Thursday, April 19, 2018

Red River Turns 70

Red River is a sprawling epic western, with just enough unique and offbeat artistry to make it a true American classic. It is a highly fictionalized account of the first successful cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail; a dusty track leading from San Antonio to Abilene, KS, that became an essential route for the nation’s food supply. Here we will meet tough-as-nails Texas rancher Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his foster son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) who over the years have built a cattle herd numbering in the thousands from little more than sweat, spit and prayers. But the end of the Civil War has brought economic collapse to the southern tier of the United States, and Dunson’s only hope of solvency is an arduous 1,000 mile journey across rocky wastes to a spanking new railhead in Kansas, where his cattle can be sold and shipped to the hungry northeast. 

What distinguishes Red River from lesser westerns is its razor sharp writing - each scene of dialogue has a specific purpose and is crafted for a clear emotional effect - and the depth of its characterizations. Most notably Clift, whose soft-spoken, serene line readings stand in sharp contrast to his cold-eyed gunfighter persona. He and Wayne engage in a subtle completion not only for dominance of the cattle drive, but for the film itself. Clift and Wayne are aided by a rogue’s gallery of supporting actors as Walter Brennan, Noah Beery Jr. and John Ireland lend their famous faces to the proceedings. The film also boasts one of the most satisfying - and surprisingly feminist - endings in the history of cinema, as feisty frontier gal Tess (Joanna Dru), fed up with wanton displays of testosterone, sets the feuding parties straight with a sobering dose of good common sense.

 However, the real star of Red River is director Howard Hawks, who took this low brow, dime store tale of laconic cowpokes and elevated it to the realm of high drama, appealing to the intellect as well as the heart. Hawks was an astonishingly versatile director, proving equally adept at everything from suspenseful thrillers like Scarface (1932) and The Big Sleep (1946) to wacky romantic comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1936) and His Girl Friday (1940). Hawks’ superb ability at cinematic storytelling was held in high esteem not only in Hollywood, but also in Europe, where his genre-defying filmography was an inspiration to the young filmmakers of the French new wave. In the iconic magazine Cahiers du Cinema in 1952, director Eric Rohmer wrote “If one does not love the films of Howard Hawks, one cannot love cinema.” 

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