"I don't like quitters,
especially when they aren't strong enough to finish what they started."
- Thomas Dunson
Produced by: Howard Hawks
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Borden Chase
Screenplay by: Borden Chase and Charles Schnee
John Wayne .... Thomas Dunson
Montgomery Clift.... Matt Garth
Joanne Dru .... Tess Millay
Walter Brennan .... Groot Nadine
Coleen Gray .... Fen
Harry Carey .... Mr. Melville
John Ireland .... Cherry Valance
Noah Beery Jr. .... Buster McGee
Harry Carey Jr. .... Dan Latimer
Chief Yowlachie .... Quo
Paul Fix .... Teeler Yacey
Hank Worden .... Sims Reeves
Mickey Kuhn .... Matt, as a boy
Ray Hyke .... Walt Jergens
Wally Wales .... Old Leather
The year is 1851. The great push westward has led Thomas Dunson to dreams of building the greatest cattle ranch of all time. Fourteen years later he does, but his 10,000 head of cattle are worthless in Texas. With the threat of bankruptcy looming, Dunson decides to undertake upon the greatest cattle drive ever attempted. Where none have yet succeeded, Dunson is determined to make it to Missouri, where there's a railroad and a market for beef. But Dunson's tyrannical control over the Drivers and his unwillingness to alter the drive's course to an indefinite-but-safer-route causes his adopted son Matthew Garth to usurp control of the herd, and the drive. Dunson swears he'll kill Matt for this treachery...
Minimal +1 Spoilers
Red River is one of the greatest westerns of all time. Period. Directed by master director Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift... how could it not be one of the best westerns ever? The premise of the story is just like many other westerns about cattle drives: Beef here = worthless, beef there = mad cash; therefore must get beef from here to there. What provides the key difference between this and any other Western is the acting and the directing. The two leads, Wayne and Montgomery, are two of the greatest actors ever, and two supporting actors, Joanne Dru and John Ireland both had very distinguished careers after Red River. All four now have a star on the Walk of Fame.
Red River does have its problems though, I've never been a fan of screenplay in a movie that appears predictable, and this one does appear predictable, and is therefore rather dull through most of it. The interactions between Groot and Quo (over Groot's false teeth that he lost in a poker game) are really the only reason to watch the entire first half outside of necessary character development (Dunson's descent into madness is superbly done by Wayne). After the sort of surprise (I use that term loosely) betrayal of Matt, and his subsequent leading of the drive... well. By then you're so far into the movie that you should really just finish it. Joanne Dru's character, Tess, provides a comical interest for the view and a romantic one for both Matt and Dunson at the point where things are most boring. She should really learn to shut up. If you're at all familiar with women in Hawks' films you know what I mean. If you're not, then just believe me when I say she talks too much. I suppose that Hawks himself is to blame really.
I've also have never really been a fan of black and white cinematography, so I am also disfavor able on that aspect of the movie. No, I'm wrong. I like how it's never so dark you can't make out anything during the night scenes even though the night scenes mostly look like they've been filmed at night, which is quite an accomplishment for a B&W film. I also like Hawks' work with camera angles, which is covered more thoroughly in my analysis (I think), but basically: the closer the camera is to a person, the more emotion they show, when only one person is visible, the most emotion is shown.
The Music is unnoticeable, sounding a lot like a lot of other music in a lot of other Westerns.
So the only thing that really makes this movie stand out is the acting and directing. If it weren't for brilliance on both those parts, the movie would have easily been a flop. Red River was nominated for two Oscars in Film Editing and writing. Hawks was nominated for an award from the Director's Guild of America for this movie, and Borden Chase and Charles Schnee were nominated for an award from the Writer's Guild of America. I did mention that this is one of the best Westerns of all time and I stand by it.
If you don't like spoilers, stop now. LIKE THESE ARE SERIOUS MAD SPOILERS
By 1870, the cattle drive had become an irreplaceable part of the culture of Texas. Red River, directed by Howard Hawks, is one of the most heralded westerns of all time. Red River tells the story of Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), an idealistic cattle rancher with nothing to lose, and Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), Dunson’s adopted son looking for his own identity. They begin their story with a bull and a cow and end up with the largest herd in Texas, where beef is worthless. The movie focuses on the two, and their growing relationships with each other and the women in their lives as they travel the largest and most improbable cattle drive attempted by anyone before them.
The movie opens to see a wide shot of the landscape and a wagon train, to give the viewer a scope of the land and an immensity of an undertaking that large. An exchange occurs between Dunson (who is leaving the train) and the man in charge of the wagon train, referred to as Colonel, over Dunson and his cattle, and then when the camera cuts to Dunson for the last time, we see a woman in the background walking anxiously up to Dunson, who quickly leaves the exchange to greet her. As Dunson and the woman embrace the camera takes a safe vantage point from a good distance away, moving closer in with each shot. As the camera allows us to see closer, we see that the woman has a confident look in her eyes, on her face, and in her voice. During her dialogue we cannot see Dunson’s face, the camera is behind him, but his body language shows hints of lust and of weakness for the woman. The camera angle changes to show Dunson, and we can see him sigh heavily but is set in his ways, at which point the woman loses her confidence and becomes weak to him. Dunson is stubborn, but not stubborn enough to make a promise to send for her. The last we see of the girl is from the same angle we saw her and Dunson embrace, waving. This sequence of events involving this woman could be seen as Dunson’s raison d’etre, his reasons for doing what he’s doing. The gift Dunson gave the woman, a gold bracelet, provides proof of the deepness of their relationship; as Dunson admits that the bracelet once belonged to his mother, most likely a prominent figure in Dunson’s life. This scene also shows Dunson’s selfish stubbornness; i.e his character and nearly all of it. He is confident in his abilities with a gun, as seen early from his exchange with the Colonel, and is dead-set in his ways, as seen by his unwillingness to bring the woman with him, and as told by Groot, Dunson’s companion. His actions in this scene are in his interest alone, and he does not take into consideration the wagon train or the woman he cares for.
In the next scene we see Dunson and Groot arrive at a river, and they turn to see large amounts of smoke in the distance. Assured that the wagon train was attacked, they prepare their defenses for the night and are indeed attacked. During the attack Dunson learns of his woman’s death by finding the bracelet he gave her on the arm of an Indian he killed. The next morning Matthew is introduced, wandering in a crazed state with his cow. Dunson confronts Matt and Matt pulls a gun on Dunson, showing that he has a mind of his own and is not to be taken lightly. We cannot see Dunson during this event, he is off camera, but what we can see of Groot, and we can see that he is not worried. Dunson then takes Matthew under his wing and brings him along. His comment to Groot, “He’ll do,” shows us that Dunson has alterior motives than just saving the boy from eventual starvation. They all cross the Red River and start their journey through Texas. Dunson’s and Matt’s relationship begins on rocky ground, as shown by a following sequence, when Dunson & co. finally arrive on land where they can raise “good beef.” Matt confronts Dunson by questioning the legitimacy of Dunson’s claim to the land, and to Matthew’s cow. During both these events, the camera is in an objective view, at an angle where we can see Matt’s face, but Dunson’s face is hidden. Matt’s face appears angry, and we can interpret Dunson’s body language by the earlier scene with the Colonel; dead-set in stubbornness. Immediately after these two exchanges, a pair of Mexican riders approach Dunson and question him. During this conversation the camera focuses on the two gunmen, one of the Mexicans and Dunson; at first showing a high angled shot from behind the Mexican, looking down and showing the distance between him and Dunson. As the exchange progresses the camera increasingly focuses on the Mexican and Dunson, who moves signals Matt to get away. When Dunson steps towards the camera, so does Matt, and then Matt again imitates when Dunson steps backwards again, preparing for a quick-draw match with the Mexican. Matt also draws his gun during the brief fight. This imitation of Dunson shows us that Matt is attached to Dunson, and is willing to protect him. The result of the quick-draw match with the Mexican shows Matt that Dunson is superbly skilled, and is not to be questioned; Matt doesn’t protest any more decisions by Dunson.
Fourteen years pass, and Dunson has built the largest ranch and raised the biggest herd in all of Texas, and it’s all worthless. So a cattle drive begins, despite insurmountable odds against the success of the drive. Dunson’s stubbornness has been slowly been transforming into a sort of tyrannical rule, with Matt still following without question. The team of cowboys on the drive are becoming stressed and strained, as are the cattle. One particular night everything seems to be on edge, the coyote howling in the distance doesn’t help the situation for man nor beast. We open to a moving shot of Dan, one of the cowboys, moving from right to left across the scene; there are cattle in the foreground. Dan is singing to the cattle, to calm them, when he is approached by Dunson and Matt. There is a brief cut, and we are brought closer to the three, the camera continues to approach them, slowly, the closer the camera presents him, the more open Dan becomes about his feelings. He finally confesses that with the money he will make from the drive, he is going to buy property and a “pair of red shoes” for his wife. Dan represents the progress of civilization. He has a wife, he wants to own property. He is the only man that states these things, and therefore it is implied that he is the only man with these things on the drive. In an earlier scene, there was a man that did not go on the drive for the reason that he had a wife. Contrary to that act, Dan goes on the drive to create a better life for his wife.
Following the conversation between Dan and Dunson, there is a sequence of events that cause a stampede, in which Dan is trampled to death. As mentioned before, the closer the camera gets to Dan, the more he opens up. His death is not shown, but the last we see him, the camera is close up to his face, and he screams in fear and possibly pain, the most emotion he had shown so far. Dunson laments Dan’s death, and tells Matt to send Dan’s full pay to his wife, and “anything else you can think of.” Matt suggests a pair of red shoes. These exchanges, first between Dan and Dunson, and then Dunson and Matt, show how important women are to the men in the movie, even if they are only mentioned in passing.
The next morning Dan is buried, and Buck, the man who started the stampede, is to be punished. The camera takes a personified view, following Dunson from the funeral in the background, to the foreground, and then to the location of Dunson’s confrontation with Buck; where we can at first see Dunson standing, whip in hand with his back to the camera, and Buck sitting down. Buck rises nervously, and becomes increasingly afraid of Dunson to the point that he draws his gun. As the same with Dan in the last scene, the closer the camera gets to Buck, the more emotional Buck becomes to the point where he is shot by Matt. This is the first time Matt acts contrary to Dunson’s will since the first gunfight with the Mexican; Dunson would have killed Buck, but Matt, by shooting first, saved Buck’s life. From this it is clear that Matt is loyal to Dunson, but equally as loyal to the other cowboys, showing he has a sense of community.
Matt and Dunson tangle once more, after a shoot-out with some of the cowboys that wish to desert; Matt yelled at Dunson that he would follow orders, but Dunson couldn't tell Matt what to think. And then three other cowboys ran away during their watch at night. After crossing the Red River, Cherry, a gunslinger of skill equal to Matt, comes back with two of the deserters. By this point we are aware that Dunson’s character has regressed; on top of his usual stubbornness, he is sleepless, paranoid, and drunk. Matt has also been losing his patience with Dunson. The sequence begins with Dunson drinking alcohol while getting his leg treated when Cherry and the deserters come back. Dunson stays seated, implying his physical fatigue, during his exchange with the deserters. Dunson announces he’s going to hang the deserters, instead of shooting them. Being hung is a dishonorable way to die. The camera angle during the exchange between Dunson and the deserters switches mostly between Dunson and the two deserters. Behind Dunson, there is only one person, who remains unidentifiable. Behind the deserters is everyone else, including Matt, who is seen walking away from the location until Dunson announces that he’s going to hang the deserters. Matt promptly stands up to Dunson and challenges Dunson’s authority. Dunson finally stands, to prepare for a quick-draw against Matt. Cherry steps in and shoots Dunson’s hand, disabling it, and Buster shoots Dunson’s gun away from him after he drops it. These actions represent the cowboys’ revolt against Dunson’s selfish, tyrannical rule, and is the real low point of the relationship between Dunson and Matt.
During this revolt, Matt takes control over the drive, and Dunson swears that he will kill Matt in revenge. Matt changes the course of the drive from Missouri to Abeline, Kansas, because it is a safer route. Twice Dunson had refused to change the route because he had doubt of the rail road being in Abeline. On the way to Abeline, the cowboys run into a wagon train that is under attack of Indians. There Matt meets Tess Malay, who is implied to be a brothel girl. During the attack she is struck by an arrow and hardly flinches. She becomes intrigued by Matt, who passes her off for a weak woman. Indeed, when they later meet in the fog while Matt is on watch, she appears weak and frightened. However, they share a night of passion before Matt and the other cowboys are forced to leave because of a rain storm. Camera views are similar to the Dan and Buck sequences, where the closer the camera view is to the people, the more emotion is shown.
In the next sequence, Dunson and Tess meet each other. At first Dunson assumes she is as weak as any other woman. One of the first things they discuss is Dunson’s bracelet, which Tess is wearing, given to her by Matt. She tries to convince Dunson to give up his bloodlust, failing. The camera mostly alternates between two views, facing Tess, and facing Dunson. Tess has a confident voice and a stubborn attitude equaling Dunson’s own, quite the contrast to how she was acting with Matt. Dunson however only has a confident voice. His body language is of fatigue and remorse. They are talking about love in the past, about things that caused Dunson to be weak, and about Matt, who has a special relationship with both of them. Dunson quickly realizes that Tess is not as weak as he assumed, he also remembers the past, and what happened to the woman he left behind in the same exact way Matt left Tess behind. Tess wants to go along with Dunson to be with Matt, and Dunson wants an heir he can be proud of. He realizes that Tess can give him such an heir, and offers her half his fortune for a son. Her condition of accepting would be if Dunson spared Matt’s life. Tess apparently changed his views on women, or at least his opinion about her. Dunson also admitted that Tess is a strong woman, a problem he had with his lover at the beginning of the movie. Dunson keeps giving in to Tess’s demands, with physical signs of losing a battle he can’t win. Dunson decides to take Tess with him to hunt Matt when he forces Tess to play her hand; a hidden derringer. Dunson once again appears weak in the face of a woman, knowing through experience what having and losing one feels like. It seems that women are the only things that have any sway over Dunson, especially since he lost the only one he cared about.
Matt arrives in Abeline with the herd, only a day ahead of Dunson. Matt sells the herd for an unbelievable profit, a $50,000 check made out to Thomas Dunson, but that doesn’t halt Dunson’s wrath and everyone knows it. In a sequence prior to the final scene, Tess gets to see Matt one last time before Dunson comes to enact his revenge. She stumbles over her words, and is weak, but manages to say something important to Matt, “You’re too much like him.” This sentence shows just how deep the relationship between Matt and Dunson has been for 14 years. Matt’s personality is the same, but his mentality is different. During this scene, Matt is looking Tess up and down much like Dunson was weak over his woman in the beginning of the movie. In this scene, Matt bumps into a lamp, causing it to swing back and forth, his uncaring for the lamp shows his single mindedness; his weakness for Tess.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, Matt and Dunson finally come face to gun barrel. Dunson, stubborn in his ways but not dishonorable, tells Matt to draw his gun, but when Matt refuses through silence, and Dunson begins shooting around Matt. When Dunson realizes Matt is too stubborn in his own ways, Dunson begins to beat Matt with his fists. Matt quickly turns the tables and the two begin to really fight. From the start of the fight, the camera, as with most important scenes, cuts in and out between the two, the closer it is the more emotion is shown. When it is close up to Dunson’s face, he appears angry at Matt for not drawing his gun. When it is close to Matt’s face, Matt looks stern and resolute, until Dunson runs out of bullets, and then Matt smiles a little. He knew everything would be all right in the end.
The cattle drive is one of the most historical undertakings for a group of men to bond under. Traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles with only other men to keep company with. This is the environment that Dunson and Matt grew together in. There is presumably no woman to care for either, shown by Dunson asking Tess for a son and Matt implicitly never being with a girl before Tess. When the illusion of a woman is wedged between them, Dan’s wife, they go their separate ways, each trying to prove who is superior to the other. When a real woman is put between them, Tess, they involuntarily make amends with each other for the sake of the woman. Women are just as important to Dunson and Matt as they are to eachother.
Sources: Watching it and www.imdb.com