Relieved Return to "Red River" (Film 432)

I can never resist a nice alliterative title.

Even without the draw of emotional consonance, I would still have been relieved to revisit the deadly serious world of the West, where men are men and inevitably become corpses, after my foray into Bob Hope's comic version of it. I am also befuddled - I have always had an instinctive dislike for John Wayne's iconic persona and drawling speech, but this is the second of his films that I have seen through my 1001 movies project (the third I have seen, total - I watched "The Quiet Man" while in Ireland several years ago), and I have really loved them both. Even more horrifying to my entrenched opinions: I really enjoyed (ENJOYED!) Wayne's characters in both "Stagecoach" and "Red River." I felt a rush of sympathy in response to the laconic machoness of his dictatorial behavior, quickly followed by a surge of feminist shame.

"Stagecoach" (1939) surprised me with its deliriously exciting stunts shot in majestic locations, but I was really drawn to the highly developed characters who are thrown together by that most equalizing of experiences, frontier travel. This is the tradition that "Deadwood" exploits to the maximum of its televisual potential, the West's ability to throw together characters with nothing in common at the moment of extreme stress. Wayne played the young hero (it was his breakthrough role) and his presence is magnetic. I probably only liked him so much because he said so very little, I said soothingly to myself, and this allowed his impressive physicality to bear the burden of characterization.

Wayne made "Red River" nine years later, and in it he cedes the role of the young hero to Montgomery Clift, taking on instead the more complex character of Clift's adopted father, the tyrannical but basically sympathetic Thomas Dunson, who is torn between his affection for his men and a ruthless survival instinct. This is a densely plotted movie, so densely plotted that it does away with an entire revenge narrative in the first ten minutes. Dunson and his friend Groot (who is well named, but would perhaps have been even better named "Toothless McMumbles") have joined a wagon train heading West, but as they approach Texas Dunson decides that this land is good enough for him and breaks away from the group (I sense social symbolism...). This involves shuffling off (temporarily, he thinks) his beloved, who begs to come with him, but who is clearly not man enough for the dangers of Indian country (he says). She disagrees, and with a surprisingly aggressive sexuality reminds him that it will only be day half the time on his ranch, and the rest of the time is when she could really come in handy. All this argument is in vain, and he demands that she stay with the train, giving her an opportunity to be the first of many many people to say the words "You're wrong" to him.

He and Toothless ride away, only to see a huge fire rise behind them later that day. I think that the moment that John Wayne won me over was his reaction to this sight: he watches the wagon train burn in the distance with a totally still, abstracted face and then says, in a voice charged with practical intensity "Take us hours to get back there." Then he turns his mind to defending himself against the Indians who must be pursuing them from the burning train. After Dunson kills the man who murdered his fiancee, he finds a boy (half mad and ferally defensive) wandering amidst the brush with a cow. He adopts the boy, Matt Garth, and they go on (with Groot) to found a vast cattle empire that becomes totally penniless in the aftermath of the Civil War. Their survival, and the survival of all the hands who work for them, depends on getting these cattle to a railroad farther north, past Indian country and bandits. The rest of the movie follows this drive, tracing the increasing desperation and cruelty of Dunson and the noble conflict of Garth (Clift), who must choose between his affection for his father (who demands absolute loyalty) and his innate sense of what is right.

One of the highlights of film is its brilliant dialogue, which is often rich with subtext and features some of the best crypto-sexual and homoerotic dialogue in a genre that is well known for it. Take this famous encounter about and between Garth and Cherry Valance, his cocky alter ego whose promise as a nemesis is (sadly) never realized:

Groot/Toothless: "You reckon they're gonna fight?"
Dunson: "No, not yet. They'll just paw at each other... find out what they're up against. It'll be worth seeing...

Cherry: (to Matt) "That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it?" (He takes it and admires it) "Maybe you'd like to see mine." (He hands over his gun to be admired.) "Nice... awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?"

For a long time it looks like the female presence in the film died with Dunson's fiancee, but late in the movie all three key men (Dunson, Matt, and Cherry) become attracted to the strength and vitality of a woman of ambiguous morals named Tess Millay. Some critics complain that Tess shows the pernicious influence of Hollywood on an otherwise grittily realistic movie, but (with the exception of her role in an ending so incongruous it could have come from one of Shakespeare's more improbable romances) I found her to be hypnotic, all sinewy gesture one moment and nervous babble the next. This is a film in which coffee and women hold approximately the same value for the cowboys, but nonetheless Tess is able to take an arrow through the shoulder and still carry on a steely, witty banter with Matt. My only real complaint about the romance plotline is that it seems too rushed and thus not as nuanced as, say, Matt's relationship with Dunson. One moment Matt is sucking the poison from the arrow wound in her shoulder in an astonishingly intimate gesture, and the next she is decking him. Although a superficial justification is given in the film for this glamorous sequence of events, what the film does well it does delicately and deeply, so it feels like something is always missing in their fast-paced relationship. This is by no means a short film, but I could easily have stood for more exploration of this plotline (and of the resolution of the Dunson and Matt narrative, for that matter).

Nonetheless, the characterization (although initially a little overblown) is by far the strong suit of this film, as it was for "Stagecoach." This is the best work I've seen by Montgomery Clift, who always seemed a little blank behind the eyes to me in other films (this was his first). The initial duality between the manly, work-oriented straightforwardness of the day and the sexualized, feminine nighttime that is laid out by Dunson's fiancee continues to work its symbolic magic throughout the film. The daytime, their work, and the constant movement towards their goal soothe the men with a knowledge of their own heroism, but when the sun sets all of their anxieties come to light and their social bonds break down. "It's funny what the night does to a man," Groot remarks. There is one marvelous scene when the men speak entirely about what they are feeling through the objective correlative of the cattle, who are spooked by inactivity and the howling of a nearby coyote. It wouldn't take much to set the cattle off tonight, they say, ...just a single gunshot. And of course, it doesn't even take that - just a cascade of pots and pans set off by a man who can't control the sweet tooth that drives him to steal sugar. Just the normal pursuit of appetite.

"Red River"
dir. Howard Hawks

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