Western, Drama, Action | 133 min | Released: 1948
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, John Ireland
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a stubborn man who wants nothing more than to start up a successful cattle ranch in Texas. Shortly after he begins his journey to Texas with his trail hand, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), Dunson learns that his love interest (Coleen Gray), whom he had told to stay behind with the wagon train with the understanding that he would send for her later, was killed in an Indian attack. Despite this tragedy, Dunson and Groot press on. That night, Dunson and Groot, keeping watch, hear a group of Indians planning to attack them. They kill the Indians, and on the wrist of one, Dunson finds a bracelet he had been left by his late mother. One day before, he had presented it to his young love as he left the wagon train. The bracelet reappears significantly later in the film.
The next day, an orphaned boy named Matthew Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn and as an adult by Montgomery Clift) who had been part of the wagon train Dunson had left, and who came back from finding a strayed cow to see the ruins of the train wanders into Dunson and Groot’s camp, traumatized and babbling incoherently. He was the sole survivor of the wagon train. Dunson adopts him and ties the boy’s cow to his wagon, alongside a bull Dunson already owned.
With only the bull and the cow, Dunson, Groot and the boy enter Texas by crossing the Red River. In search for land they traveled through Texas, finally deciding to settle in deep South Texas near the Rio Grande. Upon arrival, Dunson proudly proclaims all the land about them as his own. Two Mexican men appear on horseback and inform Dunson that the land already belongs to their boss. Dunson dismisses this inconvenient fact and thanks to a quicker draw in a showdown, kills one of the men and tells the other man to inform his boss that Dunson now owns the land. Dunson names his new spread the Red River D, after his chosen cattle brand for his herd. Fatefully, he promises to add M (for Matt) to the brand, once Matt has earned it.
14 years pass and Dunson now has a fully operational cattle ranch. With the help of Matt and Groot, his herd now numbers over ten thousand cattle, but he is also broke as a result of widespread poverty in the southern United States. Due to its loss of the American Civil War, the South cannot afford Dunson’s beef. Dunson decides to drive his massive herd hundreds of miles north to the railhead at Sedalia, Missouri, where he believes they will fetch a good price.
After Dunson hires some extra men to help out with the drive, including professional gunman Cherry Valance (John Ireland), the perilous northward drive starts. Along the way, they encounter many troubles, including a stampede, sparked by one of the men making a clatter while trying to steal sugar from the chuck wagon, that leads to the death of Dan Latimer (Harry Carey Jr). En route, they are told by casually met strangers that the railroad line has reached Abilene, Kansas, much closer than Sedalia. When Dunson establishes that none of these wayfarers have seen the railroad, he disregards the news in favor of plugging on to Missouri.
Deeper problems arise when Dunson’s tyrannical leadership style begins to affect the rest of the men. One of the two chuck wagons accompanying the drive had been destroyed in the stampede, morale drops because the men are living on nothing but beef, and have no coffee to drink. Dunson by now is broke and cannot buy more supplies. When he attempts to lynch two men who had deserted the drive and taken a sack of flour and 100 rounds with them, Matt rebels. With the help of Valance and the other men, Matt takes control of the drive in order to take it to the hoped-for closer railhead in Abilene, Kansas. Face to face, Dunson curses him and threatens to kill him when next they meet. The drive resumes toward Abilene, leaving the lightly injured Dunson behind with his horse and a few supplies. Matt and his men are well aware that Dunson will try to recruit a posse to pursue and attack them.
On the way to Abilene, Matt and his men repulse an Indian attack on a wagon train. One of the people they save is Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who falls in love with Matt. They spend a night together and he gives her Dunson’s mother’s bracelet, evidently given to him in earlier years. Eager to outpace Dunson to Abilene, he leaves early in the morning—as Dunson had left the original wagon train 14 years earlier.
Later Tess encounters Dunson, who has followed Matt’s trail to the new wagon train. He sees that she wears his mother’s bracelet. Weary and emotional, he tells Tess what he wants most of all is a son. She offers to bear him one if he abandons his hunt. Dunson sees in her the same anguish that his beloved had expressed when he left her at the original doomed wagon train. Regardless of that, he resumes his hunt. The bracelet has moved from one sweetheart to another.
When Matt reaches Abilene, he finds the town has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of such a herd to buy it and ship it east by rail. Unknowingly, he has completed the first cattle drive along what would become known as the Chisholm Trail. He accepts an excellent offer for the cattle. Shortly thereafter, Dunson arrives in Abilene with a posse to follow through with his vow to kill Matt. Cherry Valance tries to keep the two apart. Dunson shoots him and Valance inflicts a flesh wound on Dunson. Dunson and Matt begin a furious fight, which Tess interrupts by drawing a gun on both men, shooting wildly, and demanding that they realize the love that they share. Dunson and Matt see the error of their ways and make peace. In earlier days, both men had laid their inner hearts open to her. The film ends with Dunson telling Matt that he will incorporate an M into the brand as he had promised 14 years before, and advises Matt to marry Tess.
Note: In Chase’s original Saturday Evening Post story, Valance shoots Dunson dead in Abilene and Matt takes his body back to Texas to be buried on his ranch.
Red River is a 1948 Western film directed and produced by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, giving a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. The dramatic tension stems from a growing feud over the management of the drive, between the Texas rancher who initiated it (Wayne) and his adopted adult son (Clift).
The film’s supporting cast features Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Hank Worden, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr. and Paul Fix. Borden Chase and Charles Schnee wrote the screenplay, based on Chase’s original story (which was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1946 as “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail”).
Red River was filmed in 1946 but not released until September 30, 1948. Footage from Red River was later incorporated into the opening montage of Wayne’s last film, The Shootist, to illustrate the backstory of Wayne’s character.
The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (Christian Nyby) and Best Writing, Motion Picture Story.
In 1990, Red River was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
John Ford—who worked with Wayne on many films (such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)—was so impressed with Wayne’s performance that he is reported to have said, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”
In June 2008, AFI listed Red River as the fifth-best film in the western genre.
Second unit director Arthur Rosson was given credit in the opening title crawl as co-director. He shot parts of the cattle drive and some action sequences.
During the production and while the film was still being shot, Howard Hawks was not satisfied with the editing and asked Christian Nyby to take over cutting duties, working about 1 year on the project. After production, the pre-release version was 133 minutes and included book-style transitions. Howard Hawks felt this version was too long, and that the inserts in the book were both difficult to read and awkward, slowing down the pace of the film. He had a narration written and called Walter Brennan in to record it. They removed the book-style transitions and, together with Brennan’s narration, tightened the running time and added a beneficial character intimacy to the film. Before this version could be released, Howard Hughes sued Howard Hawks, claiming that the climatic scene between Dunson and Matt was taken from the film The Outlaw (1943), which Hawks had shot for Hughes. To resolve the issue, editor Nyby and Hughes went back and forth trimming, re-cutting, and re-inserting until a compromise was reached. This final product was the original theatrical version which was released at 127 minutes. For unknown reasons, the 127-minute theatrical version, which was preferred by Howard Hawks, was lost, and it was the 133-minute pre-release version which was seen on television broadcasts and home video releases for decades. The original theatrical cut was reassembled by Janus Films (in co-operation with UA parent company MGM) for their Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD release on May 27, 2014.
The character name Cherry Valance was also later used in the novel The Outsiders.
The character name Matthew Garth was also later used in the movie Midway.
In the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich film The Last Picture Show, the final movie shown in the movie theatre is Red River, which was changed from The Kid from Texas in Larry McMurtry’s book.