A Movie A Day: Quint on RED RIVER (1948) One time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I'm gonna kill you, Matt.
Published at: Sept. 21, 2008, 1:24 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
I didn’t grow up in a John Wayne household. A lot of people did, but the movies my stepdad loved were more in the Clint Eastwood and Connery James Bond style. It’s not much of an excuse for my woeful undereducation when it comes to Wayne’s movies, but it’s the truth.
So it is that we jump from yesterday’s light and fluffy okay flick DAKOTA to today’s classic RED RIVER via John Wayne. Legendary Howard Hawks directs this epic and unique tale about a good man turned bad while his life’s work is on the line during a cattle drive, steering damn near 10,000 head from his Texas home to Missouri.
John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson is one for the record books, a genuinely complex characterization effortlessly pulled off by The Duke. We first meet him when he’s a younger man. He decides to branch off from a wagon train. He’s his own man, afterall, and has a definite idea of where he wants to go. He insists his wife stay with the wagon train which is safer for her (they are in injun country afterall) than going out into the open country with Wayne.
He gives her his bracelet and says he’ll send for her. He’s not gone a few movie minutes before he sees fire miles away, where the wagon party would be. Shortly after he fends off a group of attacking Indians, having an awesome knife fight with one in particular who is wearing that bracelet.
Wayne ends up taking in the single survivor from the wagon train, a young boy and crosses the Red River into Texas where he pretty much says, “Okay, all this land is now mine.” A couple of nice Mexican men ride up telling them that the land is already owned by a Don, a gift from the king of Spain and Wayne just tells them nope… sorry, it’s mine now and if you don’t like it I’ll just shoot you in the chest.
This was my first inkling that Thomas Dunson wasn’t all that there in the head, or if he was he had a mean vicious bastard streak. I mean, his argument is that the land was stolen from the Indians, so he’s now just stealing it from the new owner and he can’t be talked about of that logic.
It seems to work, though. We jump ahead almost 15 years and the boy is now grown into Montgomery Clift while Dunson’s humble cattle empire is the biggest in the state. Unfortunately the Civil War killed the cattle market in Texas and he thousands of animals just grazing away and a mountain of debt piling up.
The decision is made to make the big drive to Missouri and he doesn’t seem to give one rat fuck if the cattle he takes up are his or not, going so far as rebranding other people’s cattle and throwing them in his group.
It’s rough going and Wayne gradually begins to go crazier and crazier, stricter by the minute and it gets to a boiling point about halfway through the movie, after a stampede that results in a couple of deaths, where he’s over the edge and has to be forced out of the cattle drive by his own adopted son (Clift) no less.
He makes a vow here that chilled me. He looks his kid dead in the eyes and tells him that he will be coming after him and when he does, he will kill him.
Wayne is absent for a good amount of the second half of the flick, a felt presence more than seen, which gives the film an almost horror movie vibe. An animal is hunting these cowboys, but it’s not a werewolf or panther or Lovecraftian creature, but a crossed John Wayne, which in a lot of ways is even scarier.
In fact, all the while watching this film I was thinking how a perfect double feature recommendation would be this and THE COWBOYS… but that started to change when this creepy vibe came into play. A troubled father hunting his son... If it had ended differently, my double feature suggestion was going to be this and THE SHINING.
That’s not to say that I have any objections to the ending of the movie. It’s actually a really powerful ending, with Wayne indeed being the animalistic attack dog you think he’s going to be. It’s just the very last bit, the resolution between father and son that happens a little too fast, but it still works because I was invested in both characters.
Clift really earns his place in movie history with his confident and likable introductory performance. It’s actually a very layered performance and he sells the transition the character has from loyal son to questioning his father to standing up to him, regardless of the consequences. It’s a great performance and I’m really happy we’re hitting a few Clift flicks in a row, including another of this era, shot just before RED RIVER, called THE SEARCH.
Wayne’s performance is likewise fascinating. He takes his image and completely turns it on its head. He’s a very dark lead character, one tha could be interpreted many different ways. It’s a very nuanced performance and a smart dissection of his persona. If anyone argues that Wayne can’t act, I’d want to make sure they’ve seen this movie. It’s not showy work, but very subtle and very brave on Wayne’s part.
Joanne Dru plays Tess, a love interest for Clift and I really dug her in this film. She comes in rather late, as Clift and the guys save another wagon train from attacking Indians and she’s in there fighting with the best of them. She’s definitely a kind of protoype Marion Ravenwood. She doesn’t take shit from the men she’s attracted to and can throw a punch or shoot a gun without blinking.
She has a rather touching scene after being left by Clift (just like Wayne did to his wife at the beginning) as Wayne and his posse come to the wagon train while on the hunt for the cattle and those he views as thieves, including his own son. Wayne sits with Dru and they talk about Clift and the love they have. It’s a really touching moment and you can see Dru getting her fingers under Wayne’s tough skin, exposing his humanity a little bit despite his every effort to fight her off.
Walter Brennan again gets an MVP award for being the grouchy cook who lost a half-stake in his fake teeth with his Indian helper and spends the movie having to recover his teeth from him every time he has to eat. Brennan keeps this movie entertaining and has enough charm and charisma to do it all by himself if he’s called to do so, but thankfully everybody’s top tier here, so he doesn’t have to carry the whole thing.
Howard Hawks’ direction is top tier as well, as should be expected. His work with the actors is what shines here. The camerawork isn’t bad, but it isn’t breathtaking. The real pleasure of this movie is the smart script by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee and precise direction by Hawks.
Final Thoughts: A classic that deserves its title, something new, something different and something fresh even today. I’d go so far as to say this is the John Wayne movie for people who don’t like John Wayne movies. If you can’t find something to enjoy in his performance here, then you’re just a lost cause and should just consider you and John Wayne aren’t ever going to mix well together.