February 01, 2014

Red River

400th review

It's somewhat mystifying to me that so many people have found something to love in Howard Hawks's Red River (1948), a Western about power and immortality and cattle. It's not a terrible movie, but it's also not a particularly captivating one either. John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a rancher who has the land and the cattle, but not the money. After ten years of slaving away in the Texas desert, he decides to move his 9000-head herd 1000 miles to Missouri, where there's a purported cattle market waiting to be sated. He takes his adoptive son Matt (Montgomery Clift) and a team of men that includes the reliably and amusingly grumbling, bitchy Walter Brennan and the suspicious-looking John Ireland along with him.

It's entirely too repetitive, full of scenes of the cattle that apparently cost a bundle (and led to the budget's astronomical increase). However, the performances are good, and somewhat bolster what I would call a lackluster Western. John Wayne is extremely interesting when he's conflicted, and he's extremely conflicted in Red River, especially when he becomes blinded by his power and suspicious of his progeny, the always interesting Montgomery Clift, who then takes over as the group's new leader. Clift always seems to have more going on in his head than is available to us on the screen, which is perhaps what makes him such a fascinating if sometimes aloof performer to watch. And it's never a completely lost cause when you get to see Monty Clift bitch-slap somebody.

There's also a surprising amount of sexually suggestive dialogue. The film's gay subtext has been discussed in detail ad nauseum, and it's certainly not for nothing that people reference this film when they talk about how Hollywood screenwriters and filmmakers cleverly got around the stuffy conservatism of the Production Code. But when it comes to Howard Hawks movies, I'm still in love with The Big Sleep, and when it comes to Hawks westerns, Rio Bravo. Red River seems overrated. It lumbers along for over an hour with little to hold one's interest (except for a well-staged and exciting scene involving an Indian attack and another involving the aforementioned stampede). But watching cows march from Point A to Point B for over two hours gets dull after a while, and the problems between the men are only partly arresting.

With Joanne Dru (an admittedly arresting Howard Hawks heroine if ever there was one), Harry Carey, Hank Worden, and Paul Fix.

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