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One of the great Westerns of all time and a crowning achievement for Howard Hawks, Red River (1948) was made at the height of his long career. An established master of the medium highly regarded for his versatility, Hawks' work spanned comedies (Bringing Up Baby, 1938), crime dramas and mysteries (Scarface, 1932), and war stories (The Dawn Patrol, 1930). But there was always something richer in Hawks' work besides his expertise at handling genres, something that transcended the conventions, and in this epic tale about the great cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail, he weaves a captivating drama of generational conflict and codes of conduct among men of the West.
With magnificent scenes of the cattle drive filmed on location in Arizona and Mexico, Red River went $800,000 over its original $3 million dollar budget. More than 9,000 steers were photographed for the herd drive, requiring 25,000 gallons of water to settle the dust they kicked up. Dams had to be built across the San Pedro River (standing in for the Red River) so it would rise to the appropriate level for shooting, and the 500 actors and extras had to be fitted with duplicate authentic costumes to cover for the substantial wear-and-tear they endured. But on its release, the movie was an instant hit, raking in $5 million in its initial run and earning Oscar® nominations for Best Editing and Best Screenplay.
The part of Tom Dunson seemed a natural for John Wayne, even if it was a darker character for him than usual, one whose motives are not always crystal clear or even admirable. But many people have expressed more surprise at Hawks' casting of Montgomery Clift in the part of Matt Garth, Dunson's son-figure and rival. Hawks had seen Clift in a Broadway production of the Lillian Hellman play The Searching Wind and offered him the part. Clift accepted, even though it made him extremely nervous. He was familiar with how to ride a horse, but only military-school style. And the script called for the thin, 5' 10" Clift to engage in a rousing climactic fistfight with powerfully built, 6' 5" Wayne. But Hawks believed in his ability; the young actor rewarded his faith by working hard every day to learn to ride and handle a gun expertly and turn in a performance Hawks was very pleased with. Of course, he had considerable help from the director, who showed him how to underplay Wayne. "Don't try to get hard because you'll just be nothing compared to Wayne," he told him. After one of their first scenes together, the skeptical Wayne told Hawks, "He's gonna be okay." Off screen, however, Clift never really warmed to Wayne or Hawks. In Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, the actor stated that he occasionally joined them for nightly poker games where "they laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back. They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn't go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary."
Red River marked the first time Hawks and John Wayne worked together (four more pictures followed). Wayne had done a number of films with John Ford, who made him a star with Stagecoach (1939). Then Hawks cast Wayne in Red River. The actor was reluctant at first to play an older man but Hawks later said he told the 40-year-old Wayne, "Duke, you're going to be one pretty soon, why don't you get some practice?" In Shooting Star by Maurice Zolotow, Wayne recalled, "[Walter] Brennan showed me his idea of an old man walkin' and talkin'. His idea of it was kinda shufflin' and totterin'. And mumblin'. I was supposed to be tough and hard and walk like that? Hell, I was thinkin' about those old cattle guys I knew when I was a kid around Lancaster and there wasn't one of them that didn't stand tall. I played Tom Dunson my own way, standin' tall. Oh yeah, Hawks and I had a few fights along the way, but he accepted me as an expert, which I was, and we did not have any more trouble." Wayne ended up turning in a compelling performance, and Ford - always a bit abusive and condescending to Wayne despite the actor's devotion to him; was reported to have said, "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act." Following this role, Ford cast Wayne in increasingly more complex roles in such films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956) so it could be said that Red River brought a new richness to Wayne's acting as he moved from playing gung-ho men of bravery to characters driven by obsessions or a need to maintain control at all costs.
Wayne and Hawks formed a mutually respectful and beneficial bond that lasted the remainder of their lives and kept them working together until 1970. Other actors in the cast didn't fair so well. For instance, Hawks, though married, took a strong fancy to Joanne Dru, as he often did with his leading ladies. But he didn't like that cast member John Ireland was paying so much attention to the actress, and the story goes that in revenge, Hawks cut Ireland's role down to almost nothing. Hawks denied the story and insisted it was because Ireland spent too much time drinking, smoking marijuana, and losing his gun and hat. Whatever the truth, Ireland had the final victory; he and Dru were married shortly after production ended. And one other piece of trivia involving the cast: This is the only time that two staples of the Western genre; father and son, Harry Carey and Harry Carey Jr.; appeared in a movie together.
Producer/Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Schnee, Borden Chase, based on Chase's novel, The Chisholm Trail
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: Christian Nyby
Art Direction: John Datu Arensma
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: John Wayne (Tom Dunson), Montgomery Clift (Matthew Garth), Joanne Dru (Tess Millay), Walter Brennan (Groot Nadine), John Ireland (Cherry Valance), Noah Beery Jr. (Buster McGee), Coleen Gray (Fen), Harry Carey (Mr. Velville), Chief Yowlachie (Quo), Harry Carey, Jr. (Dan Latimer).
by Rob Nixon