great deal on them, but before the credits roll you know there are going to be a couple of confrontations including one between Matt and Dunston.

I was surprised by this one, Clift does a fine job going toe to with Wayne, who, despite hiding it, is in fact the real villain of the piece, you know, until the Hollywood ending.

A solid film with strong performances, and Wayne against type.


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