Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Chief
Yowlatchie, Joanne Dru
Director: Howard Hawks
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2014
“Who knew the big son of a bitch could act?” – John Ford, upon seeing John Wayne’s performance in Red River
Howard Hawks was a director who tackled many genres in his career (and very well too, I might add), but had never done a Western before Red River. In many ways, he was following in the footsteps of the great John Ford, and even using Ford’s regular leading man, John Wayne.
Yet the results were tremendous; a film that stands alone as one of the greatest Western films ever produced. It showed John Wayne was more than a reliable earthy leading man. It became the go-to film shown in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, and even imitated by name in City Slickers, when the cast offer their “yee HAH”s in tribute to that classic scene.
It tells the story of the first cattle drive up the Chisholm trail from Texas, but it begins with a man on a different drive. Thomas Dunson (Wayne) has traveled with another cattle drive, but has decided to break off on his own with nothing more than a single cow and his trusty sideman Groot (Brennan). There is a woman in the drive he loves, but he refuses to take her, promising to send for her when he gets established. Not long after, the pair see the smoke from the cattle drive’s wagon train; Indians have ambushed and slaughtered them all, including Dunson’s lady. If he mourns her, he doesn’t show it.
One lone survivor from the drive arrives with his cow: a kid named Matt Garth. He is feisty but self-assured. Dunson likes him and takes him on.
Flash forward by about 14 years: Dunson is a huge success, with thousands of heads of cattle. The now-grown Matt (Clift) is still with him, as is Groot, but all is not well. In Texas, just after the Civil War, beef is cheap, and Dunson faces bankruptcy, unless he can get his cattle to a place where the demand is higher. He picks Missouri, hires some men for the lengthy, dangerous drive across harsh terrain and into storm country, and sets out.
The film chronicles the epic journey, and how the weeks of hard living and unforgiving land (and even more unforgiving Dunson) takes a toll. Some men who signed on want to leave, but Dunson has a strong-handed way of ensuring that each man honors his contract. There is a lot of open tension, but the one that is most quietly developing is between Dunson and Matt; especially when the team gets word of an easier and just-as-profitable destination in Abilene, Kansas, which Dunson wants no part of.
I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a final confrontation between Dunson and Matt that leaves Dunson alone and angry and Matt looking over his shoulder for the rest of the drive. It’s great dramatic storytelling set against a great dramatic background, and featuring two actors, one old school (Wayne), and one a practitioner of the developing method style (Clift) who work wonders on screen. Clift was an amazing screen talent, who, like James Dean a decade later, would be gone far too soon, but leaving behind as solid a body of work as any actor with a short filmography could do.
The movie’s only weak point comes when Matt and team come across a wagon party under siege and tries to help out. There, Matt finds a woman, Tess (Dru) and, deep into the movie, an awkward love story tries to arise…almost as if the storytellers felt there HAD to be one, and they tried to work it in the most unintrusive way possible. There is long, tiresome dialogue between Tess and Matt, then Tess and Dunson, and in the end, when all the story’s drama builds to the point we have been waiting for, it is Tess who diffuses it in a weak an unsatisfying way, before Wayne and Clift find the right footing one last time.
Tess is an unneeded distraction in an otherwise engaging and powerfully entertaining Western, but thankfully, such a small part that I still don’t blanche at giving this picture the four stars it richly deserves. It’s no wonder this movie is considered an all-time classic.
Criterion never disappoints, and this beautiful black and white transfer is officially the best this movie has looked since its original release. The images are clean and lovingly rendered, with first rate contrast. Only a few stretches, particularly in very dark scenes, show any kind of print wear…but for a film that’s a good 65 years old, that’s no complaint.
The mono soundtrack is lively and clean, with a solid musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin (although at one point, there is a song with words I couldn’t quite make out). There is even touches of dynamic range in the stronger scenes, such as a storm or stampede. Nicely done!
Perhaps the best extra here is the inclusion of the longer pre-release cut of the film. The shorter theatrical version is actually Howard Hawks’ preferred version, but now you can see both. For the most part, the pre-release version is distinguished by printed word interstitials, which were replaced by Walter Brennan’s voiceovers in the final cut, and a longer ending, which had to be trimmed because none other than the infamous Howard Hughes threatened to sue over the climax’s resemblance to his film, The Outlaw!
There is a 17 minute introduction by filmmaker and Hawks fan and friend Peter Bogdanovich, who discusses the picture and its two versions. There is a new interview with film critic Molly Haskell, and one with western scholar Lee Clark Mitchell.
For audio extras, you get excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich, as well as a 1970 audio with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. As a physical supplement, the set includes the original out-of-print novel by Chase that served as the basis for his screenplay!
There is also a trailer and a solid booklet of essays and photos…a superb package!
Red River showed the emergence of John Wayne as an actor and introduced the world to the talents of Montgomery Clift (who left us way too soon), and stands as an all-time American classic. This amazing 2 Blu-ray, 2 DVD set from Criterion is a movie lover’s dream come true. This is one of the year’s best releases…highly recommended.