Directed and Produced by Howard Hawks
August 26, 1948
A desperate rancher’s tyrannical ways during a cattle drive leads to a mutiny headed by his adopted son.
John Wayne stars as rancher Thomas Dunson whose obsession with completing a cattle drive that will make or break the future of his ranch twists him into a tyrant. Wayne does some great acting here as Dunson. He starts out as a stern yet fair man, a tough man built to survive the West, but as time goes on and his worries eat at him, he becomes brutal and angry. He develops a “win at all costs” attitude that takes a dim view of human life when it gets in his way.
Wayne gave one of his more sophisticated performances as Dunson. I dare say he was brilliant in the part and this is proof he could really act but as I have often said too many directors just let him squeak by on his charisma and/or star power. John Ford, whom Wayne was friends with and worked with regularly reportedly was so impressed with his performance here that he said, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”
This was Montgomery Clift’s first movie role and he hit the ground running as Dunson’s adoptive son Matt who survived an Indian attack. Dunson, having lost his love in a similar fashion, takes the young boy in and raises him as his own. Clift was an always amazing actor. He gave a nuanced performance as the young Matt. He was loyal to Dunson but eventually forced to confront the reality of the situation and go against his adopted father. He did it out of love to help Dunson and not because he had become angry with him.
Walter Brennan is not among my favorite John Wayne costars. I know he has his fans, but I always thought he kind of slowed things up with his sidekick characters. But this is one of those exceptions that every rule has. He was great here. The character was not just comic relief. He was an actual character who while loyal to his friend, saw what was going on and had to do the right thing to help his friend even it the help was not wanted.
Red River is a great Western, but it is not a “draw guns and shoot the bad guys Western.” It is a drama about a man driven by obsession and desperation who has been using a foundling in an attempt to heal his emotional wounds when all it has done is put a band aid on them. The cattle drive brings so much of what he has kept inside to the surface and Dunson unleashes a need for control that has escaped him in life on his unsuspecting men.
This one of the less nice characters John Wayne has played in his career. Generally they were moral men guided by their ethics who did the right thing regardless. Dunson was different. He was angry and violent and obsessed. He killed men to maintain his control. He was a dictator. Dunson fails to see just how wrong he is acting and just how dangerous he has become until Matt proves him wrong by doing what should have been done.
A great many people die at Dunson’s hands. At least for a John Wayne character. And unusually for a Wayne character those deaths are largely undeserved. What I found really odd though was this need Dunson had to “read over them in the morning.” It happened with some regularity. The characters in the film noted it too. Was this a sign that Dunson subconsciously understood that he had been in the wrong and was seeking forgiveness or atonement?
I really thought more would happen in this film with the Mexican landowner whose property Dunson essentially took. But that was more of a thing to be discussed and demonstrate how hard Dunson had fought to maintain control of the ranch and build it into something worthwhile. The landowner and his men are referenced when they are talking about a collection of graves and discussing options to save the ranch early in the film.
In the film much of the tragedy could have been avoided if the single-minded Dunson had headed to Abilene, Kansas rather than his original destination. He knows for certain there is a railroad in Sedalia but news of the one reaching Abilene comes to him more of as a rumor since none relating the information have actually seen it. He does not trust them for various reasons and goes to the place he is certain has one while his men begin to favor the rumored one that is an easier journey.
We have many of the usual Wayne players in this film. Harry Carey Sr. is Mr. Melville to whom the cattle are eventually sold. His son Harry Carey Jr. plays Dunson wrangler Dan Latimer that does in a stampede. Paul Fix and Hank Worden are Dunson wranglers Teeler Yacey and Sims Reeves respectively. They are joined by John Ireland as Cherry Valance, Noah Beery Jr. as Dunson wrangler Buster McGee and an uncredited Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl in a wagon train.
This is just an amazing cast in a film based a 1946 story by Borden Chase called The Chisholm Trail first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. Fun fact: portions of this film were used in Wayne’s final film The Shootist to illustrate the backstory of Wayne’s character J.B. Books in that film.
Red River is a great dramatic work and a fantastic story. It is not your traditional style Western of the day but rather a film with complicated characters and dark moments. You will be amazed by this film. I say watch it!