Magnificent From Start To End: Howard Hawks’ Red River

Howard Hawks, a renown figure in the golden years of Hollywood cinema, has secured firmly in my mind as a comedic directors, due to the fact that the three films that I have yet to encounter from him were the rapid-fire His Girl Friday (1940), the alluringly spectacular Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953), and the absurdly wacky Monkey Business (1952); each one labelled with a comedic brand that never defines itself as repetitive in execution, despite many claiming a distinct aura of a Hawks-ian comedy. It wasn’t my intention to turn away the more serious pieces of his filmography, instead these were the films that caught my eye during the time they were seen, viewed upon at the right moment and at the right time.


The same could be claimed for Red River, my first venture into the more dramatic sensibilities of the filmmaker, along with my first instance into his utilisation of the Western landscape and the now legendary John Wayne. It can be firmly stated that expectations were quite raised when entering upon Red River, motivated by the wisdom or hype accumulated previously towards Hawks and Wayne. Fortunately, these were expectations that were met on unshakable ground, Red River is currently the most invigorating that I have stumbled upon of Hawks’ works, brimming with engaging character development and spectacular adventure, Red River is a crowd pleaser that is honest to its marketed acclaim.

It opens in establishment of the harsh landscape of the Old West, a rough Texas backdrop that fills itself with murderous Native Indians and greedy Mexicans, the latter claiming much of the land in Southern Texas along the Rio Grande to be claimed by a notorious boss. A 20-25 minute introduction that simply exist to institute a sense of danger in the minds of the audience once its true plot reveals and advances itself. John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson is the depicted hero through this introduction, a man who seeks to find a beginning for his dreams, to plant and expand upon a cattle business that would ensure security and stability, to no longer be a searching wanderer in the desert, constantly leaning against hope. In this journey towards south, his prideful refusal of allowing his lover to accompany him due to the potential dangers that would surely arrive ahead has led her to her unfortunate death, raided by the savaging Indians. The arrival of a young boy, Matt Garth, marks as the only survivor of the raided group, along with him, a lone cattle, during which they become invited in Dunson’s travels.


It was during this introduction that the flingers upon aspects of racism and ownership that would emphasise the struggling and competitive American landscape, a constant battle over the rights of land, handled in such a manner that is humanely brutal, a precious commodity that has long been stripped by the Indians over the years. Quite possibly, such a factor induces the raging methods of the native tribes towards the travelling white men and women, but Hawks refuses to enter into social or political commentary that would justify their existence, thus leaving them viewed upon as heartless silhouettes that appears to restrain or strip the hard-working men and women from the American Dream. Such an attribute has not allowed Red River to age as efficiently, but if one is able to isolate such a quality during a viewing, then Red River would be easily hailed upon as a magnificent classic.

Red River’s plot begins to take shape 14 years later, where we now see a more aged Dunson and a matured Garth (Montgomery Clift) standing upon a once empty land, now filled as the eye could see, cattle packed together, ready to be sold. Unfortunately, the market for cattle in Texas is poor, thus requiring Dunson and his company to embark on a trip towards Missouri, where such a place would ensure a great sale. It is through this journey that we begin to see the heroic and ambitious facade of Dunson take on a much darker turn, a sense of pride that swallows him as the road ahead becomes further difficult, the men he once trusted began to turn on him, little by little losing that sense of empathy that once was prominent earlier. It becomes a road of self-destruction that finally caught up to him as Garth and the rest of the company decided to take on the more comfortable pathway towards Abilene, Kansas; during which Dunson becomes left behind solely, filling himself with a need for vengeance for Garth’s treacherous act.


Garth has remained loyal to him over the many years, trained under Dunson’s wing and have over the years, built a strong reputation as a swift and efficient shooter. Under Dunson’s eyes, Garth was like a son, trusted him with many of the company’s responsibilities, but since their meeting Dunson has refused to include Garth’s title within the company logo, stating that such a reward should be earned. One can feel the sense of frustration that Garth has accumulated over the years, still since their meeting, he has yet to earn it, wanting only his acceptance and sense of value, an aspect within him that is emphasised during their journey to Missouri. In Garth’s decision to seperate himself from Dunson, for the good of the herd and company, his appointed position of a leader begins to reveal the similarities in his persona, a prideful aura that would similarly reject a woman’s heart when thrusted upon him, and finds himself slowly obsessing over his ambitious objectives; unfortunately, his own sense of pride prevents him from realising his own condition, and due to the trailing nature of the angered Dunson, his need to confront him would surely lead him to his own downfall.

Hawks fill the storyline with foreseeable pitstops that never for a moment ceases to be entertaining, there is constantly something present to promote, whether it may be the penetrative characters themselves, the bubbling drama within the company, or the spectacular set pieces that ignite naturally, Hawks constantly finds me hooked. Red River finds that striking balance that manages to let itself be an adventurous ride and a contemplative character piece, with normally one or the other taking over by the time it reaches its end. It treads along the familiar structure of a Western picture, without reaching towards dull repetitiveness or dispassionate construction. Red River maintains that wonderful energy through the excellent score provided by Dimitri Tiomkin, particularly during segments of riding and life-clinching sequences.


If there was a performance that dominated throughout the run-time, it would of course be John Wayne, due to his compelling character arc and his shaded performance, but it was the presence of the youthful Montgomery Clift that pulsated the film with an empathetic quality that grapples our interest and sink our empathies with, it is through him that we hope a hero would emerge, and by the end, the film surprisingly takes him to a synonymously parallel direction that further adds to the texture of Red River. Sure it ends on a note that stimulates too suddenly, a turn in essence of it’s leading characters that could easily be labelled as swiftly artificial rather than patiently justified, but its message resonates and in the end, that matters much more.


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