SPOILERS: The following review makes plenty of references to this film’s ending and plot developments that occur fairly late in the movie
If the pinnacle of cinematic enjoyment consists of watching manly men do manly things in a manly way, then Red River could be the greatest movie ever made. It has men on horses driving cattle across dusty deserts and raging waters, while courting each others’ respect through flirtatious homoerotic gun play. It’s loaded with shootouts and fisticuffs galore, and boasts a cast of Western film icons like John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and both Harry Carreys, who, besides giving what might arguably be their best performances, make Montgomery Clift look butch. In the annals of outdoorsy epics, Red River leaves little left to be desired.
That is, until the ending, Nobody, based on post-screening discussions that I have had with my classes, seems particularly enamored of Joanne Dru’s character. Being a Howard Hawks film, you might expect Tess Millay, a poker playing cowgirl, to show more competence in handling the masculine parameters of the film’s world, as well as a lot more sass. The screenplay steadily limits her options in corralling Wayne and Clift into reconciling the dramatic conflict at the heart of the story. She succeeds in her quest more through feminine hysteria than guile. She is a catalyst whose constricted agency clashes with the tone of the story.
This failing, I believe, contributes to a sense that the film’s ending betrays its fundamental morality. At its core, Red River is a melodrama about intergenerational conflict set against the epic backdrop of America’s first interstate cattle drive. The plot chronicles the establishment and dissolution of a paternal bond between Thomas Dunson (Wayne) and Matt Garth (Clift) and the former’s unstoppable quest to avenge his adopted son’s usurpation of his property and mutinous workers. We expect the film’s statement concerning justice and authority to lie with how the big fight between the two plays out. The question of who will vanquish who should define the movies’ moral outlook. Instead, violence leads to the reconciliation of the players of an old order, not the establishment of a new one. Setting the unsatisfying nature of Tess aside, the film expresses a coherent point of view, just not one that modern audiences expect or completely relate to.
We often assume that westerns represent transitional periods when democratic forces overcome more authoritarian claims of legitimacy. Communities of small merchants, farmers, and sheepmen, for example, ally against the cattle barons who restrict access to land and water through arcane, feudal doctrines of prior appropriation. They explicate American emancipation in narrative form. Red River harkens back to an alternative version of that myth, which chronicled the undertaking of significant enterprises that conquered the wildness of the American continent. These narratives, heavily influenced by Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West, viewed settlement as a synthesis of the “natural” aristocratic genius of key individuals (such as John Chisum and Leland Stanford) with the corporatist cooperation of “Yankee” enterprise. Regional enterprises merge with technology and commercial systems that integrate the frontier into an empire fulfilling a racial spirit of free enterprise and nationalist might. Hawks’ opus follows the narrative pattern of previous epics such as The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse, and Union Pacific, where the drama focuses on the completion of a task of great imperial importance.
Hawks does little to disguise, or apologize, for the racialist implications of this narrative. The film’s prologue, establishing the founding of Dunson’s ranch, begins with his fiancée, and Garth’s family, being massacred by Indians. He subsequently ambushes and kills three of those attackers. He also guns down, upon provocation, a couple of vaqueros representing a Tejano rancher who accuses Dunson of squatting on his land grant. A dissolve to a grove of wooden crosses indicates that Dunson has defended his claim several times before Texas statehood. Once the minorities are vanquished, the spectacle of integrating local baronial enterprise and national expansion begins.
Facing the collapse of the regional beef and tallow market after the Civil War, Dunson must drive his herd northwards to Kansas, so as to connect to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Eastern national market. Such an unprecedented move provokes famine, stampedes, and further Native American assaults. Each particular obstacle escalates a growing instability of Dunson’s behavior. He becomes a tyrant, banishing men in the middle of the wilderness who violate his arbitrary rules and provoking lethal gunfights with those daring to leave the drive on their own accord. These incidents drive a wedge between Dunson and Garth, who, having served in the Confederate Army, subscribes to a more nuanced managerial style of leadership. After Dunson threatens to lynch some of his men, Garth and his enforcer, Cherry Valence (John Ireland), stage a coup, taking the cattle through a safer route and leaving his father figure with enough supplies to return to Texas. Dunson, naturally, threatens revenge.
As we can easily see, Red River’s historical focus is on empire building. The plot depicts a baronial style of frontier enterprise synthesizing with a capitalist one. It stresses a unity between different models of economic progress based on a shared interest in national and economic expansion. Within that framework, it also posits a more personal narrative of dynastic succession, exploring the dilemma as to when, and under what circumstances and processes, the young should replace the old. Hawks’ talent for representing professional group dynamics serves the film well. It’s hard to imagine Montgomery Clift, the 1940s’ most visible exponent of method acting, connecting to genre stars like Wayne and Brennan, but damned if their work together doesn’t bring out their best qualities. Wayne would seldom plumb the latent psychosis of his image again (The Searchers excepted), and Clift would never convey a sense of comfort within the strictures of cowboy masculinity, even if his specialty at playing reluctant heroes gets a full workout here. After the initial conflict, however, one senses the narrative going adrift, and the ending, where the antagonists make up after a fistfight, feels out of place.
I think that there a couple of reasons for this problem. Part of the issue rests with familiarity with the genre after the 1940s. From Shane onward, Westerns depicted ranching as a threat to economic opportunity promised by the opening of the Frontier. The open range is shown to have challenged farming or smaller scale endeavors, and by the end a community-oriented form of law and order replaces the singleminded self interest of the seigniorial cattle lord. In films like The Man From Laramie, The Sheepman, Gunman’s Walk, and The Halliday Brand, the issue of trans-generational succession moved from emphasizing regeneration to degeneration. Ranchers’ sons lack the guile and focus of character, though not the brutality, of their fathers. Garth’s competence and abilities seem at odds with popular genre expectations for modern audiences, as does the absorption of authoritarian, patriarchal values into contemporary society.
Even more directly, it’s hard to see Dunson suddenly exhibit a soft spot for his adopted protégé after he becomes consumed with homicidal rage. It seems odd that he wouldn’t simply plug him on sight, rather than shooting past him in order to provoke him into drawing his weapon. It also seems strange that he wounds Cherry, Garth’s bodyguard, when he tries to intervene rather than killing him outright. Once the film establishes that fists, rather than bullets, will be the order of the day, things will, as Brennan notes, “be alright.” The movies’ ideological point seems to be dramatically unsupported by its main character’s psychological motivation. In an important way, Red River anticipates the manner in which Westerns would deploy dysfunctional psychology to question the assumptions of earlier genre entries, but the emphasis on intergenerational and imperial unity dissolves the impact that this theme might have generated.
Hawks’ defenders would argue that the director preferred celebrating the integration of personalities within professional communities, and was averse to allowing tragedy to fracture group dynamics when institutions face difficult odds. His thematic signature explains Red River’s ending, but it doesn’t jibe with its darker tone. This isn’t, like Only Angels Have Wings, a movie about grace under pressure. It’s about the collapse of leadership under stress. The film is a harbinger of the “psychological” Western that was to come, yet it rejects the hubris at the core of that particular strain of genre revisionism. It struggles to remind us that, while masculine self assurance might break, it will, like the bonds of patriarchy and the history of American territorial conquest, be made stronger in the broken places. Dubious a proposition that this may be, the film’s failure to make its case shows that some tonal ruptures won’t necessarily mend.