#1 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
There’s something about this film that feels like a step up. It’s weird because Hawks had been an assured directorial hand for almost two decades by the time he made this, with several great films to his name, but this production is so much bigger, complex, and intricate. Visually, it embraces the mythic feeling of a John Ford Western. This adaptation of Borden Chase’s serialized novel The Chisholm Trail feels like Howard Hawks really reaching to make something bigger and newer for himself, and he succeeds wildly.
John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a rancher who struck off from a wagon train north of Texas and claimed a large patch of land just this side of the Rio Grande. Through grit and hard work, after 14 years and surviving through the economic hardship of the Civil War, he’s in a desperate situation. His thousands of heads of cattle are worth little where he is, but if he could get them to Missouri, he’ll find a market. He’s broke except for his cattle, and he has to do this.
Along for the ride are his collection of hired hands including his long-term compatriot and friend, Walter Brennan’s Nadine Groot, and adopted son Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth. Dunson picked up Matthew shortly after her left the wagon train, it was attacked by a Comanche war party, and Matthew was able to escape after chasing after his horse. With the Civil War, Matthew had gone to support Texas, but returned, he’s back to offer Dunson the support he needs to accomplish this great deed.
Hawks had often made movies about hard men in hard professions, but I think Dunson is the first protagonist who could be called a visionary. He has to move a mountain, essentially, and no one else can really see what he’s trying to do. What he starts his team out with are promises of riches, payment of over a hundred dollars each at the end of their weeks’ long hard journey. It’ll be perilous with known and unknown dangers including access to water and even potential bandits along the way, but it’s either braving that or starving with their thousands of cattle.
The heart of the film is the long journey northwards. Chase said that his story was based rather heavily on the mutiny on the HMS Bounty with Dunson acting as the Texas William Bligh, and it shows. Dunson is a driven man, out to make the impossible happen since no one has managed to successfully travel the trail all the way up to Missouri yet. He has no choice but to make it happen. There’s no turning back. There’s no delaying. There’s no room for error. There’s no deviation. It has to be Missouri because he knows the railroad is there for certain, and with the railroad is his ticket to the market to sell his life’s work for a fair price. In order to work his will, though, he has to operate through his men.
Groot and Garth are his right-hand men, standing by him through every setback and punishment, whether they agree with him or not, but it gets harder for them the longer the journey goes on. When Bunk causes a stampede by sneaking sugar in the night, causing some pans to fall and startle the antsy cows, one man is killed in the work to wrangle the herd once again. As punishment the next morning, Dunson decides to whip Bunk in front of the men. When word circulates amongst the men that there’s a train station in Abeline, Kansas, allowing them an opportunity to bypass the dangerous ground up to Missouri, Dunson won’t hear of it. All they have is rumors of a railroad, not actual proof. He has to go where he knows there’s a railroad, even if it is more dangerous.
Things come to a head when Dunson threatens to hang two men who had run off in the night and got brought back. It’s too cruel for Matthew to take, so he draws his gun, takes Dunson’s, and takes control of the herd, directing them westward to Abeline and the promise of a railroad.
What the movie ultimately is about is the passing of one generation into another. Dunson is the man who built the ranch and got the herd moving, but it has to be the son who finishes it. The ownership of the future passes from one generation to the other. Matthew has to form a new path from Dunson to keep everything moving, and even if Dunson doesn’t like it, that’s the direction that’s going to happen.
Now, I don’t throw the word perfect around a whole lot, but I think Red River would have been perfect save for a couple of small things. The first is the least important of the two, but there’s an early introduction of John Ireland’s Cherry Valance, a gunslinger who signs up with Dunson and develops a certain kind of rivalry with Matthew. He largely vanishes by the halfway point because of, apparently, some behind the scenes rivalry with Hawks over the affections of Joanne Dru whom Ireland eventually married. The other thing is more important, and it’s the ending. In the original book Matthew fatally wounds Dunson when Dunson catches up with him at Abeline, managing to take him back for one final look at Texas before he dies. In the movie, they get into a scuffle and it gets broken up by the lately introduced Tess (Dru), devolving into a chuckle as Dunson tells Matthew to marry her. It’s…a lesser ending.
One of the most wonderful things about Hawks in general and Red River specifically is Hawks films tend to have this tendency of recalling earlier moments in the film late without much fanfare. At the start of the film Dunson told his love to stay with the wagon train until he sent for her, after he had successfully established his ranch. She died, of course. Late, we get introduced to Dru’s Tess as a love interest for Matthew, and the echoes of Dunson’s girl are evident. There are small repetitions of dialogue that don’t get huge underlines for the viewer not paying attention, but they’re there. What this ends up doing is really playing with the idea of Matthew being able to lead a new life built on both the successes and failings Dunson had to build the ranch up to a point, standing on Dunson’s shoulders to find new successes as his example. All of this is in the film whether Matthew kills Dunson or not, which I why despite my somewhat lackluster feeling towards the film’s final moments still feel that the film overall is not only a great one but one of Hawks’ best.