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Red River (1948)

THOMAS DUNSON. When the name of the part is as readily remembered as the actor that played it - that's proof of its impact. It's also true of Wayne's playing Nathan Brittles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - 1949) and Ethan Edwards (The Searchers - 1956), John T. Chance (Rio Bravo - 1959) and Rooster Cogburn (True Grit - 1969). These are parts that measure up to the actor, that give him as much as he gives them, that are more than just Big John licking the yellow peril, the Indians, or the bad guys. And none was probably as astonishing at the time as Wayne's Thomas Dunson. Here was the actor, hardly renowned for his versatility and range, undertaking a part well beyond his own years: an ageing figure of granite-hard, single-minded stubbornness and determination, a man who is "wrong" and yet never loses audience sympathy and concern. It is not only one of Wayne's best performances: it is one of the most memorable in any Western.

A big budget picture costing nearly two million dollars, Red River gambled on Wayne even more than The Big Trail (1930) had done. An unconvincing Dunson would have wrecked the picture but director Howard Hawks, working for the first time with Wayne, knew what he was doing. Co-star Montgomery Clift was making his first picture and had uncertain appeal. In the event it became one of the year's big hits, has been making money ever since, and the new wave of interest in Wayne ensured that a great many of his subsequent films were placed among their year's biggest grossers.

At the climax of the film, Wayne rides into Abilene determined to kill the man who has betrayed him: Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). Garth has rebelled at the way Wayne has been handling the men on a massive cattle drive, has taken over, and brought the cattle safely to the railroad on Wayne's behalf. Garth's success is intolerable to Wayne because it proves that Garth's way was right - treating the men as partners in the venture, relaxing the pace and even diverting the herd to visit a gambling train for a break, listening to two hearsay stories that the railway does extend to Abilene and taking the cattle there instead of the original destination. Wayne's way had been to act as a Captain Bligh of the prairie (one historian has called the film a re-make of Mutiny on the Bounty), expecting every bit as much from the men as he does from himself and stamping on any resistance to his own notions of what is fair and right.

Matt Garth has already been criticized by Wayne for his softness in leaving him alive after seizing command of the drive. Although the film has established that Garth is the faster on the draw, we are far from certain that his sensitive nature will allow him to shoot it out with Wayne. But we are sure that Wayne will try and kill Matt. Even the woman Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) who has fallen for Matt and tried to dissuade Wayne from his purpose, believes it; and Dunson's flaw of character is that he always follows through a line of action to the bitter end. The audience is also encouraged to accept a shootout as inevitable by the way that earlier all the hints of a stampede are followed by one taking place. This adherence to dramatic conventions leads us to suppose that Dunson will somehow die as a tragically flawed hero, true to himself to the end. Borden Chase, whose magazine story (later novel) and script were the basis of the film, saw it this way and had the gunfighter Cherry Valance (John Ireland) intervene because he knows his friend Matt won't defend himself, be shot down by Wayne, but wound him so badly that Wayne's shots at Matt go astray and he collapses to be carried off to Texas to die (this ending can be found in Chase's novel).

As Howard Hawks re-arranges the scene, we see Wayne marching through the herd of cattle, eyes intent on his destination, his body brushing aside the steers, the camera retreating to new setups to cover his steady advance. He is called by Cherry Valance who steps out behind him, turns and shoots him down, then continues, clutching his side where Cherry's bullet has struck him. When he comes face to face with Matt, the latter refuses to draw. Wayne looses some shots at him - past his head, at his feet and then closer still, grazing a cheek - but Matt stands firm. Wayne snarls, "You're soft! Won't anything make a man out of you?" He strides up to Matt and hits him three times, the third blow knocking him to the ground. Wayne goes to haul him up and suddenly Matt starts hitting back, sending Wayne sprawling in the dust. As Wayne sits there dazed, tongue exploring his damaged lip, the tone decisively changes, the film is almost comic - They battle on until Tess Millay fires a shot and verbally tears a strip off them. "I'm good and mad!" she bellows, letting out her nervous relief, "Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other!" and then encourages them to fight on. But Wayne is now reconciled with Matt and fulfils a promise that he made when Matt was a kid, that he would share Wayne's brand, the Red River D, when he earned it. Thus Wayne, whose periodic funeral readings throughout the film have stated, "We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we take nothing out," has found a "son" to take on the benefits of his hard-earned success.

At the start of the film Wayne is briefly seen as a young man. Immediately, two fundamental aspects of his character are established. One is that his word is his bond: he stands by it and expects others to do the same. When he leaves a wagon train over the objections of its leader, he replies forcefully: "I signed nothing. If I had. I'd stay." The second is indicated by his companion Groot's words of advice to the wagonmaster: "He's a mighty set man. When his mind's made up, even you can't change it." And neither can his girl Fen (Coleen Gray) as she implores him to take her along.

She and Wayne are seen as small figures in the vast lonely landscape (wagons rolling past to emphasize the lack of time for discussion), then in powerful close-ups (the jump underlines the dramatic urgency). Wayne insists that "it's too much for a woman," but she tries to sway him from his decision, grasping him and caressing him with her flow of words, full of heated passion. "You'll need me. You'll need what a woman can give you to do what you have to do. Oh, listen to me, Tom, listen with your head or your heart too - the sun only shines half the time, Tom, the other half is night." I've made up my mind," Wayne replies. "Change your mind, Tom - for just once in your life, change your mind." "I'll send for you. Will you come?" "Of course I'll come. But you're wrong." That last phrase keeps recurring through the film as Groot (Walter Brennan) has occasion to declare "You wus wrong, Mr. Dunson." And Wayne's unyielding response to the extraordinary fervour of Coleen Gray in her brief appearance gives us with tremendous economy the nature of the man.

Soon afterwards Wayne knows he was wrong and Fen was right. Indians waylay the wagon train and young Matthew Garth is the only survivor. Some Indians attack Wayne and Groot, leading to one vivid shot of Wayne struggling in a pool with a redskin, catching the knife thrown to him by Groot; he discovers on the Indian's wrist the bracelet that he gave to Fen, clinching her fate.

The following years see Wayne bury his mistake deep inside him and forge a cattle empire in the wilderness, fighting off opposition as a law unto himself. Fen's moderating influence has been denied him, and Matt even leaves to fight in the Civil War. Wayne makes his own decision to drive the entire herd of over nine thousand head to market in Missouri where there is money to pay for them in the hard times after the war. Matt's experiences before returning to join the cattle drive have no doubt broadened his outlook and developed a sense of independence that enables him to stand up to Wayne, who has retained the outlook of a self-sufficient pioneer in times that have changed without his noticing.

As the drive sets out, Wayne remains a sympathetic figure in many ways. He takes a keen interest in young Dan Latimer (Harry Carey Jr.), he goodnaturedly gives in to Groot's indignant demands to come on the trip, and he makes his conditions very clear beforehand to the men who agree to go, spelling out the hazards of the journey and declaring "Every man that signs on for this trip finishes it - no one quits along the way."

The first real conflict arises when the sweet-toothed Bunk Kenneally (Ivan Parry) disturbs some pots and pans while stealing sugar and sets off a stampede in which Dan Latimer is killed. Wayne's grief has him ensure that Dan's widow will be paid his wages in full and his anger makes him propose to whip Kenneally as he would a naughty kid. Harsh as this is, it doesn't seem that inappropriate but smacks more of the rough methods of earlier pioneering days, suggesting that Wayne's thinking is set in the past. Wayne's proposal is taken as a sign of inhumanity and Kenneally's admission that "I was wrong, awful wrong" contrasts with Wayne's inability to admit he is ever in error although he invites Groot to deliver the ticking off he sees forming on his lips ("You wus wrong, Mr. Dunson"). Before this, the scene has been resolved by Kenneally drawing his gun rather than submit to the whipping and by Matt's fast shooting which saves Wayne from being killed.

As the hardships of the journey multiply, three of the men decide to quit, especially upset by Wayne's refusal to head the herd towards a reported railway link. Wayne, again backed by Matt, shoots down the quitters. Shortly after, three men disappear at night and Wayne sends the gunman Cherry Valance to bring them back dead or alive, going without sleep, spurring the men on to keep them too exhausted to contemplate quitting until Cherry comes back. When Cherry returns with two of the men, Wayne proposes to hang them as a lesson to the others and it is here that Matt rebels, taking over the herd with the men's enthusiastic support. As one of the men says to Wayne: "I signed a pledge but you're not the man I signed it with."

Even Groot abandons Wayne now, and he has to recruit a bunch of professional killers to follow Matt. He arrives at the camp where Matt has stopped earlier and won the heart of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). She steps forward to offer hospitality to Wayne, having been denied a chance to go on ahead with Matt whose refusal "Nothing you can say or do..." echoes one of Wayne's standard sayings. Being left behind as Fen was earlier by Wayne, and wearing Fen's bracelet which Matt has given her (having worn it himself since Wayne gave it to him as a youth), marks her as a reincarnation of Fen, as does the high-spirited, aggressive manner both women have (in common with most other women in Howard Hawks's movies). Wayne is sufficiently impressed to look her over for breeding possibilities and invite her to give him a son to replace Matt; she loves Matt enough to agree if he will call off his pursuit. But nothing she can say or do will stop Wayne and he only gives way on the point of allowing her to come along with him.

And yet the final meeting between Matt and Wayne leads to a reconciliation, and the appropriateness of this ending has been debated ever since. Hawks simply declares that he liked the two men too much to kill either of them off. Besides which, it is emotionally satisfying, far more constructive than a tragic conclusion would have been in showing that a man can change for the better no matter how late in the day. All that seems wrong is that the film hasn't laid the ground for this ending but has at this late point changed Borden Chase's script which cues a different ending as it has accurately cued other events earlier on.


Tom Dunson John Wayne
Matthew Garth Montgomery Clift
Nadine Groot Walter Brennan
Tess Millay Joanne Dru
Fen Coleen Gray
Cherry Valance John Ireland
Buster McGee Noah Beery Jr.
Quo Chief Yowlachie
Melville Harry Carey Sr.
Dan Latimer Harry Carey Jr.
Teeler Yacey Paul Fix
Sims Hank Worden
Maylor Glenn Strange
Bunk Kenneally Ivan Parry
Colonel Lane Chandler
Dancehall Girl Shelley Winters

Shellley Winters is briefly glimpsed as one of the girls in the wagon train under Indian attack.
In production September - November 1946. Location filming at Elgin, Arizona.
Released September 17, 1948 (U.S.);January 17, 1949 (G.B.)

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