on October 4, 2003
"Red River" deserves the adulation that critics, film scholars, and most importantly audiences have lavished on it since its premiere in 1948. One of the earliest "psychological" westerns, preceded by Selznick's "Duel in the Sun" (1946) and followed by King's "The Gunfighter" (1950), etc., "Red River" maintains interest after half a century due to the unique tensions between its characters, and the supreme skill with which those characters are played. Set against the backdrop of the first cattle drive along the Chisum Trail, the story basically boils down to an epic conflict between two men of different generations. John Wayne is the older sharp-shooter who builds up an empire through ruthless wiles and steely determination; Montgomery Clift, who is equally proficient with a gun, is the young surrogate son who tends to manage through intellect and reason rather than violence. These two opposing personalities and styles eventually erupt into a mortal combat under the strain of driving over 9,000 head of cattle across the hostile terrain of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
As the volatile Dunson, John Wayne gives one of his most finely nuanced performances. Living by a personal code of ethics which doesn't always translate into lawful or even rational behavior, Wayne is neither sympathetic nor deplorable; he's simply human. His performance is bolstered by the contrast provided by the quietly charasmatic Montgomery Clift, whose unspoken love and respect for Wayne's father figure shine through the fear and intimidation he expresses. (Remarkably, this was Clift's first performance in front of the movie cameras; the stage-trained actor seems to have adapted instinctively to the more subtle technique required of film work.) Various other characters come between these two to create some memorable triangles throughout the film. Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan is wonderful as Wayne's longtime sidekick whose allegiance eventually shifts over to Clift; Paul Fix also does a fine job in a minor role as the character whose fate jumpstarts the conflict between the two leading men. Most fascinating among the supporting cast is John Ireland who plays the curiously-named Cherry; the Freudian scene in which he and Clift admire each other's pistols, and then commence to shoot them off together is simply astonishing. It's worth noting that Cherry is the first one to try and intervene during the climactic showdown between Wayne and the "son" he contemptuously characterizes as "soft"; equally significant is the fact that the character who finally brings resolution into the movie is a "strong" woman (played by Joanne Dru).
The MGM DVD release of this classic United Artists film is, in my humble opinion, abominable. The source print is visually a disaster, chock full of lines, jumps, flutters, speckles, and other visual noise. The grays are grainy and at one point, the picture even is briefly - and distractingly - out of focus. The sound isn't much better: it crackles and pops and the volume is inconsistent. Adding insult to injury, there are no extras at all, not even cast biographies or production notes, much less a theatrical trailer. This is one classic film that demands - and richly deserves - to be restored, remastered and repackaged.
on May 12, 2004
In the rich history of American film, this piece of work by Howard Hawks makes the short list. It has been used as a template for any filmmaker wishing to make a Western, and further, it is one of those rare pieces of culture by which a society defines itself. If you needed to demonstrate to a foreigner what the American character is all about, you could show them this movie.
As a Western, it certainly has it all: cowboys killing Indians, men leaving women for the call of the trail, gunfights, stampedes, love, betrayal, and finally redemption. It is also gorgeously filmed, beautifully written, and well acted throughout. And finally, it stars John Wayne, an actor that towers over today's crop of male actors like an oak over weeping willows.
This film also stars Montgomery Clift as the surrogate son that eventually challenges Wayne for control of the drive. In terms of acting styles, Clift and Wayne were about as different as two actors could be: Wayne seemed always to act on instinct and charisma, while Clift was one of the young Turks through the 40's and 50's, a proponent of a new style of acting - the method developed by Lee Strasburg (one can easily imagine Wayne giving his crooked sarcastic grin over the very idea of a "school" where young people learn acting). Yet, casting these two together works. By all reports, the two hated each other at the beginning of the production, but had developed an actor's respect for one another by the end of filming. Wayne, after watching Clift in one of his scenes, was quoted as saying something like "damn, that little queer sure can act."
John Wayne, for his part, goes toe-to-toe with the new school of internal acting and more than holds his own. His portrayal of a powerful, unbending man who slowly descends into bitterness and hate is a real treat to watch. His performance was, to use a phrase Wayne would have hated, multi-layered and very, very skillful.
Other performances to watch: the ever-faithful Walter Brennan, one of the greatest character actors of all time, is perfect as Wayne's partner/friend. It is in watching Brennan's reaction to Wayne's increasing dementia that we see how far off track he's gone. John Ireland also is a standout as Cherry Valance, the pistoleer, who is full of casual grace and menace. As if all the above wasn't enough, the great Harry Carey is onboard briefly as Mr. Melville, radiating authority.
Every film lover should own this film and watch it at least once annually.
Every American should treasure it as a source of national pride.
One note: this is one film that simply demands a better DVD treatment. The picture and sound isn't bad, but it isn't widescreen, and there are absolutely no special features. C'mon, Criterion Collections, where are you? --Mykal
on April 16, 2004
One of the handful of timeless Westerns that essentially changed public expectations of the genre. The script and characters were unique for its day, when most Westerns had fallen prey to strict, good-guys-in-white-hats formulas, thus paving the way for for the likes of "High Noon" and "Shane". Wayne's and Brennan's performances are standouts by any measure, and the supporting cast of many John Ford-MGM stalwarts is equal to the task (you even find unique appearances by father-and-son veterans Harry Carey and Carey Jr, not to mention some B-Western bad guys from the Republic lot given a chance to do some real acting). Despite the contrived and awkward ending, the story and characters are riveting and exceptionally engrossing. Director Hawks seems to have had a field day here, as the production values are superb, especially for a western. The only obvious downside (and this is strictly a personal bias) is the shuffle-and-mumble Method techniques of Montgomery Clift, whose acting here and in later years remained somewhat contrived and stilted. As for that old standby, John Ireland, he reveals a more natural style that only highlights Clift's somewhat affected effort in the scenes they share. The ending aside, this is one of those classics that can be watched again and again to reveal new detail with each viewing. The DVD is a bit murky in spots, but it does convey the gritty, nearly film-noir visual style of the original. I was a kid when I saw the film's initial release. It's as impressive today as it was then. get it!
on August 11, 2003
This review has spoilers, for those that may not want to read them.
If I could I'd give this four and a half stars, because there are a few flaws. The biggest flaw, I'd say, is the romance. I am a woman and I like to look at good-lookin' ultra manly men (like John Wayne), but I don't need a tacked-on romance to appreciate a good movie. I realize they think they needed the Tess character in order to bring about the reconciliation between Tom & Matt, but it really doesn't work - partly because Joanne Dru just isn't convincing in the role. She's got some good moments (mostly when she's alone with Wayne), but her ineptitude is painfully obvious at the end, at the pivotal moment when she breaks up the much-anticipated fight between Tom & Matt.
So, having gotten that aside, I will say what works. John Wayne. Awesome. A wonderfully rich and nuanced performance. This is one of the films you want to show someone who (maybe because of his politics?) still wants to believe that Wayne was a bad actor. As Tom Dunson's paranoia and his tendency toward cruelty grows, you want to detest him but you can't quite do it - I guess because you know that he can be tender and good (his sweetness with the girl he leaves behind, the fact that he plans to buy red shoes for the wife of the cattlehand that is killed in the stampede, etc.), and because JW makes him so real & vulnerable.
Montgomery Clift. His performance is nearly as compelling as John Wayne's, but since the role is not quite as complex (i.e., not on that dangerous edge between good and evil), I guess he has less of an opportunity to show what he's capable of. You're not allowed to take sides between he and Dunson, because you understand where both of them are coming from. If you look closely, you can see tears in his eyes at the film's climax - when he is smiling at Dunson even as Dunson is coming at him with a loaded weapon. It's extremely touching in an extremely unsappy way.
Walter Brennan turns in a nuanced performance, too. He is the comic relief, certainly, but that doesn't preclude him from being an interesting character. The scenes when he is torn between his undying friendship for Dunson and hatred for what Dunson has become are particularly rich.
Cherry Valance is an interesting character and the actor who plays him (John Ireland?) is very good. I feel like more could have been done to bring this out, but for whatever reason he doesn't have much to do in the film. All the other minor characters are on par here - everyone is top-notch.
I don't mind this film's ending nor do I find it a bowing to Hollywood convention - convention that normally does dictate a happy ending. These are two men who love each other like father and son. The son will not draw, and the father will not take his son's life. We know this and we know that this is the one time Tom Dunson will change his mind. It is the only ending this film *could* have. I do, however, think it could have been handled differently... they should not have gone quite as abruptly from anger and violence to grinning schoolboys as they did. And as I said before, a stronger performance from Dru would have made a big difference.
There are so many moments and images that just stay with you - for example, the anticipation that builds as we see Dunson arriving in Abilene with his band of mercenaries. We are only allowed to view him from a distance. Then he gets off his horse and our view of him is partially obscured as he makes his way toward Matt through a sea of cattle - a sea that parts and makes way for this huge, swaggering, angry figure. It's just plain cool-looking; I can't put it in different terms than that. Then as Matt refuses to draw his weapon, we see him come closer and closer to the camera, to the point where he fills the entire screen and his image is blurred. I am tempted to posit here that the camera has never before or since loved anyone like it loved Duke. His presence and charisma are astounding.
This gets my vote for one of the best westerns ever made, and while I've certainly not seen all of John Wayne's 100+ films, this has got to be right up there with the best he's ever been.
on July 1, 2003
"Red River" is a strong, driving film, powering down its values and message with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Like Hannibal leading elephants over the Alps, John Wayne leads his massive army of cattle through the impassible terrain, through the mountains, valleys and rivers. His character, Thomas Dunson, is the usual Western stereotype of a hard, uncompromising man with a will of iron.
The surprises, and the true quality of "Red River," is when the story strays from its cliche and into the uncharted territory of the human soul. Standard issue masculine values, such as duty, loyalty and strength are on display, but not always resolved in an expected manner. John Wayne plays an excellent anti-hero, and Montgomery Clift is the perfect heir-apparent.
The weakness of "Red River" lies in its Western cliche, of which there are many, and in its unnecessary foreshadowing of events. A better director might have allowed the story to unfold without telling the audience exactly what was going to happen 3 moves in advance.
Not a classic along the lines of "High Noon," "The Searchers" or "Unforgiven," but still a standout Western for any fan of the genre. Has one of the funniest lines about beef that I have heard, sounding like an advertisement for the Beef Council.
on January 28, 2003
John Wayne has played variations on his tough-guy persona throughout the years. From the noble tough-guy in Stagecoach (1939) to the senstivie tough-guy in The Quiet Man (1952), Wayne has displayed enough different sides of his persona to keep his performances from being considered carbon copies of each other. In Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), we are privy to the uncompromising, masculine-to-the-max 100% all-man John Wayne. Wayne plays Tom Dunson (Wayne), a driven man who sets out West in 1851 and winds up in Texas with the goal of starting a cattle ranch. His only companion is Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan) but soon after an Indian raid destroys Dunson's former wagon train group, Dunson takes in the lone survivor of the raid - a young boy named Matt Garth. Years past and Garth (played as an adult by Montgomery Clift) is poised to become the heir to Dunson's cattle ranch. However, tempers flare when Dunson and Garth must embark on a historic cattle drive to take 9,000 head of cattle to Missouri. Both men have a falling out over where the cattle should be delivered, the men want to take them to Abilene, but Dunson stubbornly wants to continue with the more difficult trek to Missouri. A revolt breaks out and soon Dunson is banished from his own cattle drive. As a pure Western, Red River is a glorious gem within the genre. Yet, the film bogs down a little when Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) enters the picture. The story arc that involves her courting by both Dunson and Garth comes across as awkward. The energy produced by the cattle drive arc just aren't there in the romantic triangle arc. Yet, the film is still a wonder to behold because of Wayne's bravura, archetype performance. To watch Wayne in his prime is to be inspired.
on August 19, 2002
Red River is easily one of the greatest Westerns of all time, and it is surely the definitive cattle-drive movie. Even though its script has some flaws (especially the ending, which I find somewhat unrealistic), the fantastic scenery, music, acting and direction by Howard Hawks more than makes up for it.
In Red River, Tom Dunson (John Wayne) builds a ranch from scratch alongside his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). By the time Matt returns from the war, Dunson has built a huge ranch, but is unable to sell his cattle in the South, because there is no demand for it. Consequently, Dunson plans the largest, longest cattle-drive ever attempted. As they progess, however, the normally strict yet somewhat tolerant Dunson becomes a tyrant, and Matt is eventually forced to take over command, leaving the angered Dunson behind, vowing to kill him.
Anyhow, this movie features wonderful performances from Wayne as the tyrannical leader and from Clift (in his first movie) as the milder son. But the real star of this movie is the landscape, and it is a must-see if only for the beautiful shots of the American West and the cattle progressing across it.
on May 27, 2002
Although there are definitely weaknesses in the screenplay and score for RED RIVER, there is also no question that this film is an American masterpiece.
Howard Hawks who directed one of the best comedies Hollywood ever produced, BRINGING UP BABY, took on an almost impossible task: making an adult Western, basically a cattle drive- inspired remake of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, with over 9,000 head of cattle and the men who, for various reasons, go on the drive from Texas to Kansas. John Wayne is the boss, Dunson the cattle baron, who becomes obsessed with his mission--getting his cattle sold and onto the railroad. If there is a "villain" in the movie, Dunson is it and Wayne plays him wonderfully. The drive, itself, takes over three months and it is grueling: psychological, as well as physical, problems beset the men. Wayne's "adopted" son, Matthew, is second in command and it is the relationship between these two men that makes up the heart of the movie and makes the movie as deep and moving as it is.
Director Hawks had seen a young actor in a Broadway play and brought him to Hollywood to make his screen debut as "Matthew." In this crutial role, Hawks had discovered one of the most under-rated, talented, complicated, handsome actors Hollywood ever saw: Montgomery Clift. If Clift had done no film work besides Fred Zinneman's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and Hawks' RED RIVER, he'd deserve a place in cinema history.
Quibbles? The score by Dmitri Tiomkin could certainly stand to be a bit more subtle; both the creation by the writers and the playing by Joanne Dru of the major female role is completely one dimensional; the last few moments of the movie are as silly as the rest of the two hours+ are fascinating. So, an altogether thrilling movie, even with a few faults.
If for no other reason, all true movie lovers must see the way the stampede is filmed. The D.V.D. version has no "extras" to speak of, but the print looks beautiful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
on November 21, 2001
It's my understanding that this was Howard Hawks' first western film -- his achievement is simply magnificent.
I'm a western fan and like to collection DVD westerns, a long-term project limited only by my budget.
John Wayne is excellent as Thomas Dunson, although his character's decision to begin a cattle drive to Missouri without any knowledge that the railroad had already reached Abilene, Kansas is, well..., a bit hard to swallow, considering, in just fourteen years, Dunson had the strength and intelligence to build the largest ranch in Texas, gathering 9,000 head of cattle to drive to the railhead. If you can accept that, and western fans, always have to accept something of this sort...well "Red River" is top-notch entertainment.
What the DVD lacks is interviews with people long gone...what a treat it would be to hear comments from Wayne, Hawks, Clift and others.
The "Tess Millay" character, played well by the beauitful Joanne Dru, adds little to (even seems to clutter) the story, although it is and was essential for sexy females to bring sense and sensibility to male antagonists.
I also want to especially mention enjoying the performances of Walter Brennan, John Ireland and Noah Beery, Jr.
on August 26, 2001
Just a scene access and various subtitles as bonus features of the RED RIVER MGM DVD presentation. Meager. Furthermore, the copy chosen is not of the quality one could have expected from an eminent Hollywood studio. Shameful. Howard Hawks's RED RIVER is on my list of the ten best westerns ever made. Against the legendary John Wayne, Montgomery Clift plays the character of the Duke's adopted son. His low-keyed performance is, in my opinion, unique at that pre-Marlon Brando time. From his first appearance as a young boy on, Howard Hawks characterizes him as -a man with a gun- and gives to this manly attribute a symbolic role throughout the entire movie. Hence, the relation Montgomery Clift-John Ireland can be read at a level invisible for the blind monks of the Hays Code. A recurrent theme appearing in the Hawksian filmography is the theme of the Strong Woman. So let's admire the character of Joanne Dru who is not disturbed at all by the arrow stuck in her shoulder and who, later in the movie, is the only character who's got the guts to face John Wayne, the granite Father. RED RIVER is a movie that must absolutely have a place in your library. It's a movie that has influenced a lot Steven Spielberg and company , it's a milestone in Movie History. It's a masterpiece. A DVD zone reference.