No Stranger Ever Good Newsed Me: Red River (1948)

It really little surprise that Howard Hawks would find himself doing double time in my month of westerns, considering that both the previously viewed Rio Bravo, as well as the wonderfully classicist Red River stand as the giants within the genre.  As one of the employees at my local record stores suggest, Hawks had a certain ability to pick a genre and hit whatever he made within its confines out of the park, think not only of the westerns in question now, but his screwball comedies, most notably His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, not to mention exceptional films in other genres as well.  As equally critically acclaimed as Rio Bravo, if not slightly more underrated, Red River is a chiaroscuro picturesque focus on the cattle herding element of western expansion, a narrative which in any other director but Hawks' hands would prove unbearably slow paced and lacking in the action necessary for the western.  However, as established with the previous discussion of Rio Bravo, Hawks is not a director whose primary aims are those of action, he is a narrative oriented filmmaker, yet, given his cast and the emotional investment of each line of dialogue the film, nonetheless, becomes very vibrant and fast-paced, making the even more intense scenes of shootouts and stampedes seem otherworldly in their excited pacing.  Also this is an unusual western from my frame of reference because it involves the presence of something unexpected, John Wayne playing the antagonist, a surprise doubled by the narratives beginning which would suggest him to be the good guy.  Of course, John Wayne is not the out and out bad guy, although he does engage in some dastardly actions throughout the film, he is simply a figurative obstacle for the coming of age of Montgomery Clift's character and sets in as an intriguing consideration of what exactly comes of those whose unbridled drive for success inevitably result in their tragic downfall.  Red River is a film whose plot is so straight-foward as to almost seem arbitrary, but within the mask of simplicity, Hawks provides viewers with a consideration of how self-identity is formed on an epic scale.

Red River begins with Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) informing his pioneering group that he is seeking his own course of action detached from their trek, much to the dismay of the pioneering leader, as well as his lover whom he casts away concerning himself for her safety.  This highly melodramatic scene is incredibly brief and the narrative then transfers to Thomas and his ranch partner Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) searching about the land with the intent of finding an appropriate place to create a cattle ranch only to run into a rather aggresive young man who attempts to hold Thomas up with no success.  The young man Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) proves to be wide-eyed and lost a fact that leads Thomas to take him under his wing and teach him the ways of cattle driving, with the hopes of finding an assistant and future owner for his establishment.  The narrative then progresses again a couple of years to find Thomas having trouble maintaining a profit with his cattle leading to a belief that he will have to take the herd over a long distance to sell them and make a nice profit.  This trek while dangerous receives the support of Matt  and Nadine and eventually even gets the help of a whole crew most notably Cherry Valance (John Ireland) a man almost of equal age to Matt and the two create a mutual admiration.  Thomas before the trip makes it rather clear that the trip will be intense and warns against anyone coming who might want to quit.  Once on the trip this statement proves quite valid as weather, stampedes and the psychological state of the crew prove too much to bare, leading Thomas, heavily relying on a bottle of whisky, to come down hard on any perpetrator, whether it be for minor theft or desertion.  Eventually, Thomas and his actions prove too much for Matt and he stands up to the aging man taking it upon himself to drive the cattle to a new location.  This endeavor is successful for Matt, after a minor run in with a group of attacking natives, yet Thomas, folows close on his trail, considering that a few scenes earlier he vowed to kill Matt upon finding him again.  Despite the outright success of the transactions, Matt is fully aware that he must face Thomas in the street, or else fear his constant presence for the remainder of his life.  When the two meet in the streets it turns from incredibly violent to familiar jousting to humor in a matter of moments.  Thomas, realizing that Matt has grown to be successful retracts his death threats and instead offers to share their future cattle brand and identity.

While I could pull from trope upon trop with this film, I want to talk about something that has been discussed on this blog in detail before that, of course, being the idea of the homosocial bond.  This is the intensely intimate relationship shared between men in a believe that their identities as brothers through situation is highly valued.  This is often depicted in war and sports films and certainly has a heavy presence in westerns as well.  The interesting thing with its manifestation within the context of Red River is that it quickly crosses from the purely homosocial to the distinctively homosexual.  I know it is a trick to read into films with such an anachronistic framework, but as the late Alexander Doty would argue, when it comes to repressed narratives such appropriation is necessary and when it is offered it should not be ignored.  Red River very much has a set of homosexually fueled relationships whether it be the tense relationship between Thomas and Matt which is both paternal and one of longing, they fail to kill one another because they are "too soft," yet it is also highly likely that their intense feelings of passion block them from doing so.  Yet the relationship that is really worth noting is the one between Cherry and Matt which is highly lustful from its onset, during their initial encounter the two size one another up, and each shares in a gaze of the other that is decidedly drawn out, an act that is quickly followed by the two exchanging guns and showing off their skills as marksmen...by this point the tension is palpable, although never fully enacted upon.  If this is not enough to justify the reading one can consider the scenes around the campfire when women are discussed by either man, the other often looks at them in a disgusted manner, hoping it to be a joke as to no betray their shared longing, in fact, in a bit of clever dialogue, Hawks often has these discussions cut off, not as a means to suggest the characters silence, but, instead; to say that talks that betray the homosocial, and, in this case, homosexual longing are not welcome.  Tragedy strikes in the films closing, however, when Cherry dies at the hands of Thomas, allowing for a female character to fully invade the narrative and reject both forms of bonding in the name of a more heteronormative framework.

Key Scene:  The post stampede scene will prove to be one of the most haunting images of the entire month and will stand magnificently next to those from Jarmusch's Dead Man.

This is a film that is leaps above its contemporaries and stands high in the genre as a whole.  Unfortunately, there is no bluray available at the moment so I would suggest renting it until one becomes available.


  1. One of my favorite westerns.
    Good review. :)

  2. Thanks, after viewing it I am convinced it is one of my favorites, if not my new favorite western. There is something about the pairing of Wayne and Clift that transcends the genre and Hawks makes it occur so seamlessly.