Red River (1948)

Directed by Howard Hawks

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John Wayne plays an effective, unexpected villain in Red River, perhaps inspiring John Ford to cast him in such a role in what is considered the greatest western of all time, 1956’s The Searchers.  Ford said about Wayne in this film, “I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act.”

Wayne is iconographic, but he has an edge that seems to lend itself to morally complicated characters like Thomas Dunson.  Most of the time he played the hero, a character as legendary as the performer, and because of that he often had the moral high ground.  He was heroic and masculine, with no apparent flaw.  All of his positive characteristics had a purpose in this time and place, people he could protect and young cowboys he could mentor.  It’s as if John Wayne existed first and then the west manifested itself around him.

But there is a not so hidden underbelly to this kind of character.  What happens when all his good traits don’t serve their purpose?  In The Searchers when he is unable to protect those he swore to protect, his mind turns to revenge.  He has it out not just to kill the man who took his niece but to kill her too, believing she has been corrupted.  

In Red River Dunson is a self-made man.  Somewhere in Texas he starts a cattle ranch, but after fourteen years and the Civil War, he decides he must move on up to Missouri where there is more money to be made.  He enlists the massive cattle drive with a crew led by a surrogate son, Matt (Montgomery Clift), but along the way things go wrong, people screw up and others abandon him.  He is so offended by their mistakes and their decisions to abandon that he would sooner kill them.

Because of his oppressive ways his crew will turn on him, with Matt taking over command when they agree that it would be better to head to a new destination.  Dunson is so headstrong that it doesn’t occur to him that his first instinct might not be right.

The film does a great job setting up Dunson and Matt and pitting them against each other.  It seems so natural and yet so dramatic.  While the film does eventually let Wayne off the hook, making sure we don’t leave him on a bad note, it does spend a lot of time with his ugly side.  This is the type of man who succeeds in this world, it seems we’re told, but in the end he still has enough capacity to change, aided by his genuine affection for the boy he always regarded as a son.

It’s not beauty killed the beast this time around, but family that tamed the capitalist.  Something like that?

At the very least this just feels like a more well-rounded perspective of a John Wayne character.  He is so often meant to be charming, strong, protective and always right, and such a thing works if we’re so eager to identify with him, to see in him what we hope to see of ourselves.  This means there must be a greater antagonistic force at play, something to overcome so that he may prove his heroism.  

But in Red River the thing he must overcome is within himself.  Yes there are antagonistic forces at play on the long trek north, but more than anything it’s Dunson who gets in his own way, who is his own worst enemy.  And that just seems to me to be a far more human story.

Up Next: Wild Rose (2018), Asako I & II (2018), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

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