No matter what genre he worked in, Howard Hawks played by his own rules, and never was this more evident than in his first western, the rowdy and whip-smart Red River. In it, John Wayne found one of his greatest roles as an embittered, tyrannical Texas rancher whose tensions with his independent-minded adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift in a breakout performance, reach epic proportions during a cattle drive to Missouri, which is based on a real-life late nineteenth-century expedition. Yet Hawks is less interested in historical accuracy than in tweaking the codes of masculinity that propel the myths of the American West. The unerringly macho Wayne and the neurotic, boyish Clift make for an improbably perfect pair, held aloft by a quick-witted, multilayered screenplay and Hawks's formidable direction.
The name John Ford is synonymous with Hollywood westerns, and he directed almost all of the genre greats - 'Stagecoach,' 'My Darling Clementine,' 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,' 'The Searchers.' Yet another acclaimed director, Howard Hawks, managed to bust up the Ford monopoly with a different kind of western, one that was more modern in tone, more emotionally complex, and more influential than anyone realized at the time. Instead of pitting a hero against a villain or cowboys against Indians, this revolutionary film - which rivals any movie in Ford's formidable canon - focuses on relationships and the complex psyche and moral codes that drive men to attempt the impossible and persevere against prohibitive odds. Its name is 'Red River,' and though its subject matter - a 1,000-mile cattle drive across unforgiving terrain - might seem mundane, the construction and execution are so exquisite, the movie became an instant classic upon its release in 1948. And 66 years later, it still delivers the goods.
Based on a serialized novel by Borden Chase (a softbound copy of which is included in this Criterion edition), 'Red River' spans a 15-year period, from 1851 to 1865, and chronicles the efforts of ruthless frontiersman Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) to stake a claim, build a successful cattle ranch, and go out on a limb to avoid financial ruin when the beef market dries up at the end of the Civil War. Dunson fears his business will founder unless he accomplishes what many believe to be an impossible feat - driving his massive herd along the treacherous Chisholm Trail from Texas to Missouri, where he hopes to receive top dollar for every head of cattle that survives the arduous journey. Along the way, however, the dictatorial Dunson angers and alienates many of his loyal workers, disappoints his best friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), and butts heads with his sensitive foster son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), who worries his narrow-minded, often sadistic father is leading them into the clutches of a band of blood-thirsty Missouri outlaws. Matthew believes a detour to Abilene, Kansas - where rumor has it the railroad now stops - would be a safer route and yield more lucrative rewards, but his plan falls on deaf ears and incites a monumental rift between the two men that leads to a vicious vendetta and epic showdown.
That showdown carries tremendous weight because Dunson and Garth, as embodied by Wayne and Clift, are polar opposites, despite the fact that Dunson raised Garth and instilled in him his rigid values and conservative ideals. Much to Dunson's chagrin, Matthew has progressed beyond his father's outmoded personal code, and his compassion, rationality, and willingness to nurture, forgive, and cooperate are anathema to the stubborn and arrogant cattle baron. Unlike Tom, the skinny, brooding Matthew is willing to listen to reason and act for the greater good. He's also unafraid to show emotion and weakness, while the towering, beefy, and blustery Tom can't bear to be challenged or crossed, and would rather go the gallows than admit he's wrong or adjust his archaic way of thinking.
The tension that exists between the two men also existed between Wayne and Clift on the set, adding to the picture's realism. (During the early days of shooting, Wayne reportedly called the stage-trained, incredibly gifted Clift "an arrogant little bastard.") Introverted, methodical, and sensitive to a fault, Clift - also one of the most devastingly handsome stars ever to grace the screen - was the antithesis of the macho ideal of Wayne and his rough-and-tumble cronies. And though the two shared a mutual - if grudging - respect, they never became friends. Clift had to be taught to how to ride a horse, draw a gun, and adopt the distinctive lazy gait of a cowboy, and there was great concern his climactic fight with Wayne would be laughable due to their discrepancies in size and physical prowess. Yet Clift's innate intensity and smoldering sense of virtue and justice make him a formidable David to Wayne's cocky, contemptible Goliath.
'Red River' was Clift's first film (though a protracted legal battle with billionaire producer Howard Hughes over the movie's ending, which Hughes claimed too closely resembled that of 'The Outlaw,' delayed the picture's release, enabling another Clift film, 'The Search,' to open before 'Red River') and he made an indelible impression, coining the naturalistic, raw, often tortured acting style that his fellow "rebels" Marlon Brando and James Dean would also soon adopt. Clift's performance may be understated, but he's fascinating to watch, and his palpable magnetism instantly propels him into the limelight. He doesn't steal scenes from Wayne - Duke won't let him - but his undeniable presence makes him an integral part of each scene in which he appears, whether he's doing anything or not. Though, like Dean, the troubled Clift would later become a tragic figure of Hollywood lore, here he epitomizes talent, glamour, and limitless promise.
While Clift changed the face of screen acting in 'Red River,' Wayne changed the face of the western "hero." Though we admire Dunson's strength and courage, and often feel sympathy for him, ruing his lost love, desperate plight, and loosening grip on all he holds dear, he's far from a likable guy. In fact, he's pretty despicable much of the time, and considerable credit goes to Wayne, who harbored deep reservations about accepting the role for fear it might tarnish his image, for so completely embracing his largely unsavory character. (Director John Ford, who had worked with Wayne several times previously, was so impressed with his performance, he reportedly quipped after seeing the film, "I didn't know the son of a bitch could act!") Playing a man years older than himself, Wayne adopts a weary, blunt, impatient demeanor that's highly effective, and as the movie progresses, he settles into the part, crafting an utterly believable portrayal that stands as one of his finest.
Though much of the story, which shamelessly apes 'Mutiny on the Bounty,' is cerebral in nature, focusing on such themes as coming of age, honor and commitment, male bonding, and the evolution of masculinity, there's still plenty of action to stoke the senses. A stirring stampede sequence, Indian attack, the climactic fight between Dunson and Garth, and - most impressive of all - the leading of the cattle across the eponymous river elevate the tale and nicely balance the mental fireworks. In a dazzling move, Hawks put cameras inside the wagon train, so we get a first-hand look at the drivers traversing the treacherous currents while manipulating masses of cattle. The realism is spectacular, and the extensive location shooting and superior cinematography help the film maintain an authentic tone throughout.
'Red River' is also notable for its frank treatment of sexuality (the script had to be toned down after the censors flagged several suggestive and overt lines of dialogue), and for the undercurrent of homoeroticism that permeates the story. The snappy love scene dialogue between Clift and Joanne Dru mirrors a memorable exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Hawks' earlier 'To Have and Have Not,' while an interchange between Matthew and macho herder Cherry Valance (John Ireland), in which the two admire each other's "guns" ("Can I see it?" Cherry asks. "Maybe you'd like to see mine.") and engage in a friendly sharpshooting contest crackles with sexual tension. Their conflicted relationship - both vie for Dru's attentions - was supposed to be developed further, but Hawks had a falling out with Ireland (most likely because Dru, who was having an affair with Hawks, left the director for the young actor during production) and in a fit of pique cut out a huge chunk of his work.
The film's ending differs significantly from that of the book, which did not please author Borden Chase, and many feel it keeps 'Red River' from achieving masterpiece status. The showdown between Dunson and Garth doesn't live up to its hype, and the denouement, often criticized for its lighthearted tone, seems like a hastily devised cop out. Yet part of Hawks' genius was his ability to merge comedy with drama, and though this particular marriage feels a bit awkward and strained, other instances throughout the film are spot on. One of the few directors in Hollywood history to totally defy classification, Hawks hopscotched from genre to genre with incredible ease, helming screwball comedies ('Bringing Up Baby,' 'His Girl Friday'), gangster pictures ('Scarface'), war movies ('Sergeant York'), film noirs ('The Big Sleep'), musicals ('Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'), and sci-fi flicks ('The Thing From Another World'). At least half of his films are considered bona fide classics, and the fact that the iconic 'Red River' was the director's first western only heightens appreciation for his vision, flexibility, and craftsmanship.
Two versions of 'Red River' are included in this edition - the theatrical release cut, which runs 127 minutes, and a pre-release version that runs 133 minutes. The major differences between the two cuts concern transition methods (the theatrical version employs voiceover narration by Walter Brennan, while the pre-release cut uses text-based excerpts from the novel) and the editing of the film's ending (the theatrical version truncates the final scene). Though Hawks preferred the theatrical cut, I feel the pre-release version exudes a more poetic feel and provides more nuances of character. The slightly longer ending in the pre-release cut is also much stronger, enhancing suspense and proving less isn't necessarily more.
'Red River' is not only an immensely entertaining and substantive film, it's also a landmark western that expands the genre's canvas by introducing complex characters and themes, and placing them on the same plane as action and adventure. It contains performances by John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan that rank among the best of their respective careers, and further cements the lofty reputation of its esteemed and immensely talented director, Howard Hawks. I'm not a huge westerns fan, but there's so much going on in 'Red River' that doesn't have anything to do with cattle, cowboys, and wagon trains, I could watch it over and over again, and always discover something new. Transcending genre is often the mark of a great film, and 'Red River,' with its colorful characters and intense conflicts, does just that. Eat your heart out, John Ford.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Red River' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a hefty, rustic-looking box that holds both a fold-out disc case and a softcover version of 'Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,' the long out-of-print novel upon which 'Red River' was based. Inside the disc case lies two DVDs and two Blu-rays, one of which contains the film's theatrical cut, and the other of which houses the slighter longer pre-release version of the movie. Half of the extras reside on one disc, and the other half can be accessed on the second disc. There's also a 32-page booklet that features a cast and credits list, an analytical essay by Geoffrey O'Brien, an interview with 'Red River' editior Christian Nyby, and notes on the video and audio transfers. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the discs are instered into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
With its extensive location shooting in the barren, dusty, and often rain-soaked desert of eastern Arizona, 'Red River' adopts a variety of visual styles and textures throughout its two-hour-plus running time, but the superior 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Criterion gloriously captures the ruggedness, desolation, and raw beauty of the landscapes and the principal characters' distinctive appearances. The black-and-white cinematography of Russell Harlan, a western veteran who would also photograph Hawks' 'Rio Bravo,' as well as 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' is stunningly rendered, with massive vistas and cloudscapes exhibiting marvelous levels of detail and presence. Lush yet appropriately harsh, thanks to wide gray scale variance, this film is often a joy to behold, immersing us in the grit, grime, and unspoiled grandeur of the iconic American West.
Grain and contrast levels vary according to the amount of natural light on screen, but never does the image seem anything less than authentic, always possessing a wonderful film-like appearance. Foreground elements like driving rain, wafting smoke, and hazy mist are all well defined, and background items are sharp, too. During nocturnal sequences, blacks are rich and inky, yet crush is never an issue, and striking shadow delineation adds depth to the frame. Whites are crisp, allowing the billowy and wispy cloud formations to jump from the screen, while patterns resist shimmering and the rough textures of fabrics, such as leather and wool, come across well. Close-ups make a palpable impact, highlighting the grizzled beards, oily sweat, and blistered skin of the cowboys, as well as Clift's breathtakingly handsome face, the unspoiled loveliness of Joanne Dru and Colleen Gray, and the craggy visage of Walter Brennan.
Both versions of the film look great on Blu-ray, but the pre-release version, which hasn't been subjected to as much wear and tear over the years due to its relative anonymity, appears more consistent. Though almost all specks and marks have been removed from both prints, an occasional faint vertical line still remains, but it's never noticeable enough to detract from the viewing experience. According to the Criterion liner notes, film elements for the theatrical release version were more difficult to locate, and the pre-release cut - struck from a 35mm duplicate negative and mastered in 2k resolution - was used for much of that transfer. After much searching, a French 35mm composite print was located to fill in the gaps where the theatrical version differed from its pre-release cousin. Further details and anomalies are explained in the booklet that's included in this set, but, as usual, Criterion has done a fantastic job producing the best possible high-definition picture from available source material. Anyone who loves westerns will flip over this wonderful presentation, and fans of Wayne and Clift will be equally enthusiastic.
The surprisingly nuanced and detailed LPCM mono track makes the atmosphere of 'Red River' come alive. Perfectly balanced, the mono mix produces clear, crisp audio that plants us firmly in the thick of the action. Horse hooves, the rattling of cowboy gear, the rustling of clothes, the squeaky wheels and awkward clunking of the covered wagons are all marvelously distinct, and ambient effects like chirping crickets and singing birds nicely augment various scenes. The rousing music score by Dimitri Tiomkin is full bodied and robust, thanks to superior fidelity, yet it never overwhelms the drama or interferes with dialogue, which is always well prioritized and easy to comprehend. Best of all, any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been erased, leaving a very smooth, lively presentation that perfectly complements the film.
According to the Criterion liner notes, the same issues that afflicted the video transfer of the theatrical version also afflicted the audio transfer. The pre-release cut was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack, and the theatrical version, for the most part, employs the same track. An alternate 35mm optical track was used for the discrepancies between the two versions, such as additional scoring and the narration of Walter Brennan, which replaces the on-screen text used in the pre-release edition.
Whichever version you watch, the sound reproduction is excellent, and Criterion deserves kudos for making a 66-year-old movie so aurally vibrant and immediate.
As per usual, Criterion packs the disc with a wide array of absorbing supplements that really get under the film's skin. All the material is duplicated on the standard-def DVDs, so viewers can enjoy the complete 'Red River' experience on both formats.
Featurette: "A Film of Firsts: Peter Bogdanovich on 'Red River'" (HD, 17 minutes) - In this 2014 interview, the noted director and critic discusses the two versions of 'Red River,' and how Hawks liked elements of each (though he ultimately preferred the theatrical cut). He talks about the lawsuit by rival Howard Hughes that caused Hawks to alter the picture's ending; the prevalent "man in danger" theme that Hawks tends to favor in his films; the realistic nature of the cattle drive sequences; the contrast between Wayne and Clift; and how Wayne worried his character's gruff nature might alienate his fans. Bogdanovich also analyzes Hawks "unadorned" and understated style, and relates the director's views on action and editing in this fascinating and informative piece.
Audio Interview: Hawks and Bogdanovich (16 minutes) - It's always a treat to hear a director reflect on his work, and in this 1972 conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks discusses many aspects of 'Red River,' which he terms the most difficult picture he ever made. In an affable yet reserved manner, Hawks recalls the tough conditions on location in the Tucson, Arizona area, script revisions, how he taught Montgomery Clift how to ride a horse, how the crew beefed up the dry Arizona riverbeds, and how John Ireland often had "too much tequila and marijuana" during shooting. In addition, he reveals Margaret Sheridan was originally cast in Joanne Dru's role, but had to bow out at the last minute due to an unexpected pregnancy. Hawks also expresses regret over filming 'Red River' in black-and-white, and briefly touches upon the alternate version of the movie. Though not particularly lengthy, this marvelous, relaxed, and insightful chat is required listening for fans of this great director.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - A nicely restored preview rounds out the Disc One supplements.
Featurette: "Tensions and Traditions: Molly Haskell on 'Red River'" (HD, 16 minutes) - The legendary film critic and Hawks champion talks at length about the director's style, viewpoints, and social and sexual attitudes in this captivating and intelligent interview. She says Hawks' westerns stand apart from the mainstream - and seem more modern - because they focus more on relationships and the complex human psyche than similar works by other acclaimed directors, and that 'Red River' is "wider and deeper than most of Hawks' other films." Haskell calls Hawks an "existentialist director," and examines how he challenges sexual stereotypes. She looks at both the "Hawksian woman" and her aggressive, competitive nature as well as the subtle homoeroticism that permeates the movie. She also analyzes the film's unique ending, and expresses her personal regard for this American classic.
Featurette: "Modes of Masculinity: The Western and 'Red River'" (HD, 13 minutes) - In this probing piece, author and scholar Lee Clark Mitchell looks at the basic elements and themes of westerns, and how they depict relationships among men. Mitchell chronicles the evolution of western literature, provides a mini-bio of author Borden Chase, and looks at the cultural code of the western, especially as it pertains to masculinity and its various shadings. Thoughtful and perceptive, this interview provides additional perspective on a richly textured film.
Audio Interview: Borden Chase (10 minutes) - The author of the 'Red River' screenplay - and the novel upon which the film is based - discusses his inspiration for the story and his feelings about Hawks and the movie in general in this 1969 interview. Borden is a bit difficult to understand, but his criticism of Hawks is pointed and blunt. Borden didn't approve of how Hawks changed the film's ending, and didn't like how he injected comedy into the proceedings. Borden also relates an incident with Howard Hughes in this interesting curio.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (59 minutes) - On March 7, 1949, John Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan all reprised their roles for a truncated radio adaptation of 'Red River' for the popular Lux Radio Theatre series. Though most of the western atmosphere is lost without the visuals, this broadcast captures the story's essence despite considerable condensing. It's a shame Montgomery Clift wasn't part of this production; his talent is sorely missed.
Arguably America's most iconic western - that wasn't directed by John Ford - 'Red River' is far more than a good guys versus bad guys morality tale punctuated by Indian attacks and gunfights. Director Howard Hawks' first foray into the genre is a sweeping tale built on strong characters and potent themes that examines our physical and social culture with keen perception and a timeless grace. Rarely has John Wayne acted with more conviction, and the debut performance of Montgomery Clift dazzles in its subtlety and understatement. Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is top notch, featuring fine video and audio transfers, and an excellent array of substantive supplements that includes the original Borden Chase novel and a handsome 32-page booklet. Westerns may not be everyone's favorite genre, but the finely drawn characters and absorbing conflict of 'Red River' widens its appeal, and Hawks' expert direction makes this film well worth revisiting more than 65 years after its initial release. Fans of Wayne, Clift, and Hawks shouldn't hesitate to add this superior release to their collection. And for everyone else, 'Red River' comes highly recommended.