The biggest names in filmdom starred in these “oaters,” including James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Alan Ladd, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Audie Murphy, Lee Marvin, Dana Andrews, Jeffrey Hunter, Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Dean Martin, Dan Duryea, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott and the biggest name in Westerns, John “Duke” Wayne.
Even female actresses got a lot of screen time, and not just as wives or girlfriends, but as strong individual characters with spine, grit and grace: Maureen O’Hara, Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwick, Rhonda Fleming, Marie Windsor, Olivia de Haviland, Jane Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Vera Miles, Joanne Dru, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Linda Darnell, and Vera Miles.
Renowned directors made their names with their iconic Westerns, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, Fred Zinneman, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and even such out-of-left-field names such as Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”), Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and Cecil B. DeMille (“Sunset Boulevard”).
And later, directors Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Walter Hill, Sergio Leone, Kevin Costner, Don Siegel, and, of course, Clint Eastwood, who made a half a dozen great Westerns, including one of the best ever, “Unforgiven,” which garnered him two Oscars, made a name with their Westerns.
Two of the biggest names in Hollywood and one of the greatest Hollywood directors joined forces for a film in 1948, one that looked like it could be trouble from the start, but which actually benefitted from the combustible chemistry of its stars and director.
The resulting film, “Red River,” is considered one of the best westerns ever made, even though it could have been derailed before it even started.
For one, there was an issue between Hawks and actor John Ireland and his drinking and his lecherous behavior, as well as a love triangle involving Ireland, Hawks and actress Joanne Dru, that caused tension on set.
But the real conflict was between the big, brawny Wayne and the sensitive, moody Clift, an actor who was a student of the Method system of acting and whose political views were diametrically opposed to Wayne’s. Also, although not publically known at the time, Clift was bisexual, while Wayne was a right-wing Republican, although it’s not known if he knew about the rumors of Clift’s sexuality.
Wayne didn’t believe the slight Clift was “manly” enough to stand up to his rugged physique and character, especially in the final fight scene. His mind changed after his first few scenes with Clift, who was an excellent actor, but they still kept their distance and never interacted after their scenes were over.
In fact, Clift rarely took part in the nightly poker games, where he said “they laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back. They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn’t go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary.”
Clift didn’t warm to Hawks either and later turned down Dean Martin’s role in “Rio Bravo” (1959) because he did not want to be reunited with Wayne, Hawk and actor Walter Brennan, who also didn’t like Clift.
Later, Wayne said in an interview with Life Magazine, that Clift was “an arrogant little bastard.”
Clift not only survived all the tension and hostility on the set, but also turned in a great star-making performance, especially in scenes with the larger-than-life Wayne. In fact, Clift’s character Matt Garth could be seen as the heart and soul of the movie. Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson, was cruel, dictatorial and not well liked, one of Wayne’s rare non-hero good-guy roles (his role in “The Searchers” being the epitome).
American Film Institute ranked “Red River” as the #5 best western in 2008 and Roger Ebert considered it one of the greatest Western films of all time. And, if not for a ludicrous ending that wrapped the film up in a laughably happy bow, its stock might be higher.
In screenwriter Borden Chase’s original Saturday Evening Post story, Wayne’s character is shot dead at the end, while his screenplay has a dying Dunson escorted home so he could die on Texas soil. Chase vigorously objected to Howard Hawks’ change to the ending, but to no avail. Hawks claimed the problem with the ending, which has drawn the most criticism, was not the scene itself but the way Joanne Dru played it. Wayne’s lofty position in Hollywood probably had a lot to do with the happy ending.
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by Turner Classic Movies, Molly Haskell and Robert Osborne