"I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!"
- John Ford on John Wayne
Howard Hawks' Red River - a psychological Western with a distinctly Oedipal twist - is often talked about as an early example of the Classic Hollywood school of acting encountering the young upstarts of the Method, with John Wayne's on-the-horse/off-the-horse style squaring up to Monty Clift's soulful sensitivity drawn from personal experience.
That's certainly one interesting aspect of the film - Clift providing quite a contrast to the practiced genre playing of Wayne and Walter Brennan - but it's less often remarked quite what a phenomenal undertaking the production was. As with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), the cast and crew found themselves forced to live their story, leading a giant herd of cattle along the arduous Chisholm Trail while loaded with costumes and kit and toiling away in baking temperatures and only limited shade. The end more than justifies the means, however, with Hawks conjuring up a truly immersive experience for his audience, taking us into the fray by placing a camera in the rear of a covered wagon as the group wades across a high river and casting us among the fleeing cattle during a standout stampede* sequence.
The plot, adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from the former's Saturday Evening Post yarn, concerns Wayne's Tom Dunson, who stakes his claim on Texas soil in 1851 and builds a major beef empire after his girlfriend is butchered by Indians when a wagon train she is part of is attacked. Dunson adopts the only survivor of that atrocity, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), and raises him as a son with help from his old confidante Groot (Brennan). 15 years later, the Lone Star state is impoverished in the aftermath of the Civil War and Dunson needs to sell his herd to keep the business afloat. Setting off on the 1,000 mile trek to Missouri, Dunson and his men soon suffer terrible hardship, weakened by bad coffee and short rations. Dunson himself becomes tyrannical and obsessive in the best spirit of Captains Blye and Ahab, forcing the adult Garth (Clift) to intervene and overthrow him, diverting the cattle drivers east towards Abilene, Kansas, where the new railroad has just hit town. Dunson, maimed, swears revenge.
But Garth's coup is much more than a dramatic plot turn. For Red River is really a critique of posturing alpha male masculinity, offering us Garth the thoughtful, feminised consensus-seeker as an alternative to Dunson's unchecked and wrong-headed machismo and aggression.
As with other tough guy stars of the 1940s, Big Duke Wayne found post-war America ready for a more nuanced and complicated hero and more open to questioning the action man exploits he had previously thrived on following six long years of global conflict. Bogie would become Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954), Bob Mitchum a murderous preacher in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) and even loveable Jimmy Stewart a tortured neurotic in Vertigo (1958).
Wayne's Tom Dunson, a forerunner to the borderline psychotic Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (1956), is sidelined by Garth, however reluctantly, because his macho management style has bred an unhappy camp where morale is low and dissent rife. Dunson, white haired and covered in trail dust, looks like a phantom, his brutal, militaristic instincts having finally led him astray and rendered him obsolete. Garth, the Fletcher Christian of the piece, is the New Man that America needs, a proto-Democrat and pacifist prepared to listen and take counsel to achieve the best result in opposition to the overbearing authoritarianism of his Republican father figure, which, Red River shows us, has become a dangerous dead end. The film's gender politics are further underlined when both men are giving a thorough dressing down by a woman (!) at the close, love interest Joanne Dru handing out the ticking off with evident relish.
*That scene is also a fine example of how to turn comedy in tragedy. A recurring joke about a cattlehand with a sweet tooth pinching sugar from Brennan's chuck wagon is finally revealed to be the set-up for a disaster: his clumsily upsetting a pile of pots and pans while seeking to satisfy his craving causes the spooked herd to turn tail and run and a colleague (Harry Carey Jr) to be trampled to death in the ensuing melee.