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Guilty Pleasures

Red River


Directed by: Howard Hawks

Written By: Borden Chase (from his story) and Charles Schnee

Main Cast:

Tom Dunson – John Wayne
Matthew Garth – Montgomery Clift
Groot Nadine – Walter Brennan
Tess Millay – Joanne Dru
Mr. Melville – Harry Carey Sr.
Fen – Coleen Gray
Cherry Valance – John Ireland
Buster McGee – Noah Beery Jr.
Dan Latimer – Harry Carey Jr.
Teeler Yacey – Paul Fix
Quo – Chief Yowlachie

Not Rated 

To sum up: Wayne plays the kind of cattle rancher boss that you love; the kind that drives the cattle and the men so hard that the son has to take over and put the father out to pasture.

“Get a shovel and my Bible. I'll read over him.”

     John Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a man who sets out to build a cattle ranch that stretches for miles and miles. His only companions are Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan) a long time friend and Matthew Garth, an orphan boy who is played by Montgomery Clift. As a boy, Matt survived an Indian massacre and came under Wayne’s guardianship. With his adopted son and best friend, Wayne sets up a ranch in Texas that eventually grows enormous with thousands of cattle. Things go along swimmingly until a little problem occurs in the form of that pesky Civil War we had and as a result, all of Texas is broke. In order to make money, he’s got to drive the whole herd up north to Missouri where he can sell the cattle.

     And drive them he does, but not just the cattle. He drives Groot, Matt, and relentlessly drives his workers to the point of exhaustion and mutiny. He drives them day. He drives them night. He drives them so they want to fight. And all the while Wayne almost drives himself to an almost insane paranoia worrying about potential betrayals. He threatens severe punishment for those who screw up. He’s stubborn, close-minded, and will listen to no one, not even when there might be a chance to save time and detour to a closer railroad town and sell the cattle there. In short, he treats his workers like cattle too.

     Well, the workers can only take so much before they want to quit. Wouldn’t you? Sure they signed contracts. Sure they were warned about what was coming. Sure they knew about the rain, dust storms, little sleep and stampedes. They still want to quit. After all, it’s only a job. 

     Wayne doesn’t see it that way and is prepared to back up his point of view. In fact he’s dug a number of graves for the people who didn’t see his point of view. All the while, Groot and Matt support him. But even they don’t mind telling him when they disagree. “You was wrong, Tom.”

     And when Wayne threatens to hang a couple of men who tried to leave, even his adopted son and Groot can’t support him. So Matt takes over and decides they will detour the herd to that railroad town in Kansas, leaving Wayne behind with his horse. And what does Matt get for a “thank you”? Wayne tells him he’s gonna kill him. One time he’ll look back and he’ll be there. “I save you after your family is killed, raise you from a pup like you was my very own, and this is the thanks I get!?”

     It’s adopted son against father as the specter of Wayne is there, with everyone worried about the coming vengeance as Matt drives the herd and waits for the inevitable showdown.

     Once again John Wayne very capably plays the type of character he doesn’t play very often, one of ambiguous integrity. He’s a scarred man who lost a woman he loved dearly and its affected his outlook on life ever since. His Tom is cold, ruthless, stubborn, but still with a sense of honor. When a man is killed during a stampede, he makes sure that the man’s widow will get the full wages of her husband. At the same time he’s not above essentially stealing another rancher’s cattle as he gets ready to drive the herd north. Wayne crafts a personality that is both good and evil, a real person with all the shades of gray that a real personality entails. Because of this, and because Tom is played by a heroic American icon, even when he goes bad, we still root for him to come around. We don’t wish for his demise. We wish for him to come to his senses. We still like him.

     Montgomery Clift, in his film premiere, portrays a straight, humorless hero, who, though not as interesting to watch as Wayne, still comes off as solidly engaging. Clift gets the most sympathy from the audience as he’s forced to take action against the abuses. He’s the steady rock that we look to to make things right. His Matt clearly loves his adopted father and it pains him to have to stand up to him. He also knows what Tom is capable of and rightly fears him but also does right in standing up to him.

     Walter Brennan as Wayne’s longtime friend and loyal companion Groot Nadine is much of the film's comic relief. Lacking teeth, he mumbles jumbles of words that Wayne can never understand. He is a loyal friend who loves and respects his boss. But even he can’t support him when he wants to hang those men. And that’s the good thing about Brennan as an actor; he’s so good in this type of role. His presence is always a positive addition to any cast. It was also refreshing to see that though often played for laughs, his roll was never as the clumsy, incompetent bumbling sidekick (are you listening Jar Jar?).

     Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) is unfortunately a weak spot in the film. Coming into the picture late, her job is to fall in love with Montgomery Clift and provide a parallel situation for Wayne’s character, who lost a love early in the film. You know how men are. The most sharing they do is usually grunts or “Mmmm. Good beer.” Get a whole film full of them and you’ll never know what they’re thinking. You put that female character in there though and you get all kinds of sharing. She’s also a sounding board for the guys to get their feelings out in the open. That’s not to say she isn’t pretty or engaging, there’s just not much else for her to do. 

     There’s a moment in the film. There’s a big stampede. Hundreds of cattle bolt because one man made a mistake and scared them. They’re running, the dust is flying, the ground is thundering, then There!, right there, a cowboy comes racing through the thick of them on his horse. He’s really there in that whole mess risking his life. It’s only for a moment but in that moment, it transforms the scene from exciting, into a thrilling classic moment of cinema. It’s hundred’s of dithering cattle running everywhere and our poor stuntmen in the midst of them. It looks great.

     There’s another, just before Tom and everyone are setting out for the long journey. Tom looks to his right, a last look around. The camera switches to a point of view shot and we see hundreds of cattle. Then the camera pans left and we see nothing but more cattle off into the distance filling the screen and framed in the glorious open prairies of the west, until at last the camera settles again on Tom and he gets everyone underway. Again it is a thrilling visual spectacle.

     I tried to figure out why that scene and others were especially exciting. I think in addition to being great scenes, well crafted by a master of cinema, I was enjoying them because I knew that the hundreds of cattle I was seeing were real. They weren’t a special effect; they actually got all those cows to run across the plains. I tried to imagine the effort involved in keeping those cows organized for the shots, and wondered how on earth all the studio equipment didn’t get crushed in the process. Credit surly goes to Cinematographer Russell Harlan for the extraordinary visuals. Yep, these films were done before the days of high tech effects so when confronted with these moments of incredible beauty, they become that much more special.

     This one’s a classic, incomparably crafted by the great Howard Hawks. Sure it suffers from a few weak points such as the love story or the ending that leaves one feeling good but not entirely satisfied. Sure there’s the larger spectacle. Sure there’re the classic historic moments such as when all of the cowboys shout “Yee-Haw” as they get underway. Sure there’s the thrilling John Wayne in action. But through the entire splendor Hawks centers the film on love and loyalty. And that’s what I came away from this film remembering the most.

     Cross this River when you come to it.

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