Monday, December 3, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Red River" (1948)

Plantin' and readin'. Plantin' and readin'. Fill a man full of lead, stick him in the ground, and then read words at him. Why, when you kill a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?
                                                           --Simms Reeves
I love it when screenwriters give some of the best dialogue to minor characters. That's a hallmark of 1948's "Red River," directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan. It's a big picture with an intimate feel, not to mention one of the darkest-themed Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Frequent Wayne collaborator John Ford is said to have remarked after seeing the film, "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!"

Personally, I think "The Searchers" was the apotheosis of the grimmer side of Wayne's star persona, but "Red River" certainly deserves a spot among his better performances.

The quote above comes from the frequent Western player Hank Worden, known for his stick frame, bald head and high moan of a voice. It's a reference to Wayne's character, pioneer cattleman Thomas Dunson, who has a habit of shooting dead anybody who opposes him, including his own cowboys, but always insisting upon a proper burial and Bible reading the morning after.

All his killings seem to conveniently take place in the evening so as not to interrupt the massive cattle drive he's currently undertaking from Texas to Missouri. The story is a fictionalized version of the first major drive in 1865 on the Chisholm Trail, which actually goes to Kansas. (More on that in a minute.)

Dunson has spent the better part of the last 15 years building up the largest beef herd in all of Texas, only to find himself destitute with no market for his cattle. So he resolves to drive 10,000 head 1,000 miles to Missouri. He doesn't even have enough cash to pay his men, only the promise of triple pay if and when they should reach the market.

"Red River" is chockablock with interesting side characters and throwaway lines of dialogue. Screenwriters Borden Chase and Charles Schnee received an Oscar nomination for their story, based on Chase's story in the Saturday Evening Post. It contains the usual Western tropes of six-shooter duels, marauding Indians and womenfolk tempting cowboys to leave the trail in favor of more civilized town life.

The other Academy Award nod was for Christian Nyby's editing, which may literally have saved the film from extinction. Originally shot in 1946, "Red River" wasn't released until two years later as Hawks sought to tighten the narrative, and also was sued by Howard Hughes, who thought the finale too similar to his from "The Outlaw." Brennan recorded a narration which was used to replace written journal entries that pop up from time to time, but that cut of the film was lost for decades until it was reassembled from the Criterion Collection release a few years ago.

The version I saw is not that one, and still includes the journal pop-ups, which as Hawks feared are fleeting and difficult to read.

Brennan plays Groot (!), another in a long line of cantankerous oldsters in his repertoire. He's more sensible than some of his other soft-headed characters, showing fierce loyalty to Dunson but only up to a point. The story opens with just the two of them breaking off from a wagon train to stake their own claim across the Red River in Texas.

Dunson leaves behind a bountiful lass (Coleen Gray) who pretty well throws herself at him, insisting he take her along, but the lonesome prairie is no place for a woman and all that. He gives her his mother's bracelet as a promise to send for her, but hours later the pioneers are massacred by Indians, one of who wears the trinket as a prize.

Consigned to lifelong bachelorhood (read: cantankerous chastity), Dunson takes a young boy who escaped the attack, Matt Garth, as his ward and heir apparent. He admires that the lad, shell-shocked by the killing of his family, still has the wherewithal to pull a pint-sized gun on Dunson when he slaps the boy to his senses.

"He'll do," Dunson mutters to Groot in admiration.

Years later Matt has just returned from the Civil War a seasoned leader and gunfighter. Dunson appoints him trail master of 30 or so cowpunchers, with Groot driving the chuck wagon. As the trail goes on and the troubles pile up, Dunson becomes increasingly dictatorial and hard-handed, shooting several deserters or would-be mutineers.

Matt, now played by Montgomery Clift, obediently knuckles under and keeps the men (mostly) in line. But when one lunkheaded idjit (Ivan Parry) causes a stampede by clanking some pots while stealing some sugar, resulting in the death of one man and 300 lost head, Dunson insists on whipping the transgressor. When the man refuses to accept this debasement, Matt shoots him in the shoulder to prevent the boss from giving him one between the eyes.

Soon Dunson is barely sleeping and drinking all the time, a paranoid petty tyrant of the plains.

Things finally come to a head when Dunson wants to hang some deserters, and Matt opposes him, essentially leading an ad-hoc mutiny. The older man vows to catch up to Matt and kill him, and for the rest of the movie the audience is looking over his shoulder right along with him.

They finally make it to Abilene, turning west to avoid the bandits attacking every cattle drive, and because they heard there's a new railroad stop there. There Matt again meets up with Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), a plucky gal and member of another wagon train the boys saved from Indians along the way, and they fall hard for each other.

(Including the usual heavily-implied but in-no-way-depicted sex.)

The final showdown between Dunson and Matt is energetic, if a little soft-headed. Dunson has recruited a dozen or so hard gunmen to accompany him, but then insists on a mano-e-mano face-off with Matt. Matt refuses to draw his gun, even when Dunson shoots his hat off and grazes his cheek. I loved Clift's surly, sneering defiance in this scene.

They trade guns for fists, until the scuffle is broken up by Tess when she holds them both at gunpoint and essentially forces them to hug it out. Dunson's fevered spell is immediately broken, and he's back to smiles and treating Matt as his adopted son.

This doesn't really play for me. If Dunson never intended to kill Matt, then why round up a crew and come after him? In the original published story, Dunson is slain by Cherry Valance (John Ireland), a deadly gun they took on at the start of the drive. But a movie can't end with John Wayne gunned down -- at least not unless it's his last film, "The Shootist," which coincidentally this film uses footage from in the flashback scenes.

Cherry is the darkling yang to Matt's yin, both skilled gunfighters with a lot of bravado and grit. In an early scene, they trade pistols and impress each other with some sharpshooting.

It seems destined that the two will eventually come to blows and/or bullets -- several other characters make this observation explicitly -- but interestingly, they never do, forming a grudging friendship. I would have loved to seen a sequel where the pair light out for some adventures of their own.

A few other notables from the cast:
  • Harry Carey Sr. plays the friendly businessman in town eager to scoop up the beef, and his son Jr. is the unfortunate cowboy who got squished in the stampede. His dream was to buy his wife a pair of red shoes, which is a pretty meager dream.
  • Shelley Winters has one of her earliest screen roles (uncredited) as a dance hall girl. Ditto for Richard Farnsworth, playing a background cowboy.
  • Chief Yowlachie plays Quo, an Indian scout who wins a poker hand against Groot in which he has staked a 50 percent interest in his set of false teeth. I loved his line, "From now on, I will be known as Two Jaw Quo." He lets the cook have his teeth back for eating, but otherwise carries them around in a little pouch like a totem.
"Red River" is a mighty fine-looking picture, with a lot of lush scenes of the American prairie. Although I would've loved to see a version of this movie shot a few years later with Technicolor and CinemaScope. Hawks skillfully maneuvers his camera to make a herd of cattle number maybe a few hundred to resemble 10,000, though I admit it gets a little old watching a parade of hooves go by. In one memorable shot, he pans his camera 360 degrees around the ranch.

Originally just seen as another workaday Western, the reputation of "Red River" has grown with the years, and was even named the fifth-best ever of its genre by the American Film Institute. That's a bit over the top, methinks, but it's definitely a surprisingly hard-bitten tale that rides high in the saddle.

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