Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Red River (1948)

Red River
”Red River” is an epic movie. Or rather, it really wants to be an epic movie. Everything is set up to show us a really big story. We have a group of MEN who set out on the nearly impossible task of driving a giant herd (10.000 heads) of cattle hundreds of miles through big, open landscapes. They are out there for several weeks, months even, facing nature, natives and big drama. It is big and it is beautiful and it is very difficult not to be impressed with this movie. The only thing lacking really is a wide screen format and Technicolor. I am scratching my head why at least the colors were not used, but it may be a combination of technical and financial reasons behind that decision. In those days it was not entirely trivial to use colors.

The Book has already given away the plot as a retelling of the “Mutiny on the Bounty” story. That is okay with me. There are so many parallels that eventually that connection would have dawned on even me. That the handsome Montgomery Clift is the Fletcher Christian character Matt Garth would come as no surprise. That man screams cinema hero. Not the grimy, hardboiled type, but the one to make women soft in their knees. That to a metrosexual extent that I see a glimpse of “Brokeback Mountain” here. He is the man with the right opinions and perfect integrity.

The Captain Bligh character may be less obvious. There is a long introduction where we see how Tom Dunson (John Wayne) loses his girlfriend in an Indian attack and heads into Texas with a bull and a cow to claim land and start his own ranch. Yes, he is a bitter man, but determined and there is so much of the mythological can-do (and do-it-yourself) quality of the western frontier about this character that it is difficult not to see Dunson as a (if not the) hero of the story. Also, come on, this is John Wayne. He may be gruff and gritty, but he’s got that right stuff aura, that means that we instantly root for him.

But he is the Bligh after all. The civil war has practically ruined him. He has got 10.000 head of cattle and no one to sell them to. The market is somewhere else and so he must take his cattle, men and supplies on that epic drive to Missouri. Dunson has eyes only for his target and takes a very proprietarian look at this whole business. It is his herd, his men, his project and his law. He is a man who takes what he wants and he does not negotiate, much like a sea captain he rules his own little kingdom with an iron fist. That fist may work well on that ranch and in general with the sort of people in his employ, especially considering that civilization is somewhere else and the territory is fraught with danger (read Indians and Mexicans). The problem is when the king is wrong. What then? Who tells the king that he may be mistaken? And what do you do when the king insists on driving towards ruin and disaster beyond reason?

There is a role here for the kings fool. An old friend who can tell the king the unwanted truth where others would get killed and that role is excellently filled by Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot. He is exactly the right gritty relief that the movie needs, but unfortunately for Dunson he is largely ignored.

So there is a mutiny. Dunson is deposed and it is up to Garth to take the heard to the new destination Abilene, a route that, as I understand it, has become legendary. Dunson swears revenge on this man he raised as a son and so the scene is set for a showdown in Abilene.

I love the grandeur of this film. It is just so shameless about being so big. Every trick is the book is used and the production value is just immense. I like Howard Hawks’ films particularly because he never seems to do things halfway no matter what genre he is at. This is full throttle western on a level that should make John Ford blush. Just listen to that music and look at those cattle moving across the plains!

On the other hand there are also so many things here that makes me roll my eyes. It may be the age though. The production value is so good that I seem to forget that this film is from 1948.

Yet all those western clichés just rub me the wrong way.

The Indians are savages, a danger of the land as the coyotes or the drought. The only Indian who is more than that is the domesticated Quo (Chief Yowlachie) who, though he displays a certain shrewdness, is only humanized to the extent that he conforms to the cowboy culture.

When Cherry Valance (John Ireland) joins the group he and Matt have a pissing contest over their guns that makes them look 6 years old rather than 30. It is just too lame. Or the sheer machismo in everything from dialogue to motivation in this group of men. It is almost stylized into the ridiculous.

The part I have been wondering the most about however is the resolution. And here I better wave the SPOILER ALERT flag.

 As Dunson rides into Abilene there are only four ways this can go.

1.       Garth (or his men) shoots Dunson.

2.       Dunson shoots Garth

3.       Dunson and Garth somehow gets reconciled

4.       Dunson and Garth somehow never meet (the original “Mutiny on the Bounty” resolution)

Option number one was the solution from the story on which the movie was made, but killing John Wayne is not so easy. Option number 2 was never really in the cards since this is a 1948 big production. You just do no go around shooting the hero. Option 4 simply does not fit a machismo movie like this. Garth ending up in Canada to avoid Dunson’s wrath might make sense, but not to a real cowboy. That leaves option 4 for better or worse.

The brilliant stroke was to include the woman, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) who break up the showdown and tell them they are behaving like children (which they were). It is a Deux Ex Machina, but it is also effective and leaves the two macho men totally abashed. A surprising show of self-consciousness of the over the top machismo of the film. Unfortunately the movie then goes totally overboard in that solution and everybody are suddenly best friends with Garth going back to the ranch with Dunson. Considering what a ruthless bastard Dunson has been Garth should know better. Hmmm… Maybe that was a little too easy.

I have had a projector laying around for a while, but for this picture I decided to test it on my wall. This was exactly the right movie to use for testing. Wow. Seeing this grand film blown up to something like cinema format was just great. I did not like all the movie, but I can and I did enjoy the scale of it. Yiiiihaaaa.


  1. Mutiny on the Bounty with cows is pretty much it. I felt like we saw the whole trail on that cattle drive.

    1. We probably did, but that was also the best part of the film. I too was underwhelmed by having every single western cliché spelled out, but those vistas were magnificient to behold.

  2. I may be the only one on the planet that missed the Mutiny on the Bounty connection but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense.

    I too love the grandeur of the thing. The cattle drive scenes are my favorite part. I think they were rather commonplace at the time but the scale is mindboggling. I'm not too fond of the Joanne Dru parts and some of the Western cliches are a bit much. Nonetheless, this is one of my favorite Westerns.

    1. I was not too unhappy with Joanne Dru, though it seems most people dislike that part. She is in some sense the antidote to the macho overload we are getting. On the other hand a resolution with her as the focal point just seem too weak.

  3. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift make an odd pairing, but somehow it works. The film is cliched, as you say, and the old standards are used, but it is still a beautiful movie to look at. It would have been better in color, though.

    1. Yes, this is a movie that cries out for some Technicolor. There are big and beautiful images aplenty, but also the clichés stack up.
      Somehow it feels weird to see John Wayne as an asshole. He is usually the epitome of integrity.