Red River Review
For a long time, Howard Hawks was taken for granted. His kind of unobtrusive craftsmanship and technical skill was undervalued by critics who preferred to laud the more obvious artistry of John Ford. It wasn’t until the 1950s and the arrival on the scene of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema that the artisans of American cinema began to have their day. It was under this influence that the New York critic Andrew Sarris suggested that many of the studio directors were a lot more interesting than had previously been though. Hawks was certainly Sarris’ hero and the critic’s favourite Hawks film was Red River.
Beginninng before the Civil War, Red River is basically a cattle drive picture but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a meditation on maleness and male relationships, a love story and a true American epic. John Wayne stars as Tom Dunson, a forward looking man who dreams of his own cattle ranch. His best friend is Groot, a wily old timer played by that wiliest of old timers Walter Brennan, and the two men decide to travel to Texas. On the first night of their journey, Tom learns that his sweetheart has been killed in an Indian attack. Stalking her killers, Tom and Groot attack them and find the bracelet left to Tom by his mother that his girlfriend was wearing when she was killed. Near the Red River of the South, the second biggest river in the Great Plains which acts as the natural border between Texas and Oklahoma, they encounter Matt Garth (Clift), sole survivor of an Indian attack. Taking Matt under his wing, Tom builds his ranch and becomes a successful cattle baron, having shed blood in order to stake his claim. He calls the ranch the Red River D and promises to add an M once he feels Matt has earned his spurs.
So far, so familiar. But the movement of the narrative is unusual because at this point time moves on fourteen years into the post-Civil War years, a time when the Southern states of America were financially ruined. Tom is desperately in need of funds because his neighbours cannot afford his beef and decides that the only solution is to drive his cattle north to Missouri where he can make more money. This time shift allows for immediate and effective character development. Tom has changed and his optimism has changed into cynicism and tyranny. He becomes obsessed with conducting the drive in his own way and his poor hiring decisions lead to a stampede which kills one of the men. He ignores the news that the railroad has reached Kansas and insists on pressing on to Missouri. Finally, when he announces that two deserters will be lynched, his men rebel – and the leader of the rebellion is Matt.
There aren’t many Westerns which take place over the space of two decades and this immediately gives Red River the feeling of being an epic. Certainly, it makes one think straightaway of The Searchers which also spans a period of many years and that’s not the only reminder of John Ford’s film which came eight years later. John Wayne is another obvious link and not only because of his presence. It’s arguable that Hawks’ film contains Wayne’s first truly great performance, one which many people never thought him capable of. Certainly, John Ford never rated him as an actor until seeing this film and it’s thought that it was the key to Ford giving Wayne the lead in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The darkness inside Tom Dunson is what gives the film a lot of its power and it’s a darkness which Wayne explored further in Ethan Edwards, which is probably his greatest performance. It makes the film unusual for its time when Westerns were still largely formulaic, optimistic affairs with clear-cut heroes and villains and, along with Wellmann’s Yellow Sky and Levin’s The Man From Colorado, points forward to the psychological Westerns of the 1950s. Tom Dunson is often like a combination of Captain Bligh, Captain Ahab and Captain Scott and his presence casts a shadow over the whole film, even though he does reach some kind of redemption by the end.
The epic nature of the film is emphasised in the frankly gobsmacking photography by Russell Harlan. Like John Ford, Harlan began his career as an actor and stuntman. He moves into cinematography in the 1930s, initially on B pictures. But he clearly had an eye for landscape and movement and his monochrome work is often staggeringly good – you can see more fine examples in The Thing From Another World, The Blackboard Jungle and the beautiful To Kill a Mockingbird. The vistas in Red River are utterly gorgeous right from the start and the location shooting in Mexico and Arizona pays enormous dividends. We feel like we are right in the middle of a vast nowhere and it’s the very antithesis of studio-bound. It’s possible that this is exactly what people think of when they think of how the classic Western looks. When we get into the cattle drive, Harlan’s visual arrangements are elegant and classical but never static. He gets us right inside the action in a way which still looks remarkably modern.
Equally epic are the themes of the film which come from classical drama. Obviously we get the the tragic fall of the hero from grace in the shape of Tom Judson but we also get the need of the son to cast himself free of the shadow of the father and the complementary need of the father to master the son. Montgomery Clift’s uneasy, difficult performance as Matt demonstrates in every movement that he is uncomfortable with Tom and the different acting styles of Clift and Wayne (and one suspects, mutual dislike) simply emphasise it. If Matt is a less interesting character than Tom, that’s perhaps because he’s saddled with the film’s boy/girl love story, a distraction which the screenwriter Borden Chase disliked. Certainly, Joanna Dru’s performance is weak and the dialogue she’s given is barely speakable. But the main problem is that the true love story of the film is between Tom and Matt and the resolution of it, which should have a tragic inevitability, is undermined by the changed ending.
Red River is a beautifully well-made film. Hawks works very well with the actors, particularly Walter Brennan, and keeps the pace fast and the drama engrossing. He creates great scenes, like Wayne explaining the treacherous road ahead in the saloon, the excitement of the stampede and the tension leading up to it, and the classic “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt” moment. If it’s not near the top my favourite Hawks films, that’s perhaps because of two things. Firstly, it has a certain self-conscious seriousness which I’ve never much liked in Westerns. Secondly, I don’t personally think that Hawks was quite as well suited to this kind of material as some critics have claimed. He does a very fine job but then he always did. He was a great craftsman who took pride in his work. But his real talent was for comedy and every single one of his great films is, to one extent or other, comic in spirit, whether it’s the screwball farce of Bringing Up Baby, the character comedy of Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo or the sophisticated adult innuendo of The Big Sleep. These are great, personal films. For all its undoubted quality – and it is in many ways a remarkable film - Red River isn’t one of them.
Anyone expecting a pristine version of Red River will be disappointed by this release as it contains some obvious print damage in places and there are moments when the picture appears a little bit murky due to a level of grain which, while usually pleasingly natural, is often very heavy indeed. However, on the bright side, the level of detail is exceptional throughout and there is a depth to the image which vastly improves on previous SD releases. Shadow detail is usually very strong and the contrast is consistently impressive. A full restoration of Red River would be welcome, but for the moment this will do very nicely.
No complaints at all about the lossless mono soundtrack which is crisp, clear and sounds good as new. The clarity during the dialogue scenes is particularly strong. The option to listen to the film with an isolated music and effects track is also available.
The disc is fairly light on extra features. The best is a conversation between Dan Sallitt and Jaime N. Christley which analyses the film without becoming pretentious or precious and brings out a lot of interesting points. They have a lot of time for Howard Hawks and show considerable insight into his work. Also on the disc is the 1949 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film which features John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Joanne Dru. However, accompanying the disc is one of MOC’s typically comprehensive booklets which contains several superb pieces of writing on the film including pieces by Andrew Sarris and Susan Liandrat-Guigues (who wrote the BFI book on the movie), interviews with Christian Nyby and Borden Chase, and a study of the two versions of the film.
The Blu-Ray features English subtitles for the hard of hearing. It is locked to Region B.
We have waited a long time for a Blu-Ray of this influential Western and while the Masters of Cinema disc isn’t perfect, it’s the best release of the film I’ve seen so far for home viewing. Recommended.