Red River: John Wayne and Montgomery Clift battle it out in Howard Hawks’ classic western

Red River(1948), starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, was the first western directed by Howard Hawks. This film was Clift’s debut movie and was a major turning point in John Wayne’s career.

I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act

John Ford after watching John Wayne in Red River

Director Howard Hawks always believed that if you get a really good actor opposite John Wayne, you’ll get a terrific movie. And one needn’t look any further than Red River to realize that. Red River was the first western that Hawks made; it was also the first movie he made with John Wayne; and in it, he paired Wayne with, perhaps the greatest actor to play against him; Montgomery Clift: an alumni of the Actor’s studio, who was creating a sensation on New York stage was picked by Hawks to act opposite Wayne in the film, in what would be Clift’s first movie, though it will no be his first release. The making o Red River took so long and its release got tied up in legal issues, that Fred Zinneman’s The Search became Clift’s first released movie. Many people doubted the choice of the soft spoken, diminutive Clift opposite a towering screen giant like John Wayne, but Clift, with the help of Hawks, would prove to be a perfect fit for the role. Not only that, his deep ‘method’ exploration of the character added an extra dimension to a film, which otherwise would have been  a more straightforward John Wayne western.  As for John Wayne, well this film would prove to be a major turning point. He played a character who was twenty years older than he was at the time, and he was playing father figure to an actor who was only 13 years younger than him. But he came through with a brilliant performance that will prove his acting prowess forever.

I love John Wayne’s line readings. It’s very unique and interesting. There are pauses at points where you least expect; the tone of his voice changes abruptly to convey a new emotion; and that majestic drawl stretches even the most simple words and take them to a special place. His skill with words get a perfect outlet in Red River. Director Hawks is the king of staging dialogue scenes. He uses dialogue like John Ford uses the camera. Orson Welles, who was a big fan of both Ford and Hawks, is supposed to have remarked that John Ford represents great poetry to him while Hawks represents great prose . Hawks has made films in almost every genre; Screwball, gangster, war, comedy, melodrama, musical, historical epic and Film Noir.  Red River, released in 1948, was his first western and fittingly he chose John Wayne to be the hero of the film. It was their first collaboration, one that will eventually extend to four more films.

Now coming back to Wayne’s line readings.  Hawks stages a lengthy transformation in time (and economic status) of the protagonist Tom Dunson(John Wayne), as well as Texas, through a long monologue by Wayne. Tom Dunson has come west to start a Cattle Ranch in Texas. He crossed the Red River and settled down near Rio Grande . He is a courageous, but  stubborn ,arrogant and self righteous man . He sacrificed (or had to sacrifice) his lady love to get to Texas. Now he is there with his old friend Groot(Walter Brennan) and a kid Matt(Monty Clift), a survivor of the Indian massacre that took Tom’s beloved’s life. He has just a bull and cow  in his possession and he dreams of building the biggest ranch in Texas. The monologue starts with Tom as a young man , standing with Matt as a kid and old Groot. It starts like this:

Give me ten years, and I’ll have that brand on the gates of the greatest ranch in Texas. The big house will be down by the river, and the corrals and the barns behind it. It’ll be a good place to live in. Ten years and I’ll have the Red River D on more cattle than you’ve looked at anywhere. I’ll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make ’em strong, make ’em grow. But it takes work, and it takes sweat, and it takes time, lots of time. It takes years.

During the course of the monologue, the camera pans through the wilderness and then a series of dissolves, continuing with pan, we see the same area covered with cattle.  The camera comes and stops at the same location where Tom had started speaking. Now we see that Tom is old and graying. Matt is now a young man and Groot is much more older . Wayne’s monologue continues:

Now we had our ten years , even more . its fourteen now . And there as they stand, there isn’t a head worth a plug three cent piece…It all happened while you were away, Matt. More cattle than a man could gather elsewhere in two lifetimes. And I’m broke. Unless we can move ’em, I’m broke…I’m not gonna take it haunch-backed like the rest around here. There’s no market for cattle in Texas…Then I’ll take ’em where there is a market, if it means drivin’ them a thousand miles.

Its a transcendent few minutes, where Wayne’s voice and Hawks visuals combine together to provide a heady cinematic moment. It’s one of the most moving moments in motion pictures for me. The scene also shows the change in the nature of the relationship between Tom and Matt.  The scene starts off with Matt and Tom having a kind of adversarial relationship, but at the end , after the passage of 14 years, we see the strong bond between them . Tom , who is on his knees, stands up by holding Matt’s shoulder. He then asks him to fetch his horse. you can clearly see that they are now father and son. Tom starts a sentence and Matt finishes it for him. Tom poses the question, Matt answers

Matt: Missouri?
Dunson: Yeah.
Matt: That’s what I figured.
Dunson: And have you two been doin’ a lot of figurin’? While you were at it, did you figure out the best way to get ’em there?
Matt: Which trail to take? Yeah.

Dunson: We’re goin to Missouri.

Dunson decides to take the cattle to Missouri and Matt goes along with it. The phrase,  We’re goin to Missouri, becomes an obsession for Dunson, as we see through the course of the film. Obsession of a stubborn man; No matter what happens, he’s going to go there and only there , no where else. It also becomes a Wayne trademark – a line or phrase that he keeps on repeating in a film like That’ll be the day or Never Apologize, It’s a sign of weakness -Hawks provides Wayne with a lot of one liners and monologues. The dialogues, as in every Hawks films , expands the character and the plot. You see Dunson talking a lot in the earlier scenes , but as the film and the journey to Missouri progresses, the lines become shorter, leaner and snappier. The dialogues also work as a substitute for visuals. Take this speech that Dunson gives, when he is recruiting people for the cattle drive

Well, we start tomorrow. We’re goin’ to Missouri with ten thousand head. Most of you men have come back to Texas from the war. You came back to nothing. You find your homes gone, your cattle scattered, and your land stolen by carpetbaggers. Well there’s no money and no work because there’s no market for beef in the South. But there is in Missouri. So we’re goin’ to Missouri…Cumberland didn’t make it. No one else has. That’s the reason I’m here. I want you all to know what you’re up against. You probably already know, but I want to make sure you do. We got a thousand miles to go. Ten miles a day’ll be good. Fifteen will be luck. It’ll be dry country, dry wells when we get to ’em. There’ll be wind, rain. There’s gonna be Indian Territory – how bad I don’t know. When we get to Missouri, there’ll be border gangs. It’s gonna be a fight all the way. But we’ll get there. Nobody has to come along. We’ll still have a job for ya when we get back. Now remember this! Every man who signs on for this drive agrees to finish it. There’ll be no quittin’ along the way, not by me and not by you! There’s no hard feelings if you don’t want to go. But just let me know now.

Its a mixture of exposition and character delineation . We get all this information about what they are going to be up against. we also understand the character of Dunson. He is tough , idealistic and stubborn , but fair, realistic and humane. At least, at this point of the story he is. He knows what he is up against and he also knows that he has it in him to survive it. What he wants to know is whether others have it in them do the same.  This is again pure Hawksian dialogue: it paints a vivid portrait of the geography that they will be traversing.  John Ford used to lets his visuals do the talking in his westerns. He framed his characters within the context of the  huge landscapes that surrounded them. Hawks isn’t much interested in shooting the landscapes.  He does it just enough to convey the geography , but more often, he keeps the camera close to his actors. though he does create two great set pieces in the film. First is the cattle stampede scene, which turns out to be a turning point in the story, and Second is the river crossing scene .

The film is fashioned on the lines of classic Greek tragedies. The main conflict in the film is the oedipal battle between the son and the father. The son has to ‘kill’ the father to become king himself, while the father resists any change to his status or his ideals. It is very interesting to see  how this conflict is set up in the film. Matt is the lone survivor from the massacre that killed Dunson’s women. Dunson had sent her away on the wagon to California; he promised to send for her once he is settled down in Texas, he had even gifted his mother’s bracelet to her as a token of his love. On his way to Texas, Dunson kill some natives who had attacked him, and he finds  his mother’s bracelet on the hands of one of those natives. That’s how he come to know that his wife is dead. Dunson then gifts the bracelet to Matt. This solidifies their father son bond; Dunson’s mother’s bracelet passed to his ‘wife’ and now it has reached his ‘son’. The cattle stampede sequence becomes the starting point for the tensions between Dunson and Matt. Dunson wants to kill the person responsible for it, but Matt wounds him before Dunson could kill him; thus denying the father his victory. That’s the first time the ‘son’ has ‘defeated’ his father.  From then on ,Matt starts getting further and further away from Dunson, as Dunson becomes more and more obsessive and despotic; With a mixture of  liquor and lack of sleep, he seems to have gone a little mad to the point that it gets impossible to reason with him. Dunson’s attempts at hanging a few deserters brings the father son relationship to the breaking point. Matt rebels and take his father’s ‘army’ and his ‘wealth’ away from him. And he sets out on his own path, to Abilene, instead of Missouri. He leaves Dunson stranded in the middle of nowhere, wounded and alone. On his journey to Abilene,  Matt meets Tess, with whom he falls in love. But he has to continue with the drive, but gives her the ‘bracelet’ as a parting gift. Its an exact echo of what happened with Dunson and his woman. Dunson, trailing Matt, reaches Tess’s camp .There he conveys his desire of having a son with her. At this point the Oedipal triangle is complete , with both Father and son lusting for the same women. Tess agrees to have his son, if he gives up trailing Matt. But Dunson refuses, in a way confirming that Matt is still his son. He continues with his pursuit of Matt, but agrees to take Tess along. An act atoning for the mistake that he made earlier. This is a startling character change for a stubborn man like Dunson who never accepts his mistake. Then we get the final mano a mano duel between father and son.

Up to this point the film is almost perfect. What happens next belong in some other film. Vera picks up the gun and start shooting. She gives a stern tongue lashing to both of them for fighting like this and how they love each other blah blah blah…. After listening to her words,  father and son reconciles and Dunson decides to make Matt a partner in the ranch. Now all this is maddeningly out of character, for both the film and  Dunson. The original story written by Borden Chase, who is also the co-screenwriter,  ends with Dunson dying at the end and Matt taking Dunson’s body back to the ranch to be  buried. That’s the only conclusion that is possible for the story. Dunson is a tragic character and he deserves a tragic ending. Hawks succumbed to commercial pressure and changed the end. Obviously, Borden Chase hated the ending . But guess we won’t hold the last 3 minutes of the 133 minute film to diminish what has happened in those 130 minutes, but the film does loose some luster on account of the ending

The generational conflict between the characters in the film also extended to the actors playing them. John Wayne and Monty Clift not only come from two different generations, but also two different schools of acting. Wayne, who had about twenty years acting experience when he made this film, was the old-fashioned star-actor who put the stamp of his personality on the character he played. He was also someone who learned the craft of acting ‘on the job’ as opposed to Clift , who was an academically trained ‘method’ actor; who believed in ‘being’ the character by subverting his own personality. it’s a very interesting experience watching them play off each other .Clift, though much shorter and leaner than Wayne physically, holds his own and makes a brilliant debut here. Wayne, on the other hand,  graduated to playing more mature, older characters with this film, though he was just 40 at the time. One could say that, with this film, the John Wayne persona, that Ford originated with Stagecoach, was fully formed. He showed that he was not just another macho action star, but a great actor who can handle complex roles. Even Ford, Wayne’s mentor, realized his potential only after this film and made that comment that I quoted in the beginning of the piece. From here on, Ford would cast Wayne in more complex roles, culminating in Wayne’s greatest performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Hawks and Wayne would go on to do four more movies together; and true to Hawks belief, the films were he surrounded Wayne with great actors – Rio Bravo(1959) with Dean Martin and Walter Brennan and El Dorado(1967) with Robert Mitchum , James Caan etc.. would turn out to be the best of the lot.


6 thoughts on “Red River: John Wayne and Montgomery Clift battle it out in Howard Hawks’ classic western

  1. Well I’ve always loved this movie—-except for some painfully absurd scenes with Joann Dru which has almost ruined the film for me. The ridiculous scene when she comes to Clift in the mist while he is tending the cattle in the evening is an extraneous scene and should have been eliminated. Now when I watch the movie I have to watch the film in chapters (which are often sublime). Love the early scenes with gunfight between Wayne and the Mexican enforcers. Also, the scene where Wayne admonishing the rival rancher’s employee by saying “ Can’t you keep that horse still?!” It’s a minor moment but telling in Wayne’s assertive and commanding manner. Also, Walter Brennan is remarkable (isn’t he always?).
    Anyway, another lovely and insightful piece on an extraordinary movie that solidifies and establishes the Wayne character forever. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul. Yes Joann Dru’s character was a deal breaker. Hawks just didn’t know what to do with her. The script was changed a lot while shooting, hence a lot of inconsistencies. But the rest of it is so brilliant, you forgive Hawks for these issues


  2. I Know Hawks told Clift that he couldn’t try to beat Wayne in a head to head brawl in the fight scene at the finale‼️ But, I think the ‘playing field’ for the fight had been leveled, when Cherry shot Dunston in the side; thereby weakening him ‼️ I do think the fight should have been longer ‼️


  3. Good day I am so happy I found your weblog, I really found you by mistake, while I was searching on Aol for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say thanks for a tremendous post and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to browse it all at the minute but I have saved it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read much more, Please do keep up the great job.


  4. Wayne called Clift “An arrogant little punk” but he couldn’t deny that his method had a big influence on his own performance and indeed it was one of the great performances of his career.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love all the old westerns, with all those great actors, especially if there is a girl involved. I would love to see every western movie made. I hate it when I want to see a good western and I have to rent it. Please keep showing the old westerns John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Dale Robertson, Joel McCrea Robert Mitchum I could go on and on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s