I usually follow the same pattern after having watched a DVD that I liked. I’ll check out the DVD extras, I’ll finish up any notes I took while watching, and I’ll scan the web for any info I can find on the movie. In the case of Red River, however, I just sat and stared at the screen. Not since the 2008 Cubs’ season has drama been so expertly prepared, suspense so masterfully built, only to have it all come tumbling down in a disastrous final act. It was as if Ali and Foreman met to determine the heavyweight championship with a tickle fight.
The movie’s plot is a fictional retelling of the first cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail, but can best be summed up as Mutiny on the Bounty on horseback. It starts with Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan, as a caricature of a Walter Brennan character) deserting a California-bound wagon train to strike out for Texas. That night, Dunson and Groot are attacked by Indians and have to dish out some sweet, sweet prairie justice. While most of the gunfight is the usual “shot of protagonist firing/reverse shot of guy falling off horse” endemic to Westerns of this vintage, the fistfight between Dunson and one of the Indians that ends with Dunson stab-drowning his attacker is a highlight of the movie, and should be Exhibit A for the defense in the case of The People vs. John Wayne’s Reputation as a Badass. The next day Dunson and Groot take in a boy named Matt Garth, the lone survivor of the wagon train, which had been attacked by the same Indians the day before.
Fifteen years pass, and Dunson is now the owner of the largest herd of cattle in the south. Matt (now played by Montgomery Clift) has just returned from abroad, trailing behind him a reputation as a fast gun. Dunson is near broke because the Civil war killed the market for beef in the South, and in an act of desperation plans on driving his herd of cattle all the way to Missouri to sell them there. He puts together a crew for the drive, the most interesting being Cherry Valance (John Ireland), another fast gun with a reputation who sees Matt as a rival.
On the drive men die, cows stampede, and everything that makes a Western a Western gets played out on a grand canvas. Matt and Cherry seem set on a collision course, where only one great gun can be left standing. And Dunson’s single-minded determination to get to Missouri eventually turns all of his men against him, leading to a mutiny led by Matt. As they leave Dunson in the middle of the prairie, he promises Matt that he’ll kill him, and Cherry lets him know that “if you’re looking to find me, Mr. Dunson, I’ll be in Abilene.”
At this point I was convinced Red River would supplant The Searchers in my personal hall of fame. It had incredible performances, particularly Clift, and John Wayne’s Bligh-like Dunson. The direction by Howard Hawks was ahead of its time, with the use of POV shots, the sound and lighting used to provide dramatic tension, and the methodical pacing of Dunson’s slow drag into obsession bordering on insanity. And yet, almost all of this is undone by the Hays-code ending of the movie. It’s as though Hawks woke up one morning and thought “I know what this movie needs. It needs more Capra.” The biggest disappointment is how the Cherry vs. Matt subplot is played out, or rather isn’t played out at all.
Overall, this is still an excellent movie, and I can’t help but recommend it. The first two hours are a textbook on how to create tension between characters and how to build to a climax. But, like having a parking lot security guard tap on the window just as you’re getting ready to close the deal, the ending just doesn’t live up to the preparation.