Sunday 26 January 2014

Movie Review: Red River (1948)

A cattle drive as a metaphor for life, Red River is a stirring western adventure benefitting from stubborn characters battling against each other as they carve new trails across the west.

Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a determined cattleman and expert quick-draw, and along with loyal companion Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) carves out his own territory to raise cattle in Texas. After an Indian attack destroys a wagon convoy, Dunson takes in a young Matthew Garth under his wing. Over many years Dunson grows his empire from one cow and one bull to a herd numbering more than ten thousand, while Matthew (Montgomery Clift) matures into a capable cowboy, and a fast gunman in his own right. The Civil War destroys the market for beef in the south, forcing Dunson to embark on an epic thousand mile cattle drive to Missouri, where he can sell his herd.

Dunson, Matthew and Groot assemble a large team of cowboys including quick draw Cherry Valance (John Ireland), and they set out on the long and difficult journey across the Red River and against the elements, Indians, marauding cattle thieves and the risk of stampedes. Dunson drives his men hard and resentment starts to build against his authoritarian leadership, especially when Dunson refuses to change course despite word filtering through that by using the Chisholm Trail, Kansas may be a shorter and easier destination than Missouri. When Dunson's behaviour turns from difficult to dangerously irrational, Matthew has to decide if he can stand up to his lifelong father figure.

The first western directed by Howard Hawks, Red River is a visually impressive achievement and an engaging exploration of some classic themes. Filmed in black and white, Hawks and cinematographer Russell Harlan create arresting images of a massive cattle drive across open terrain, the land creating both the opportunity and the challenge for Dunson and his men. The script by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee provides plenty of nighttime pauses for the personalities of the men to emerge from under the hats, leading to the human conflicts that enrich the film.

The evolution of Matthew from boy to man is a central storyline, as the protege has to finally come out of his mentor's shadow and establish his own authority to earn his place in the world. Another running thread explores the limits of determined leadership, the same headstrong and violent tactics that allowed Dunson as a young man to become a great cattleman work against him when the time comes for managing his men on the arduous journey. And the role of women in the lives of their men receives a twinkled if marginal nod, Dunson losing an early love (Coleen Gray) who could have moderated his personality, and later both Matthew and Dunson tangling with the resourceful Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) when she lands in the middle of their brewing dispute.

In a complex role that includes plenty of unpleasantry, John Wayne brings Dunson to life without hiding the ferocity of will required to survive in the west. Dunson is rarely a cuddly man, and Wayne plays the role with a swagger that makes Dunson's darker side more menacing. Montgomery Clift, in his first movie role, represents through Matthew the next generation, still resolute but more alert to the need to listen and accommodate rather than command and control. Both Clift and Matthew are clear-eyed, energetic and with the future at their feet.

Driven by the vigorous flow of life's essential ingredients, Red River runs strong and deep.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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