But there's a lot else going on in this multi-layered film. It's a psychological drama built on ambition and lust for power. It’s also an intriguing (though not fully developed) look at gender and familial relations – about fathers and sons, about men who haven’t had a strong female presence in their lives, and about women who shake them up. The film buff can see it as an identifiable Hawks creation, with some of the motifs that ran through this great director’s varied body of work. And there’s even a bit of horror movie buried in it, with innocents being pursued (and haunted in their nightmares) by a seemingly omniscient bogeyman, ready to jump out of the darkness. Who knew that John Wayne could be a prototype for Freddy Krueger!
All that said, Red River is first and foremost a brilliant Western, with everything you could want from the genre. It has an acute sense of history – the struggles of the pioneers and visionaries of the Old West, the constant need to shrug off painful losses, look ahead and move on – and strongly written supporting characters, such as Dunson’s old buddy Groot (played by the always-wonderful Walter Brennan). The location shooting is outstanding; there are cattle-drive and stampede scenes that equal any of John Ford’s action setpieces. (What an experience it must have been to see all this on the big screen!) The film is driven by visual storytelling, a point underlined by the fact that though we get occasional glimpses of a scroll of paper with a handwritten version of the narrative on it, the scroll rarely appears on the screen for more than two or three seconds. It dissolves in and out before the viewer has had time to read the full page – you’re left with a basic impression of the first couple of sentences, which is all you really need, because the camera is speaking so eloquently.
Much of the interest in the film today centres on the contrast in acting styles between old-school leading man Wayne and the young, introspective Clift, who was one of Hollywood’s first major performers from the Method school. Actually the contrast isn’t as pronounced as you might think, because Wayne smartly underplays his role, especially when he portrays Dunson as middle-aged. Here, the swaggering, crinkly-eyed Western hero of the 1930s is replaced by a terse, tight-lipped man, and there’s no doubting Dunson’s hard-headedness. In his overall demeanour one sees something resembling the dogmatism of the religious fundamentalist, and indeed his modus operandi is to calmly outdraw and shoot someone, and then nobly read from his Bible over the dead body. There’s something vaguely touching about this the first time he does it (the victim is the henchman of a powerful land-owner, and at this point Dunson can still be seen as a heroic figure), but soon it becomes creepy. Incidentally the Bible theme leads to an amusing monologue, delivered in a sing-song voice by one of the other men:
Always planting and reading! Fill a man full of lead, plant him in the ground, and then read words at him! Why, when you’ve killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?Montgomery Clift's Matthew, on the other hand, is dreamy-eyed and often smiles shyly. He’s a sensitive, almost new-age Western hero who sighs “I’m sorry” after he happens to raise his voice slightly during a conversation – compared to him, even Henry Fonda’s reticent Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine seems like a rugged frontiersman. Despite the Mutiny on the Bounty comparisons, Matt is no Fletcher Christian. Shortly after leading the mutiny, he says of Dunson, “He was wrong”, but then adds with a conflicted look on his face, “I hope I’m right.” This introspection and self-doubt is in direct opposition to Dunson’s proclamation “I’m the law.”
The emotional vulnerability of Clift is on view throughout the film, but one sees a different sort of vulnerability from Wayne, and it’s especially effective because this is the old-world macho man who doesn’t usually show weakness. Wayne is startlingly good in the scenes just after Dunson leads the shooting of three men who were talking about quitting: watch the paranoid way in which he jerks his head around and says “Where are you going?” when he sees Matt walking away, or the way he looks at another man who he thinks might be reaching for his holster. You get the sense that Dunson inwardly realises he is being unreasonable, but that he can’t swallow his pride. Soon he becomes a control freak, refusing to sleep so he can keep an eye on all the men, all the time (this is, of course, an indication that he realises he can no longer trust anyone).
The sleeplessness motif will be repeated later in the film, when Matt and his men are plagued by nightmares about the vengeful Dunson tracking them down. (“Every time you turn around, expect to see me, because one day you’ll turn around and I’ll be there.”) You won’t see many other great Westerns populated by insomniac and fearful men, but like I said, this film is a genre-bender. The fog in the night scenes also creates a look and atmosphere that is very unusual for a Western – you can cut the tension with a knife.
In fact, some of the later scenes in Red River remind me of two other great films made in the same year: John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (with gold prospectors driven by greed, eventually in danger of losing their sanity) and – would you believe it – Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet. Think about the Danish prince being approached on a misty night by his father’s ghost, and then watch the scene in Red River where Matt wanders restlessly about on a foggy night, dreading Dunson’s arrival.
In Olivier’s film, the role of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude was played by an actress who was more than a decade younger than Olivier – this underlined the story’s Oedipal theme, turning the Hamlet-Gertrude-Claudius relationship into a twisted romantic triangle. In Red River, the main female character Tess has a similarly ambiguous relationship with both Dunson and Matt.
Men, women and Hawks
Many of Hawks’ movies are about men who live in a confined, emotionally limiting world, surrounded mostly by other men (or, in one memorable case, by dinosaur bones!) until a woman comes along and becomes a disruptive force, or a stabilising influence, or both. (On occasion, it’s possible to read the male relationships as being deeper than just strong friendship – watch the way the young cowboy Cherry Valance looks at Matt the first time they meet, and the subsequent gunplay between them, and tell me it isn’t vaguely homoerotic.)
There are two women in Red River; they are never seen together, but there is a strong symmetry in their roles, and in how they affect the central relationship between Dunson and Matt. Very early in the film, the young Dunson loses his girl Fen in an Indian attack (after he’s told her not to accompany him – he’ll return for her later). The very next morning, the boy Matt comes into his life, eventually becoming his adoptive son. Fourteen years later, shortly after the conflict between Dunson and Matt, Tess (Joanne Dru) enters the picture, becomes romantically involved with Matt, and sets about playing agony aunt and relationship-mender (in a striking scene where she wears a flowing black gown, she looks very much like a maternal, Madonna figure).
When Matt leaves Tess behind, promising to return for her later, it’s a repeat of Dunson’s promise to Fen, but with a twist: shortly afterwards, Dunson arrives and agrees to take Tess with him. He’s showing some flexibility for the first time, which represents a major progression in his character – it should help the viewer prepare for a reconciliation and a happy ending.
Unfortunately, the actual climax – with Tess breaking up a display of machismo between Dunson and Matt – is too abrupt, and jarringly shifts the tone from grand tragedy to homely farce. I think this same ending could have worked better if it had been drawn out a little more, and if the Tess character had been given more importance in the lead up to it. Perhaps she could have been played by a bigger star – someone like Barbara Stanwyck, or even Olivia De Havilland – so that she became the film’s belated third lead. (And how about Lauren Bacall, who had stood up so well to Humphrey Bogart in two earlier Hawks classics, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep?) But the role as it’s written is too marginal – almost an afterthought – to sustain such an idea. Tess isn’t quite the equal of the “Hawksian women” from other films. (While on that, see this piece by Germaine Greer.)
If it were possible for an otherwise great film to be ruined by its last one minute, this would be a candidate. But Red River is such a complex and satisfying movie in other respects that it almost doesn’t matter; when you think about it a few days after watching it, you’ll only remember the good bits. And wish you could see it in 70 mm.
Related posts: on the John Wayne star persona in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and on A Streetcar Named Desire (which also had two leads who represented different acting styles – also see the comments discussion).