Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks, relates the story of Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and the enormous cattle ranch he has built up in Texas. Unfortunately, there is no market left for cattle in Texas, so he decides to drive his cattle up to Missouri for sale. During the drive, the people he hired to help, along with his adopted son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), become restless as food runs low and Dunson grows more tyrannical—he first whips then threatens to hang dissenters. Finally, Garth decides to take the cattle himself to Kansas, an easier target than Missouri, and Dunson swears revenge against this mutiny.
Red River (the title refers to both a major river the cattle drive must cross and Dunson’s cattle brand) keeps its focus on the relationships between the characters, with infrequent action set pieces (Indian attacks, the cattle stampede) to keep things exciting. The film’s most important relationship is that between Dunson and Garth; the son must prove himself worthy in his father’s eyes, and overcome Dunson’s hatred for ousting him. Conversely, only Dunson’s forgiveness of his son can redeem him in our eyes for his despotic tendencies. Critics often compare their relationship to that of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. This would all mean little if Wayne’s and Clift’s performances weren’t exemplary.
The women of Red River take more than the passive role usually afforded females in the male-dominated Western genre. Dunson’s girlfriend at the film’s beginning (played by Coleen Gray) wants to accompany him down to Texas to start his cattle empire; he refuses and insists she go along with a wagon train, which ends up ambushed by Indians who kill Gray. His refusal to see her as an equal partner in his adventure gets her killed. The film’s second major female character, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), is part of a wagon train Garth encounters with his hijacked herd of cattle. The train is under attack by Indians, and Tess has joined the men of the train in firing away at the attackers. Tess, who becomes Garth’s love interest, exemplifies the “Hawksian woman” noted by critics as typical of Howard Hawks’s oeuvre, able to hold her own with the men in conversation as well as in action.
James Garfield, a graduate of the film studies program of the Claremont Colleges, is a Perelandra College administrator.
Although Wayne and Hawks’s next collaboration, the more suspenseful Rio Bravo (1959), is even better, Red River is still one of the greatest of Westerns. The mix of action with character development makes for a superb balance, creating a trail-dusty cinematic epic.