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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: 'Red River' is the not-great American Odyssey

by Philip Martin | July 4, 2021 at 2:04 a.m.
John Wayne and Monty Clift star in “Red River.”

Montgomery Clift looked a lot like Tom Cruise.

Before the accident, I mean, before he fell asleep at the wheel after leaving that party at Elizabeth Taylor's house and slammed his car into a telephone pole. He was in the middle of filming "Raintree County" at the time; they had to pause production for two months while he healed. His plastic surgeon was state of the art for 1956, but if you watch that film, you can definitely tell which scenes Monty shot before the crash.

That crash was the effective climax of Clift's life — what followed was a decade-long coda in which he drank and took pills to deal with the pain. His libido retreated. He looked different; he was different. Monty Clift was what William Carlos Williams would have called "a pure product of America." Like Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes and Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson, he went a little crazy.

If you're looking for an all-American movie for July 4, allow me to recommend "Red River," the Howard Hawks film from 1948 in which Clift stars opposite John Wayne. We watched it again the other night, and while it is not the great movie I remembered it being, it is one of those films with which every American should be familiar. It is part of our heritage, like "The Great Gatsby" and Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancin' In the Street." It is the sort of thing they ought to teach in civics class.

"Red River" is a made-up story about the first cattle drive from Texas to Abilene, Kan., along the Chisholm Trail in 1866, after the end of the Civil War. (There have been at least 27 movies that share this plot point; 10 years before Walter Brennan played Wayne's sidekick in "Red River," he played a similar role alongside Randolph Scott in James P. Hogan's "The Texans.")

But it's more than the story of that drive. Hawks meant for his movie to be a full-blown American epic — his answer to Homer's Odyssey or the Book of Exodus — so he begins it in 1852, with a wagon train heading west to California from St. Louis.

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In Oklahoma, Thomas Dunson (Wayne) breaks away from the wagon train, intending to start his own cattle ranch in Texas. He takes with him Nadine Groot (Brennan) a Sancho Panza figure who sometimes narrates the story. Dunson instructs his fiancee Fen (Coleen Gray) to stay with the wagon train. Once he's got his ranch up and running, he'll send for her.

Dunson and Groot cross the Red River into Texas and ride south. After dark they are attacked by American Indians. When Dunson kills one in hand-to-hand combat, he notices the man is wearing a bracelet — the same one he'd given Fen as he departed the wagon train. They assume the American Indians attacked and massacred the pioneers.

The next day, a boy of about 13 named Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), the sole survivor of the wagon train, wanders into their camp. Dunson takes him (and the cow he is leading) deeper into Texas.

When they arrive at a likely spot to build their ranch, they are visited by two emissaries from a Mexican cattle baron who tell them they may camp on the land, but that it belongs to Don Diego. Dunson kills the leader of this group and tells the other man to go back to Don Diego and tell him that he, Thomas Dunson, is claiming all of the land south of the Red River to the Rio Grande as his ranch. After all, how did Don Diego acquire the land? He took it from someone weaker, probably the American Indians.

He tells him to leave his friend's body; they will bury it and "say some words" over it.

Flash forward 15 years. There are six more crosses beside the one that marks the grave of Don Diego's original man; presumably others came to enforce the Don's claims, but Dunson proved stronger. He has his cattle ranch, a sprawling operation that employs a bunkhouse full of colorful characters. He's also got money troubles, as the price of beef has dropped precipitously, thanks to the just concluded Civil War and Yankee carpetbaggers. To save his ranch, Dunson needs to drive his cattle north to Missouri, where he might get as much as $2 per head for them.

Though a lot of critics have noted — and even praised — what they perceived as "the mindlessness" of "Red River," in truth the movie is about naked ambition and empire building. It's clearly about territorial expansion via the steamrolling of weaker claimants, and about markets and access to them.

Dunson is not above commingling his neighbor's cattle with his own herd, with branding them with his mark. When he's caught, he grudgingly allows that when he gets to market, they'll figure out how many steers he's borrowed and he'll pay a fair price for them, but he's not about to take the time to cut them out of his herd now.

Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) extracts an arrow that has pierced the shoulder of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) in this image from the movie “Red River.”
Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) extracts an arrow that has pierced the shoulder of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) in this image from the movie “Red River.”

Just in time to help out with the drive, Matt Garth (now played by Clift, in his first film role) arrives from the east, where he's been away at school. (Other cowboys have just returned from fighting for the Confederacy.) Matt has won himself a reputation as an able gunfighter, which draws the interest of local gun-for-hire Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who signs on with Dunson for the drive apparently simply to spend time with Matt.

In his narration, Groot predicts that Cherry and Matt will eventually clash; instead their relationship takes on an oddly erotic tone as they compare and swap pistols. (A famous line later found its way into "The Celluloid Closet," the landmark 1995 documentary about the gay subtext in many Hollywood films: "You know," Cherry says, as he fondles Garth's gun, "there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?")

As the drive moves along, Dunson, unwilling to sleep lest catastrophe occur, becomes more autocratic and draconian. When he threatens to hang two hands who deserted the drive, Garth steps in, leading a mutiny against Dunson. They take his weapons and abandon him with two horses and enough supplies to get back to the homestead in Texas. But Dunson vows to kill Garth — and everyone understands he plans to re-arm himself and come after them.

Meanwhile, Garth decides to alter their course. They will avoid Missouri, with its border raiders, and drive the herd to Abilene, where there are rumors of a railroad.

Aside from Ethan Edwards in John Ford's "The Searchers," Thomas Dunson might be the richest role Wayne ever had. Dunson is a self-made capitalist, an individualist who believes he has a right to whatever he can seize and hold. His cruelty on the drive is at least partially attributable to his feeling that he has to be the one to hold everything together — when he sleeps, men run off or get killed. He can't sleep, so he drinks.

He sees Garth as his adopted son, but doesn't completely trust him. The only one with license to argue with him is his jester Groot, who understands his dependence on the great man. Wayne delivers a tremendous, nuanced performance — his irritation with Clift's character feels genuine (Clift was politically and temperamentally at odds with both Wayne and Brennan to the point that he avoided his co-stars off-camera) but so does the grudging affection Dunson feels for Garth.

And watching "Red River" — filmed in 1946 and released two years later — in 2021, you might be able to see in Clift's performance, which is slightly off-key with the rest of the cast, the glint of the wedge that eventually divided the old-time Hollywood Western from the sort of naturalistic and revisionist cowboy movies we know today.

Clift doesn't appear to be acting at all. His method training results in a performance that's far more low-key than, for instance, that delivered by James Dean in "East of Eden" or "Rebel Without a Cause."

Clift's Garth is soft-spoken and almost delicate, a new kind of American idol. Clift exudes the long-lashed prettiness of Elvis Presley and the androgynous appeal of rock 'n' roll front men like Mick Jagger and Marc Bolan. Hawks — and other directors — invariably filmed him in soft focus, a technique usually reserved for leading ladies.

He seemed to inhabit a different universe from Wayne and the other cowpokes. It's an intrusion of the modern on the iconic Western. Montgomery Clift looks — and acts — like Tom Cruise.

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"Red River" is not a great film for a few reasons.

There's the unresolved conflict between Cherry and Garth, a clear violation of Chekhov's dictum that any gun placed on the wall in the first act must be fired before the play is over. I haven't read the Saturday Evening Post story "Red River" is based on, so I don't know if the sin is original, or whether it crept in later in the process.

It might have been occasioned by Hawk's jealousy of Ireland, his romantic rival for the affections of Joanne Dru, who played Tess Millay, a "dance hall girl" who Garth mistakes for a prostitute at the beginning of the film's third act. Ireland and Dru were married after production wrapped, and Hollywood lore holds that Hawks held that against Ireland.

Hawks, on the other hand, says he cut some of Ireland's scenes out of necessity because the actor was often drunk or high on marijuana while he was on set and had trouble keeping up with his hat and guns.

But the chief problem with the film is that it turns exceedingly awkward whenever it tries to depict anything to do with romance between men and women. In the opening, Dunson seems more annoyed by Fen's pleas to come with him than he ought to. Here's a woman he presumably loves, offering to share the hardships of homesteading with him, and he's brushing her off so he can get on the road with Walter Brennan.

Then, a few minutes later, when Groot realizes Fen's wagon train may be under attack, Dunson allows it wouldn't be too far to ride to help, but he does absolutely nothing about it. After he kills the American Indian wearing the bracelet he gave Fen, he takes it off the dead body and gives it to young Garth.

Garth wears the bracelet as a token of affection from his adoptive father until he encounters Tess in a bizarre scene where they flirt and wisecrack while pinned down behind a wagon by Indians.

When an arrow pierces Tess' shoulder, she smirks as Garth extracts it. Both of them are preternaturally calm, though the subtext seems to be that Garth is annoyed to have to be dealing with a silly girl (just as Dunson was dismissive of Fen). Then, after things calm down, they spend the night together, though Garth seems not to like Tess very much, and Tess seems to know it.

When Dunson catches up to Tess a few days later, she's wearing the bracelet. And, apparently in an effort to save Garth's life, she agrees to accompany Dunson back to Texas and to bear him a real son to make up for the ungrateful Garth.

But Dunson continues his pursuit, and catches up with Garth and the herd in Abilene. Determined to kill him, he strides through the town, where he's first confronted by Cherry, who shoots and wounds him. Dunson fires back, seriously wounding (maybe killing) Cherry. He storms up to Garth and fires several shots at his feet as Garth stands stoically, unwilling to shoot back. Then they engage in a fistfight (a comical mismatch, though Hollywood Garth holds his own), which breaks up when Tess rushes forward to scold them, telling them in effect to get a room because their love for each other is so evident.

"'You'd better marry that girl, Matt," a bloody and bemused Dunson says.


Obviously, this wasn't the original ending, and Hawks and Borden Chase, who wrote the original story, both hated it. In the original version, Cherry kills Dunson and Garth carries his body back to Texas. That didn't work for the studio, and Hawks at the time didn't have the power to resist.

So they shot the new ending, leaving Cherry crumpled in the dirt as they laugh it up.

John Wayne and Monty Clift at the end of “Red River.”
John Wayne and Monty Clift at the end of “Red River.”

British director Joe Wright once told me that to make a film for American audiences, a European director had to "add about 10% more sugar, just like they do with champagne." They don't do that with champagne, but the point's a fair one.

"Red River" is a uniquely American Western that almost subconsciously rolls together themes of manifest destiny, the imperatives of market capitalism, might-makes-rightism and curious and fraught sexual and racial politics.

There are no Black actors in the cast, and the only American Indian who isn't a marauding ambusher is Groot's assistant cook Quo (Chief Yowlachie, a Puyallup American Indian whose real name was Daniel Simmons and who started his career as an opera singer), who is used as comic relief.

Surely everyone on set understood the subtext of the Garth-Cherry dynamic. Surely the artists and artisans recognized the inherent corniness of Tess' character — a professional entertainer from New Orleans who falls in love with the first cute cowboy who pulls an arrow from her shoulder — and the abrupt and silly nature of the ending, which plunges us back into comedy.

It's not unlike the unsettling tonal shifts of AMC's new sitcom deconstruction "Kevin Can F--k Himself." Only "Kevin" is artfully and deliberately using those shifts to discomfit the audience and raise questions about the kinds of assumptions implicit in the causally misogynistic and jingoistic shows that remain a staple of our popular culture.

Here, the effect is the opposite — the ending of "Red River" means to negate every serious thing that's gone before.

It's not a great movie — just a very American one.

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