Red River (1948)
Red River (1948)

Genre: Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 13 min.

Release Date: September 17th, 1948 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Howard Hawks Actors: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Colleen Gray, Harry Carey Sr., John Ireland, Noah Beery Jr., Harry Carey Jr., Chief Yowlatchie, Paul Fix, Hank Worden




n 1851, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), accompanied by a friend, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), left St. Louis and joined a wagon train headed for California. A few weeks later, they reach the northern border of Texas, where they decide to break away from the group to start a little herd of their own just south. Fen (Colleen Gray), a young woman who has fallen in love with Dunson, insists upon staying with him, but it’s too dangerous, particularly because of the Indians in the area. And so he leaves her behind. A few hours pass before smoke in the distance marks the spot where the wagon train would have advanced toward – but it’s been wiped out. A small scouting party attempts to dispatch Dunson and Groot as well, but they manage to kill off the handful of Indian attackers.

Only one of the travelers from the train survives – a teenaged boy named Matthew Garth. And so the trio continue on their journey, which brings them to a healthy spot of land near the Rio Grande. But their plan to start a massive herd of cattle is further thwarted by Don Diego, who claims to own everything north and south of the river – leading to a shooting match for superiority. As more than a decade comes and goes, the threesome do find success, growing their herd into a significant size – but at the continued price of blood and sweat, and rivalries with neighboring ranchers and their hired gunslingers. When the herd reaches nearly 10,000 heads, a drive is arranged to go all the way to Missouri, with sharpshooters Matt (now an adult, played by Montgomery Clift) and Cherry Valance (John Ireland) in the lead. And the steely, stubborn, determined Dunson is certain nothing will get in his way, despite 1,000 miles of dry wells, savage Indians, border gangs, shifty carpetbaggers, and wind and rain – and the fact that no one else has ever completed the trip.

Unusually, the film starts with a foreword to denote that the unfolding tale is among the annals of the great state of Texas and covers the details of the first drive on the legendary Chisholm Trail. Then, it transitions into yet another printed preface, to explain about Dunson and his pal meeting up with the wagon train. It’s a lot of unnecessary information, considering that all of it is then depicted onscreen with enough exposition to reiterate much of the same. Stranger still is the continued use of intertitles, written in cursive on a paper journal, some presented so quickly that they couldn’t possibly be read in their entirety, with most utterly pointless, as changing locations and attitudes could have been easily incorporated into the visual narrative. And then, in a somewhat comical shift, fourteen years pass, but this time it’s designated through Wayne saying just that, out loud, to Brennan.

Although there’s a touch of excitement at the start, “Red River” seems to exist primarily as a history lesson rather than a piece of adventurous entertainment. The staples of the genre are mostly present, but they rarely demonstrate a a creative deviation from the norm. Brennan is prime comic relief (joined by Chief Yowlatchie as gambler Quo); plenty of supporting characters provide small talk, including hopes for the future and concerns about the drive; a chaotic stampede and half rations add to the expected hardships; and Wayne becomes a merciless tyrant (“I don’t like quitters!”) – a rarity to be sure, but not unheard of – leaving the relatability, chivalry, and daredevilry to Clift an Ireland. Dimitri Tiomkin’s music and song swell up now and then; betrayals and confrontations loom; and there’s even time for a hint of romance (with Joanne Dru as a traveler headed to Nevada).

But all of the notable conflicts are dulled by minute after minute of routines and repetitious bellyaching, stretching out the running time and adding to the documentary sensibilities that lessen the action and drama. Eventually, paranoia about a vengeful Dunson trumps even the threat of the Apache, while Dru’s character goes well out of her way to spontaneously pursue (and sexually accommodate) the reserved Garth – an inexplicable maneuver that lends to even more repetition as she gets caught up on all the happenings leading to her involvement and Dunson’s pursuit. Curiously, her motivations are incredibly rushed (all the attention to less important aspects leaves little room for her significance), which is a shame, since her parallels to Fen from the opening scene are the most poignant of the picture. Sticking with the grueling pacing, even the success of the drive isn’t the climax; it’s the inevitable showdown between two people too obstinate to change their ways but with too much history to end in real tragedy. The finale is grand (a clash of machismo and womanly intervention), but not quite powerful enough to cure the slowness of the storytelling.

As has been much discussed retrospectively by critics and film enthusiasts, the conclusion of “Red River” is a bit unsatisfactory, mostly attributed to a stale Hollywood happy ending. Indeed, the source material (a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase) has Dunson shot down by Cherry, forcing Garth to haul the body back to Texas for a proper burial. But more than a glamorized, softened parting event, there’s something noticeably missing in this filmed adaptation, because Dru’s character isn’t given much of a chance to become significant – and then to retain her significance. Such a large part of the picture is dedicated to exhibiting the obstacles of a drive and the conflicts of a crazed leader that by the time Dru is introduced, it’s almost too late to give her an opportunity to be useful. Then, spontaneously and inexplicably, she falls in love with a man she barely knows – which is, again, a bit of Hollywood scriptwriting conformity.

The poignancy of her role is only evident in the symbolism of a bracelet passed between the characters, harking back to the opening moments. But without an acceptable amount of time spent on building Dru’s character and creating a worthwhile romance, any impact she has on the finale is cursory (or even comical) at best. Surely her intrusion into the ultimate face-off could have been meaningful, if only her role had received the time and details necessary to make the character itself meaningful. Imagine if she had been with the two of them for the entire drive; it would have been essential – instead of contrived and silly – for her to be the one to force them to reconcile just as they’re about to trade bullets to the chest.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10