Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dir. by Howard Hawks

In 1948 Howard Hawks cast a little-known Broadway actor opposite John Wayne in a hard-boiled Western about a grueling cattle drive. The young man was Montgomery Clift, and his astonishing charisma was never shown to better effect.

The story is about Tom Dunson (Wayne) and his pal Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan in high mush-mouth sidekick glory). When Dunson leaves his love behind on a wagon train to settle new land in Texas, he didn’t expect the train to be wiped out by hostile Indians in hours. Instead of returning to find his love, he adopts a boy orphaned by the battle, Matt Garth (Clift). Dunson seizes his ranchland from Mexican hacenderos and Indians and builds a cattle empire. But in the process he becomes a man driven by an inner demon of stubbornness that will neither admit defeat or a mistake.

In the aftermath of the Civil War Texas ranchers found themselves with too much cattle and not enough buyers. They needed to re-establish their markets at out-of-state railheads. Accordingly Dunson and Garth set out to drive a massive herd (built with casual disregard of actual ownership of the cattle) to Sedalia, Missouri. They just have to cross a thousand miles and run the gauntlet of hostile Indians and vicious border ruffians.

What follows is a cowboy version of the HMS Bounty, with Dunson as Bligh and Garth as Mr. Christian. A wagon train of gamblers and “dance-hall girls” provides a prairie-bound Tahiti. Hawks keeps the sentimentality to a minimum, though occasionally his hard-boiled homage gets a bit ludicrous. The scene where Clift and Joanne Dru trade Bogey & Bacall-style snappy comebacks in the middle of an Indian attack is rather over the top.

Despite such deviations, including an ending that is far more optimistic than events warrant, Red River stands as a landmark of classic Western filmmaking, beyond formula sentimentality but not quite a revisionist rejection of the past. It is a masterpiece that surpasses its flaws.
-Dave Hardy

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