Seventy years ago today, a motion picture was released immortalizing the drama and danger of the rancher. Howard Hawks directing with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift starring, this tale of betrayal, action, and lots and lots of cattle has since become a staple of the Western genre. With its anniversary, let’s see how well Red River holds up to modern day scrutiny.
I have never seen a classic Western like this. All of my Western knowledge is from the early 1970s and later with classics like Blazing Saddles, Silverado, and Unforgiven. I knew the general conventions of the 40s and 50s Western though: super idealistic, over-the-top heroics, simple storytelling with romance and melodrama to make it marketable. With this in mind, I had no hope of liking this movie. The prologue of the film set me off on that track. It throws you right into a wagon train moving across Texas when Tom Dunson (Wayne) and his trail hand Groot (Walter Brennan) decide to break off. From the get go there is a swelling Western score, one liners and Wayne’s rugged charm, and a whiny female romantic interest withering for Wayne. The classic Western is from a bygone era, and all of these cheesy and/or unrealistic elements are products from that era, and I wasn’t that into it. Throughout the entire movie there are some outdated plot elements or character archetypes or relationships that really bothered me as a modern viewer.
But once the prologue ends, the main conflict is introduced. Dunson, now fourteen years older and an entire cattle ranch to his name, aims to cattle drive over 10,000 steer up to Missouri from the Rio Grande Valley. It’s a dangerous and ambitious goal, one to which all of the cowboys are up for but are quickly discouraged from when Dunson turns into a cattle-steering tyrant and bully. The movie follows the group of cowboys driving these cattle and hoping to make it there alive. I was hooked.
The group of cowboys aren’t particularly interesting, but Dunson is a dynamic character. He starts out as the idealistic Western lead for the movie but, with old age and cynicism, becomes the antagonist to the now fully mature Matthew Garth (Clift). Wayne does a fantastic job of balancing his classic trademark delivery and expressions with the added complexity of this character.
The father-son relationship between Dunson and Matt is especially engaging to see evolve throughout the exciting challenges of the cattle drive. Knowing little to nothing about ranching and what it entails, it was a solid education in everything that could go wrong on a cattle drive and the consequences of such. The stakes were real, the drama wasn’t contrived, and I was actually engaged the entire time.
Still, there were some outdated aspects of the movie throughout. The most obvious is the introduction of the romantic interest for Matt, a woman by the name of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). She is all kinds of cliché and one dimensional. Also, there was about one cattle driving montage too many in the movie. They really milked the feat of driving cattle, and it got kinda repetitive.
This movie is great though. The performances are good; Wayne is the highlight. The story is relatable for a modern audience. It doesn’t get too bogged down by the sensibilities of late 1940s Hollywood. And there’s actual excitement and entertainment to be had. I bet in thirty years on it’s centennial, it’ll hold up just as well as it does now.