Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Red River (1948)
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Background

Red River (1948) is a classic and complex western (and considered by many critics to be one of the ten best westerns ever made). It is a sweeping, epic story about a cattle drive (historically based on the opening of the Chisholm Trail in 1867) and a film of rivalry and rebellion, spanning a time period of fifteen years. Red River was Howard Hawks' first western, a story often compared to its parallel epic on the high seas, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Later westerns he directed included The Big Sky (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970). Hawks was well known for his storytelling and his versatility in film genres, spanning screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940)), romantic comedies (Twentieth Century (1934)), crime/gangster films (Scarface: Shame of the Nation (1932)), mystery-detective noirs (The Big Sleep (1946)), adventure films (Only Angels Have Wings (1939)), and war films (The Dawn Patrol (1930)), to name a few.

The film's well-written screenplay (by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee) was based on Chase's novel/Saturday Evening Post serialized story (in six installments from December 1946 through January 1947): The Chisholm Trail. This was one of producer/director Howard Hawks' most extravagant and ambitious films, and cost over $3 million (overbudget) at the time - an exorbitant sum, but became a top-grossing film of the year. Gary Cooper was originally chosen to portray Tom Dunson - ultimately played by John Wayne, but refused on the role because of the character's ruthlessness and contemptibility. And Cary Grant also turned down the role of gunslinger Cherry Valance, ultimately played in a reduced part by John Ireland.

The film, shot on location in Arizona (near Elgin) and Mexico, authentically chronicles an epic, bleak and tough journey, similar to the ones in The Odyssey or in Exodus (in the Old Testament), that is fraught with external dangers, threats, tests of strength, and internal contentious tensions between its two strong-willed, conflicting leaders: a hard-nosed, bitter, ruthless and tough commanding father (John Wayne in one of his best performances and his first film, of five, for Hawks) and his men, defiantly led by his less harsh, surrogate, adopted son (Montgomery Clift, in his first film, after being noticed acting in the Broadway stage production of Lillian Hellman's The Searching Wind).

Its metaphoric title was deliberately chosen to evoke the Biblical exodus, another journey in which a group of Israelites leave their familiar homeland and cross the Red Sea into unknown territory. By film's conclusion, the cattle herd are successfully brought to market on the new Chisholm Trail, and the two men are reconciled after a brutal brawl. The tough woman in the film, Tess (Joanne Dru), steps in and breaks up their final fight to the death with a gun. [The film's script was more upbeat than Chase's original story. In the original novel with a darker ending, Dunson's wound - from Cherry - causes him to collapse, and he soon dies. Matt and Tess bury him in Texas beside the Red River and near his ranch.]

In the long run, this production brought both critical acclaim and financial success. Two Academy Award nominations were received: one for Borden Chase's story, the other for Christian Nyby's Film Editing. It was undervalued due to its being a western - John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, director Hawks, and score writer Dimitri Tiomkin should have - at least - received nominations. Wayne (and Walter Brennan as his sidekick) would go on to make another western with Hawks a decade later - Rio Bravo (1959).

The Story

The film's credits scroll while accompanied by the first example of Dimitri Tiomkin's magnificent Western tune: "Settle Down." Another scrolling prologue opens the film:

Among the annals of the great state of Texas may be found the story of the first drive on the famous Chisholm Trail. A story of one of the great cattle herds of the world, of a man and a boy - - Thomas Dunson and Matthew Garth, the story of the Red River D.

An old cowhide-bound journal (tied with leather), with its cover titled "Early Tales of Texas," is opened to handwritten pages inside - the book's cursive manuscript appears on-screen every so often throughout the film to tell the story [although one version of the film featured Walter Brennan's off-screen, voice-over narration instead]. This is the first of the film's 14 intertitles:

In the year 1851, Thomas Dunson accompanied by a friend, Nadine Groot, left St. Louis and joined a wagon train headed for California. Three weeks on the trail found them near the northern border of Texas. The land to the South looked good to...

The words fade into an opening majestic scene of a wagon train passing through a large prairied valley, heading west (from right to left across the screen) in 1851 to California. One of the wagons pulls out of the wagon train line. It is led by a young determined man, Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and driven by his traveling companion Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan). Dunson informs the wagonmaster Colonel (Lane Chandler) that he has decided to leave the pioneer wagon train (honorably), because he never signed an oath to finish the journey to the west coast. The two had not officially signed on at the start of the trip, but joined on the trail outside St. Louis:

I signed nothing. If I had, I'd stay. You'll remember I joined your train after you left St. Louis.

Even though they are in the midst of hostile Comanche Indian country ("They're around somewhere - I can feel 'em," says the wagonmaster), Dunson intends to head South toward cattle-friendly Texas and the Red River to start his own cattle herd with a bull and cows:

I'm startin' my own herd. I've watched the land south of here since we left the Salt Fork. It's good land, good grass for beef, so I'm goin' South where it is.

Serving as an interpreter, Groot knows how determined and single-minded Dunson is:

If I was you, Colonel, I'd ponder on lettin' him be. He's a mighty set man when his mind's made up. Even you can't change him. Now he'll be headin' South. Mind he don't stomp on you on the way out.

Groot is Dunson's steadfast friend - succinctly but incompletely stated:

Colonel, me and Dunson...well, it's me and Dunson.

By leaving, Tom has decided to abandon his young, pretty sweetheart Fen (Coleen Gray) with plans to send for her later. Before they part, Fen begs Tom to let her come along so she won't be deserted: "I know you have work to do, Tom, but I want to be part of it. I love you. I want to be with you." But Tom stubbornly refuses her pleas, thinking that the arduous drive would be "too much for a woman." When she kisses him, she asks him if she really appears weak, and then pleads with him to balance his human actions by listening with his heart as well as his head:

Fen: Please take me with you. I'm strong. I can stand anything you can.
Tom: It's too much for a woman.
Fen: Too much for a woman? Put your arms around me, Tom. (They hug and kiss each other.) Hold me. Feel me in your arms. Do I feel weak, Tom? I don't, do I? Oh, you'll need me. You'll need a woman. You need what a woman can give you to do what you have to do. Oh listen to me, Tom. Listen with your head and your heart too. The sun only shines half the time, Tom. The other half is night.
Tom: I've made up my mind.
Fen: Oh change your mind, Tom. Just once in your life change your mind.
Tom: I'll send for ya. Will ya come?
Fen: Of course I'll come. But you're wrong.

Even though she judges him to be "wrong" and believes he is making a serious mistake by leaving her behind, she agrees to join him later on when he is settled in Texas. As a parting gift and token of his sincerity, he offers her his mother's coiled snake bracelet [a symbol of female domesticity] and places it on her wrist. When they kiss one last time, she begs for him to go quickly:

Go, please. If you're going to go, please go now. I want to be with you so much. My knees feel like...like they have knives in them. Bye.

In the middle of the sprawling prairie, in one of the film's great visuals, she watches and waves after them as they turn away and ride off from the rest of the wagon train. Their wagon soon reaches the northern bank of the Red River - across which is Texas. [This is the first occurrence of the 'Red River' of the film's title. The second instance comes later in the film, when the cattle are herded across during the drive.] Hours after leaving the main wagon train, they turn and see clouds of black smoke rising into the sky on the distant horizon in about the same location as the wagon train they just left. It is a sign that a group of hostile Indians have attacked and slain the pioneers, thereby shedding their blood. The sound of Indian drums confirms their first reaction. Groot is frustrated by the unseen attack:

Why do Indians always want to be burnin' up good wagons?

Dunson is resigned to stay where they are, thinking it useless to turn back: "it would take us hours to get back there." Groot reinforces what Dunson must be thinking: "We shoulda took her along." [Fen's opinion about joining them is paid for with her life.] They camp that night with their backs to the river for protection.

After hearing bird calls (as signals) before an impending Indian attack, they take a stand against a small war party of Comanches. One of the braves jumps on Dunson and propels them both into the river where they engage in a life-and-death wrestling match. Groot tosses a knife to his comrade and Dunson stabs the Indian to death underwater (punctuated by musical chords). [Although the film is black and white, the Indian's red blood inevitably ran into the river - the Red River.] The bracelet that he gave Fen is found on the slain Indian's wrist - and symbolizes her death. The dead brave is obviously the one responsible for his fiancee's demise. It is a shock to Dunson to learn of her death and he is hardened by it. Again, Groot reacts with dismay and sympathetically expresses Tom's thoughts: "Oh Tom, that's too bad. We shoulda took..." Dunson slips the bracelet onto his own wrist.

The next day under a swarm of vultures, they find a stunned young boy, Matt (Micky Kuhn as the young boy) wandering aimlessly and leading a cow behind him. He is the sole survivor of the wagon train massacre and mumbling crazily to himself: "It was all burnin', only Indians around, just all burnin' and smokin', smellin'. They were burnin' everything. I can see it. It's plain. I can see it. It was burnin' the wagons. People was screamin'." He escaped the massacre when separated from the wagon train while retrieving a cow miles away in the brush.

After Dunson slaps him twice to knock him back to his senses, the boy quickly draws his small-sized gun and warns: "I wouldn't do that again...Don't do that again!" In their initial meeting, Dunson fools the boy into letting up his guard and then quickly lunges toward him, slaps him again, and takes away the gun. He presents his first lesson to the boy: "Don't ever trust anybody until you know 'em" - advice that will be remembered during the final conflict between them:

Dunson: Don't ever trust anybody until you know 'em.
Matt: I won't - after this. Thanks for telling me.

They decide to take the boy along with them on their journey into Texas (possibly as a compensatory replacement for losing Fen). [The boy is adopted as an orphan and becomes Tom's foster son.] In order to prove himself, the young man ends their first meeting by threatening Dunson:

Dunson: Yeah, well, it looks like we'll have to take you along. (He returns the gun to the boy, expressing his confidence in the lad.) (taunting) Well, are you gonna use it?
Matt: No, no. But don't ever try to take it away from me again.
Dunson: (to Groot) He'll do.

The pages of the leather diary turn to a new page of handwritten text:

And that was the meeting of a boy with a cow and a man with a bull and the beginning of a great herd. In search for land they traveled South through Texas, across arable and promising land, but weighed it and they found it wanting. So on they went on through the Panhandle ever southward seeking...past the Pecos...nearing the Rio Grande...

With Dunson's lone bull and the young boy's single cow, they cross the Red River and travel many miles - all the way to the Rio Grande on their journey to the south. There, Tom appropriates all the land for his own, for a ranch as far as the eye can see. After their two thousand mile trek, Dunson looks out over the land and claims all the sweeping grazing lands north of the Rio Grande:

Dunson: This is it. This is where we start growin' good beef...Everything a man could want. Good water and grass and plenty of it.
Matt: Who does it belong to?
Dunson (gesturing toward the land): To me! Some day, that'll all be covered with good beef. And I'll put a mark, a brand on 'em, to show they're mine too.
Matt: What kind of a mark?

With a dream of a cattle empire (even though he is a long distance from the Red River), he kneels in the dirt and traces a distinctive Red River brand (the Red River D) for the bull and cow - his initial D (for Dunson) and two lines (a double S to show the two banks of the river):

I've been thinkin' about that. There'll be two lines, like this, like the banks of a river. It'll be the Red River brand.

To get started, they brand Dunson's bull with "the first Red River D." The young boy asks if Dunson is going to brand his donated cow with the same brand - he wants his own M initial added to the brand that he considers incomplete. Matt is assured that someday his initial will be added to balance the design - if he earns it:

Matt: I see a 'D' for Dunson, but my name's Matthew...I don't see any 'M' on that brand.
Dunson: I'll put an 'M' on it when you earn it.
Matt: That's fair enough. I'll earn it.

[At the conclusion of the film, Matt earns the right to brand their cattle with an added M - the initial of his first name rather than his last name.]

At that moment, after invoking the Red River with the brand, two strangers ride up and approach them. Groot warns Dunson: "Never liked seein' strangers. This is 'cause no stranger ever good news'd me." They have provoked Mexican land-barons/wranglers who quarrel with Dunson - accusing him of trespassing on a vast amount of land owned by Don Diego who lives about 400 miles to the south. Groot is prompted to remark: "That's too much land for one man. Why it ain't decent." Dunson shoos back Matt, hinting that there may be trouble with the gunslingers. He challenges the Mexican landowner's rights, and appropriates all the land north of the Rio Grande for himself, establishing what he considers the proper boundary between the US and Mexico:

Dunson: Tell Don Diego, tell him that all the land north of that river's mine. Tell him to stay off of it.
Mexican: Oh, but the land is his.
Dunson: Where did he get it?
Mexican: Oh many years ago by grant and patent, inscribed by the King of all of Spain.
Dunson: You mean he took it away from whomever was here before. Indians maybe.
Mexican: Maybe so.
Dunson: Well, I'm takin' it away from him.
Mexican: Others have thought as you, senor. Others have tried.
Dunson: And you've always been good enough to stop 'em?
Mexican: Amigo, it is my work.
Dunson: Pretty unhealthy job. (He backs up and warns Matt.) Get away, Matt.

When the Mexican draws first, Dunson outdraws and kills him, and then sends his companion back to Diego with a warning that the land has a new owner. Excited by Dunson's fast draw, Matt asks how he knew when the Mexican was going to shoot - and learns another lesson:

Matt: How'd you know when he was gonna draw?
Dunson: By watchin' his eyes. Remember that.
Matt: I will.

In a primitive ceremony under the vast sky, they bury the slain Mexican and Dunson reads a short passage from the Bible over the dead man's grave - marked with a cross: "We brought nothing into this world, and it's certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen." In the foreground of the low-angle shot is a branding iron pointing toward the grave.

After Dunson's male bull and Matt's female cow are branded, they are untied and set free - they will go on to produce the herd for the ranch on this new domain of land. Dunson kneels: "Wherever they go, they'll be on my land. My land. We're here and we're gonna stay here. Give me ten years and I'll have that brand on the gates of the greatest ranch in Texas."

As the scene dissolves to many years later after lots of hard work, Dunson predicts what the next decade and a half will bring with a verbal description of the development of his sizable cattle enterprise - illustrated in a montage shifting almost fifteen years later to 1865:

The big house will be down by the river and the corrals and the barns behind it. It'll be a good place to live in. Ten years and I'll have the Red River D on more cattle than you've looked at anywhere. I'll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make 'em strong and make 'em grow. But it takes work and it takes sweat and it takes time. Lots of time. It takes years.


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