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USA 1948
Directed by
Howard Hawks
133 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Red River

Red River is exhilarating film-making from one of the masters of the golden age of American cinema in his first helming of a Western.

Montgomery Clift (outstanding in his first screen role) plays the sensitive foster son who stands up to his gruff old-timer guardian (John Wayne) as they undertake one of the iconic acts of Wild West mythology - the cattle drive whilst Dmitiri Tiomkin delivers a rousing score to match Russell Harlan the majestic photography.

Although John Ford has the reputation as the most defining director of Westerns, Hawks’ film is dramatically richer than is typical with that director's work, being less dependent on the rather two-dimensional characterisations and ideological didacticism that make Ford’s film less rewarding in this respect (some of Ford’s stock players like Harry Carey Jr and Hank Worden turn up here). John Wayne rises impressively to the occasion, going beyond the paternalistic man’s man of Ford’s film to being a much less admirable albeit understandable individual as he attempts to salvage his life’s dream.

Although, as so many Westerns of this era were, Red River is based on magazine story (The Saturday Evening Post to be exact), the dramatic heart of the film, written by Borden Chase, was apparently derived from the 1935 version of Mutiny On The Bounty, which pitted Clark Gable’s young and charismatic Fletcher Christian against Charles Laughton's tyrannical Captain Bligh. The ending with its contrived, heavily expository dialogue (not to mention that John Ireland’s character, who never fulfills the role in the narrative promised by his initial appearance, is sacrificed without so much as a bat of the eye) flaws the film somewhat as does in general the introduction of Joanne Dru’s character, Tess Millay, a rather too-symmetrical re-iteration of the young woman that Wayne’s Dunson left behind at the story’s outset (his reaction to her her demise is the first of the film's unconvincing moments). Whilst Hawks’ does a terrific job of convincing us of the dusty, dirty, sweatiness of the cowboy’s life, Tess never looks less than wedding-cake perfect and her rapid fire soap-opera-ish yammerings are incongruous. Notwithstanding, Red River is one of the high-points of the era of the classic Western, fashioning a classical tragedy in the setting of the American frontier.

FYI: The full version runs 133mins so beware of a shortened version sometimes shown on TV with a Walter Brennan voice-over replacing the diary pages. The famous scene of whooping cowboys that begins the drive to Missouree is featured in Peter Bogdanovich's masterful epitaph to the mythic Wild West, The Last Picture Show (1971).

 

 

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