John Wayne and Montgomery Clift
watching “Brokeback Mountain” or “American Idol”

I’ve Got a Beef With You

I’ve watched a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen one with John Wayne until now. I expected him in full hero mode, but in “Red River,” he’s a man of complexity. Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a very driven man who settles near the northern border of Texas to raise a herd of cattle. In this venture, he’s joined by Groot (Walter Brennan), a loyal old coot, and Matt, a wandering boy whom Dunson adopts. The movie fast forwards to fourteen years – Matt (Montgomery Clift) is all grown up and the cows have multiplied in hundreds. It’s time to move the cattle all the way to Missouri so it can be sold. Accompanied by a dozen or so cowboys, Dunson leads a trek through the heartland with an iron fist. He is harsh, commanding, and narrow-minded. The men become uneasy under his command and Matt, sensing Dunson getting out of control, has to gather some nerve to stand up to him. Let’s look up what Merriam-Webster has to say about “mutiny,” shall we?

“Red River” is an impressive achievement for a 1948 film. I even wondered how the whole thing was filmed. Shot mostly outdoors, the film crew must have been at the mercy of rough terrains, sweltering heat, and an amateur cast of bovines. But it sure looks worth it. There’s something thrilling about a massive herd moving across the screen. And there’s something special in knowing that not one cow is digitally done. Indeed, there is a sense of authenticity, enhanced by John Wayne’s precise portrayal. Wayne is not a showy actor, but he doesn’t need to be to command the screen. By his stare, stance, and language, he’s able to express Dunson clearly. Montgomery Clift has a less challenging role, but the man looks game in his first film. Going toe to toe with John Wayne – not a bad start for a movie gig.

I did have one colossal problem with “Red River.” The movie begins with a brooding Shakespearean premise but it ends like a neat romantic comedy. Director Howard Hawks builds up incredible tension for the final duel/fight and yet the outcome seems like a joke. I hope somebody dig up the film archives and find an alternate ending. It should have ended on a more realistic and tragic note. The movie should have not aimed for a neat ending, and as a result, it missed greatness by a long shot.

Grade: B+

John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Chief Yowlachie, Joanne Dru
Screenplay by
Borden Chase and Charles Schnee
Based on the story “The Chisholm Trail” by
Borden Chase
Directed by
Howard Hawks
Not Rated