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Breaking the Western Trail: Hawks’ Red River on Criterion

Red River 01

By Matthew Sorrento.

In 2008, the Criterion Collection issued Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) with the restored film sleeved alongside the 1948 source novel by Niven Busch. The film will remain “lesser” Mann, with The Naked Spur (1951), The Man from Laramie (1955) and Man of the West (1958) as standouts in the decade’s psychological western cycle. And yet the film The Furies is fresh in its hybridity of the Western, noir, and family melodrama, with a rewarding matchup of Walter Huston (in his final role) as TC Jeffords, patriarch of the ailing Furies ranch, and Barbara Stanwyck as Vance, his androgynous daughter and purported heiress. With plenty in the disc package alone – invaluable commentary by scholars Jim Kitses and Robin Wood – the accompanying novel depicts the Western’s range of influence, how in the 1950s the style was as popular in fiction while dominating US television programming.

Red River cover

Criterion has occasionally continued the practice of packaging source narratives alongside their discs – their set of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) comes with the moody script, like Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971), and a new set of Picnic and Hanging Rock (1975) includes the source novel. Just as rewarding is seeing Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) come with Borden Chase’s source work, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1946. Written in a terse yet descriptive style, Blazing delivers images readymade for film narratives, language to inspire action directors. Chase’s staccato phrases develop character motivation – “Dunston’s thoughts were hidden things” – while serving as visual cues.

Appearing just before the 1950s, Red River (Hawks’ first western, completed in 1946 but released in ’48) helped to launch the “adult western,” a treatment that abandoned the kiddy style of heroes against “injuns,” with its rapid action and watered down violence. It also cleared way for the more intense style of Mann and Budd Boetticher, in which the central “man of action,” instead of defending a community, acts in revenge and, hence, self-interest.

John Wayne – genre star and a force in John Ford’s 1956 “adult” entry, The Searchers – centers Red River as Tom Dunston. Already familiar through his work with Ford (1939’s Stagecoach, the Calvary trilogy), Wayne is an offbeat presence in River. His longish hair and loose gait – the latter usually indicating a relaxed sense of power – now imply a man out of his place, and a kind of restlessness. Tom’s choice to leave a wagon train shows Hawks’ trademark individualism, discussed by Wood in his benchmark 1972 study, Howard Hawks.

Red River Clift Land

The wagon train narrative, though common in the genre, is unique to it; the motif presents a wandering community, in lieu of a stabilized one in need of a Christ-like savior (i.e., 1953’s Shane). The communal journey is motivated by the individualism of a gunslinger accompanying them, as in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930, Wayne’s first big role in the genre). And yet, Tom’s abandonment takes individualism beyond the system. Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan, providing instant frontier gravitas) joins him, while delivering the film’s downhome voiceover (only in the theatrical version of the film, which Hawks preferred; on a separate disc Criterion includes the pre-release version that employs book page inserts in lieu of narration). Adhering to the genre rulebook, natives appear in the distance in the first reel (6:41 on the “theatrical” disc), the smoke implying that Tom’s girl is dead, before he finds her bracelet on a killed marauder. In this camp scene, when Tom and his travelers await a raid, the battle begins with an impressionistic flaming arrow – the kind of moment possible only in a studio environment specializing in such veritable magic. When Tom kills a native under water and finds the bracelet, the dusty plains grow wet at night in a nourish flourish, showing a studio director’s versatility of style and borrowing from his other projects (i.e., The Big Sleep, 1946).

The narrative answers the girl’s death with the reemergence of youth: the appearance of Matt Garth (played by Mickey Kuhn as a boy, and Montgomery Clift as an adult). A crazed orphaned boy, Matt approaches Tom and Groot, pulling a gun on them. The scene introduces the theme of masculine youth rebelling against controlling patriarchal forces. When Tom returns the gun to the boy, after having taken it, the former asks, “Aren’t you going to use it?” “No, but don’t ever try to take it away from me again,” which finds approval in Tom, with his reply: “He’ll do.” In its portrayal of mentorship meeting resistance, the exchange follows genre framework with a fresh take on character. Even those vaguely familiar with the film know that the boy will grow into Monty Clift, who will have a final showdown with Wayne’s Tom.

Red River CliftTom claims a range for his cattle, the Red River brand as his mark, and promises to add an M for Matthew, when he earns it. Soon a “land war” – another genre trademark – seems imminent when men riding for Don Diego claim the land as his, though Tom takes claim to the land north of the Rio Grande. (Tom will later order to rebrand Diego’s cattle as his.) A shootout with the messenger ignites the action, a clever move by Hawks to end a slow stretch of running time. Matt had sensed the draw by watching his eyes, the act of a future duelist.

A sequence shows 15 years transpire, in which Tom turns into a greyed Wayne, and Matt into Monty Clift. The Civil War’s drag on the economy requires another cattle drive, this time to Missouri. Matt is at home in the frontier, knowing what to do before his leader instructs him. And yet a trademark of the film is to see Clift embody little of the West, like an Easterner who manages in unsettled lands. His outlier perspective, which he’d develop into stardom, resounds next to the ruggedness of Wayne and Bond.

The rivalry of the near palindromic Tom and Matt develops gradually, while the narrative introduces Cherry Valance (John Ireland) as an immediate rival to Matt. The film’s “homoerotic” scene, in which Matt and Cherry exchange guns, is so discussed that it passes with casual notice. Its subtext notable, the scene holds an immediate connection to the genre: that Cherry recognizes Matt by his reputation as gunslinger, sexual puns aside. Far more powerful are the shots comprising a cattle stampede, caused by a pesky sugar thief under Tom’s command. The stampede includes grand landscape compositions with sweeping movement, well balanced in contrapuntal shots. Intercut are medium and medium-long shots of Tom and others reacting to their livelihood rising up like a force of nature. Christian Nyby, who’d later co-direct The Thing from Another World (1951) with and uncredited Hawks, uses masterful edits that mirror Ford’s Stagecoach (especially the famous Apache raid sequence). The result of the stampede, a field of dead cattle captured in a studio shot, delivers a mildly expressionistic effect of one who strays from the system (i.e., the sugar thief) and must pay for the death of Dan Lattimer (Harry Carey Jr.).

Red River Wayne and CliftAs a romance for Matt develops, and he saves Tom during a fight, the latter calls him soft and threatens to kill him eventually, leading to the famous, revisionist showdown. Though a stranger to the genre, Clift left a mark in this classic, while helping to launch the career of Clint Eastwood. According to biographer Marc Eliot in American Rebel (2009), Eastwood’s likeness to Clift got him cast as Rowdy Yates in the television series Rawhide (1959-65), itself loosely inspired by the film. Clift’s moody presence helps blend the occasional expressionism with the crisp realism of cinematographer Russell Harlan’s landscapes. The transfers of the DVD and Blu-ray versions (both included in this set, though a DVD-only pack is available) reveal crisp grays of monochrome. While the midday shots on the DVD burn a little too white in long shot, the day-for-night location scenes have unique, moody shades: one of many unique touches in a transitional classic.

Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International and teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and directs the Reel East Film Festival.

2 Comments for “Breaking the Western Trail: Hawks’ Red River on Criterion”

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Great article, Matthew! One of the most accomplished and complex westerns of all time –Hawks continues to amaze me even after all these years with his effortless multi-genre capabilities, to say nothing of the fact that he served as producer / director on most of his films — everything from crime noir (THE BIG SLEEP) to comedy (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) to sci-fi horror (he really DID direct THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – sorry, Chris Nyby) and even a brilliant if commercially unsuccessful epic with LAND OF THE PHARAOHS. Teaming Clift with Wayne was an absolutely inspired choice, and it remains some of the best work both men did.

    The ending is a bit contrived, and Joanne Dru is an acquired taste, but with Walter Brennan and Russell Harlan’s great DP work, it’s really a nearly perfect genre film. I always remember the truth in Walter Brennan’s line near the start of the film, to the effect that he “never liked seeing strangers. Maybe it’s because no stranger ever good newsed me.” It’s an apt way to sum up the world of RED RIVER, a film that deserves all the attention it can get – good work!

  2. Many thanks for the comments, Wheeler. Though often discussed, RED RIVER is worth repeated viewing and discussion, like other Hawks. Just recently, I came across MONKEY BUSINESS (1952) on TCM, and noticed several brilliant moments — treated like little pieces or art on their own — that I seemed to miss on the last viewing. You’ve nailed it about Dru, what many of my students say about Stanwyck (a taste I own), and the importance of Brennan.

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