Hollywood Westerns typically focused on lawmen, gunslingers, bounty hunters, outlaws and cavalry officers. But one of the greatest dealt with ordinary cowboys on a cattle drive — Howard Hawks’ 1948 “Red River,” starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, the next selection in The News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre on Saturday, screening at 1 and 7 p.m.
Based on Borden Chase’s “Saturday Evening Post” serialized novel, “Red River” tells the story of the (fictional) first great cattle drive from Texas to northern markets. Intent on building a cattle empire in Texas, Tom Dunson (John Wayne) leaves the wagon train he’d been riding with and heads south in search of good grazing land.
He tells his beloved Fen (Coleen Grey), who pleads to go with him, that he will send for her when it’s safe. But when he and his sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan) reach the Red River, the smoke far away on their back trail signals that Indians have attacked and burned the wagon train. Then Matt Garth, a young survivor of the massacre, shows up leading a cow, and Dunson takes him and his cow under his protection.
Much farther south, near the Rio Grande, Dunson lays claim to all the land he can see. Fourteen years and seven graves of would-be challengers to his claim later, Dunson has amassed a herd of 9,000 head, and Matt (now played by Montgomery Clift) has returned from the Civil War to rejoin his adoptive father’s enterprise. But the beef market in the South has collapsed with the rest of the economy, so Dunson proposes to take his herd (and any other stray cattle his men round up) to Missouri to sell to Northern buyers.
The arduous and dangerous thousand-mile journey includes threats from stampedes, Indian attacks and Missouri border raiders. But for the cowboys on the drive, Dunson becomes an even greater menace. He’s determined to take his beef to Missouri, even though he knows a veritable army of outlaws already stole a herd and killed its crew, and he’s willing to shoot anyone who tries to quit on him.
By the time they reach the Red River, Dunson, becoming ever more stubborn and tyrannical, stays awake all night (even though wounded in a gunfight) to ensure no one sneaks away. When he says he’s going to hang two deserters, Matt takes over the drive and leaves him behind. Matt decides to follow the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, where people claim there is a rail line, though none of them has actually seen it. Dunson swears he will come after Matt and kill him.
When Matt and his men rescue a wagon train from Indians, Matt meets Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), a beautiful woman so hardy she can banter with him while an arrow sticks out of her shoulder. Matt leaves her behind, even though she insists on going with him, because he says it would be too dangerous for her. And Dunson is in hot pursuit with a band of hired guns.
A recurring theme in Westerns involves the civilizing of the West, both in terms of the landscape and the men in it. “Red River” moves not only from a wilderness marked solely by the rivers the herd crosses to Abilene, a welcoming bastion of civilization’s latest advances, but also from the unforgiving Dunson, ready to enforce his will with a gun, to Matt, equally adept with a pistol but willing to consider alternate views and resolve matters peaceably.
What’s unusual about the film is how it sets up these developments within the basically business-oriented framework of raising cattle and getting them to market.
The production itself somewhat parallels that development. The film was the only release of producer/director Howard Hawks’ Monterey Productions, a difficult and costly shoot that sent Hawks into debt to finance it (so he wound up not making money on a film that did very well at the box office).
Hawks was displeased with how his first two editors cut the film and replaced them with Christian Nyby, who had edited “The Big Sleep.” Nyby completely reconstructed and then re-cut the footage, with postproduction taking about a year. And Howard Hughes sued Hawks during that year because he claimed the ending of “Red River” was too much like the ending of “The Outlaw,” which Hawks had spent a couple weeks directing before a falling out with producer Hughes.
Some directors are adept in a particular genre or style. Hawks was good at everything he tried and made what have become classics in several genres. Consider: gangster film — “Scarface” (1932); war film — “Sergeant York (1941); comedy — “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), “His Girl Friday” (1940), “Monkey Business” (1952); adventure — “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939); detective fiction — “The Big Sleep” (1946); musical — “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953); science fiction — “The Thing from Another World” (uncredited co-director with Christian Nyby, 1951).
“Red River” was his first (completed) Western; it ranks fifth on the American Film Institute’s list of America’s Top 10 Westerns. And he later directed “Rio Bravo” (1959), again with Wayne, generally considered another classic Western.
Hawks had a great eye for visuals, which is notably on display here in, for example, the final shots of Fen against a backdrop of wagon train and mountains and the 360-degree pan on the first morning of the drive.
He also worked especially well with actors, giving many their start or else eliciting surprising nuances from them. This was Montgomery Clift’s first film (because of its lengthy postproduction, “The Search,” actually filmed later, came out first), and he was never again so engaging — or less tortured emotionally. John Wayne changed his image with this film, playing a darker, more complex character than he had previously and demonstrating unexpected acting ability.
“Red River” was Oscar-nominated for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and Best Film Editing. Hawks received a nomination for the Directors Guild of America award, and the Writers Guild of America nominated Borden Chase and Charles Schnee for Best Written American Western, though Hawks, uncredited, rewrote much of the screenplay himself during the shoot.
Note 1: The Chisholm Trail was created by Jesse Chisholm and his friend, Black Beaver, a Lenape scout and trader who was born in Belleville, Ill.
Note 2: Walter Brennan plays a character named Groot but (sorry, Marvel fans) never says, “I am Groot.”