Before 1948’s Red River, Howard Hawks had already made half a dozen classics including Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep. A decade later, Hawks would direct one of the great westerns – Rio Bravo (1959). Whilst Red River isn’t quite of the same calibre as these other works, it’s certainly not without its charms. A prologue shows Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) founding his Texas ranch alongside his trusted companion Groot (Walter Brennan) and young orphan Matt Garth. As Dunson describes his plans for expansion, a montage takes us forward another 14 years.
The parentless Garth (now played by Montgomery Clift in only his second feature) has since progressed to become Dunson’s trusted right-hand man. Unfortunately, cattle prices have crashed in the South following the destruction of the Civil War, and so Dunson intends to drive his 10,000 or so animals across the vast open plains from Texas to Missouri. As the journey becomes more and more arduous, Dunson soon faces a revolt among his accompanying rabble of cowboys. As is often the case Wayne is as Wayne does and Clift definitely shines in this early turn, but Red River does surprisingly struggle somewhat from the offset.
The dialogue throughout is wildly overwrought and although Clift’s Garth has some neat character moments, the open trail isn’t well-suited to Hawks’ strengths as a director. In adapting His Girl Friday for the screen from a stage play (the Broadway smash-hit The Front Page), Hawks and his writers made a crowdpleaser that was bursting with energy and movement, even with the action largely contained within small rooms. Red River, adapted from a story by the film’s co-screenwriter Borden Chase, is lethargic and laboured, as if all the tension and chemistry dissipated in the desert air. The unfettered expanses of the American West provide sparse visual stimulus for Hawks’ typically inventive mise-en-scène.
Red River is undoubtedly an interesting addition to a well-worn genre; it’s very much a western in the traditional ‘classic’ mode – all whooping, warring Indians and handsome gunslingers with daddy issues – yet the film still occasionally raises issues more commonly associated with the revisionist westerns of the 1960s onwards. Dunson claims his land by simply murdering the Mexican cowboy patrolling the land for his boss. He stops just short of calling this method “the American way”, but there seems to be an implicit reference to Manifest Destiny, the pseudo-philosophy used to justify the violent expansion of American territory in the 19th century.
Thus, Hawks’ Red River feels more like of an apologist text than a critical one. Ideas are suggested and then discarded swiftly. Scenes and situations come and go at a fair old speed, but the drama often comes across as empty and lumbering as the country where it’s set. It could be that a two-hour-plus narrative about men leading a herd of cows a few hundred miles is simply not as interesting as it might once have been. The last thirty to forty minutes do turn towards different, darker territory which helps to reignite interest, but Hawks’ offering is markedly more celebratory than it is interrogative – and suffers as a consequence.