Directed by Howard Hawks and Arthur Rossen
Written by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from a story by Chase
Charles K. Feldman Group/Monterey Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#217 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Sims Reeves: Plantin’ and readin’, plantin’ and readin’. Fill a man full o’ lead, stick him in the ground an’ then read words on him. Why, when you’ve killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?
I find this to be two-thirds iconic cattle drive/man vs. nature Western and one-third highly irritating romance.
Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a tough-as-nails Indian scout. He departs the wagon train he has been protecting to search for cattle land and leaves his sweetheart (Colleen Grey) behind. She is almost immediately killed in an Indian attack and he becomes tougher still.
Eventually, Dunson and sidekick Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) find promising ranch land near the Rio Grande. Although this is a Mexican land grant estate, Dunson lays claim to it by killing the owner’s agent and challenging all comers to try and oust him. Soon after, Matt Garth, an equally tough boy who has been orphaned in another Indian attack, turns up. Dunson basically adopts him.
Segue to 14 years later and Matt (Montgomery Clift) has returned from service in the Civil War. Dunson has amassed a huge herd of cattle but there is no market whatever for them in the South. He has decided to attempt what has never been done before and make the 1,000 mile journey to a railroad crossing in Missouri. Matt helps him recruit cowboys for the job. Dunson announces to all that there will be no pay unless the cattle drive is successful and that they are signed up for the duration.
The journey is fraught with danger, a stampede, and bad weather. Dunson becomes increasingly obsessed and deranged, a la Captain Ahab in Moby Dick or Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. As the supplies run out and the men tire, he ruthlessly makes examples of all who even suggest quitting. Dunson tries his execution tactics once too often and Matt feels he has no choice but to commandeer the cattle and men and change course for a closer destination in Kansas where he is convinced he will find another rail head. Dunson vows to murder Matt for his mutiny.
On the way to Kansas, Matt runs across a traveling troupe of city clickers (AKA slickers). While enjoying their hospitality, the party is attacked by Indians. Matt and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) fall in love by sparring during the battle. He tells her about his history with Dunson. The men then continue their drive toward Kansas.
Dunson is not far behind, on Matt’s trail with a posse of killers. Tess is unable to talk him out of his murderous intent but does convince him to take her with him. Everyone meets up for a final show-down in Kansas. With John Ireland as Matt’s friend and rival, Harry Carey Sr. as a cattle buyer, and Harry Carey Jr. as a doomed cowpoke.
I think this is one of the best Westerns ever made right up until Joanne Dru’s character enters the picture. I don’t know whether it’s the actress or her dialogue but I find her incredibly annoying with all her instant character analysis and pronouncements. The ending sequence also verges on the farcical, destroying the somber tone established earlier in the story. That said, this is well worth seeing before you die if only for the fantastic vistas of cattle on the wide open plains.
Red River was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and Best Film Editing.