Like I’ve already said, 1948 was an important year for the Western. This isn’t only because a lot of Westerns came out that year. It’s because, primarily, two Westerns came out that year. These two Westerns are The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Red River. Together, they represent a bridge into a new era of this signature American genre: from the mythic hero-epics of the 1930s and 1940s to the character-focused mythic tragedies of the 1950s and 1960s.
In Red River, we have Jason and the Argonauts. Jason is a sort of composite between the film’s two leads, played by John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. This was actually Clift’s first-ever film, propelling him to a hugely influential and unfortunately short-lived career. (He died at the age of 33, after what has been called “the longest suicide in Hollywood history”—a story that maybe in the future of this blog we can address.) Clift’s performance in this movie is one of the most important elements in understanding the movie’s place in film history, particularly when it comes to examining the role that Red River played in bridging the two aforementioned eras of the American Western.
He plays a reckless and adventurous young man named Matthew Garth, who becomes the adopted son of a hardened and morally ambiguous cattleman named Thomas Dunson (played by a gray-haired Wayne). Right from the outset of the film, Matthew is a character with something to prove; he attempts to engage the unbeatable Dunson in a quick-draw when they first meet. Dunson, too has something to prove, and works hard to not only show Matthew his superiority, but somehow create (in Matthew) yet another manifestation of his mastery. Matthew Garth will be Thomas Dunson’s protege. And Matthew Garth is happy to do it; until, of course, that coming-of-age period when he must prove himself and himself alone, independent of Dunson.
This is the thirst for power that is so intrinsic to the Hollywood Western. This is also the thirst for power that allows the Western to become a more personalized and character-focused genre. In the Western, there is no other place but the unconquered land of the American West. There is no Europe. There is no East Coast. There is no Orient, Siberia, or Arabia. Africa gets ne’er a mention. There is no space travel or ocean voyaging. There is no suburbia, and there is absolutely no urbanity. The American West is a world unto itself. And with all that world to be had, it is easy to see how a single man can completely destroy himself in the self-interest that empowers him. Like Cortez among the Aztecs or Alexander the Great, the cowboy sees nothing but his own yet-to-be-obtained power.
This ultimately divides Clift and Wayne’s characters. One can’t help but get drunk on this power. The other, only wants to survive it. What results is one of the most intriguing counterpoints in the pantheon of Western mythic characters. Also, it results in the John Wayne going “out of type” and playing, for the only time that I can think of, a villain. At least, he plays a semi-villain, against whom Montgomery Clift must lead a team a cowboys in mutiny. After relieving Dunson from power and sending him into exile (an exile made all the more significant when one considers the nature of the unconquered land and the Western myth), Clift’s Matthew Garth has to lead the team and their 10,000 head of cattle to Missouri.
But, Dunson doesn’t take that well, and vows to kill Garth and take his team back. Howard Hawks, the director of Red River (whose other great films include The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo, and Bringing Up Baby), does as good a job as anybody in film history at setting the mood; in Red River, that mood is particularly palpable after Dunson turns dark and vengeful. Sequences of foggy nights and shadows make us feel what Matthew Garth is feeling—the immense terror of knowing that at any time, Dunson could show up and take back what was his.
It’s not like Garth doesn’t agree that this team of cowboys and their 10,000 head belongs—or, at least, should belong to Dunson. Dunson has built up his empire from nothing, abandoning everything that could have kept him
“tied down” to something other than his ambition.
At the beginning of the movie, we are given an important prologue, one that opens our eyes to the feelings and motivations that push Dunson toward this ambition. He is part of a wagon trail heading westward, and, alongside him in this team of wagons, is a beautiful girl who loves him. She begs to stay with him. He loves her, too. But, he tells her, he can’t have her. Not yet, anyway. He has to go get established and claim a piece of this mythic land for himself. He leaves her with the wagons and rides off with his partner, Nadine Groot (played by Walter Brennan). After a while, Dunson and Groot look back from their mounts at the horizon and see smoke billowing from where the wagon teams should be. They are too far away to be of any assistance now. The travelers have been attacked by Indians. (Which, if you have read my blog, you know the significance of the Indians when it comes to the mythological role in the Western epic). Later on, we find out that the woman Dunson left behind was killed in the Indian attack, along with everyone else in the company. Everyone else, except for one stubborn young man: Matthew Garth.
Garth grows to become a Civil War hero and, reputably, the finest gunslinger in the area. Dunson becomes his adopted father and head of his own ranch and cattle brand.
Which brings us back to where I left off. Somehow, along the way, just like in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the unseen goal, the unknown horizon to which the cowboys ride, perverts their minds and leads them into enmity. Dunson becomes too hard-hearted for his own good. Garth saves the day. And then, Garth has to jump at shadows until the very end, knowing that Dunson is coming to kill him and take back what is his.
So goes one of the most finely-acted and interesting duos in the history of the genre. For Mr. Wayne, this role marked a new phase of his career. His roles in such early films as Stagecoach, Dark Command, and The Big Trail were decidedly single-dimensional and sort of blended together into a composite acting exhibit. But after this role in 1948, Wayne would go onto play a more versatile, character-driven cowboy. Truly, his greatest performances all were filmed after the filming of Red River, with Red River itself being one of his finest. (On a side note that is somewhat typical to my writing style, I have to list that the roles which I have in mind are in The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit, The Shootist, The Quiet Man, and The Cowboys.)
I think there are two reasons for why this change occurred in Wayne’s acting career, and, in particular, why these changes occurred after the filming of this movie in particular. The first reason is the movie itself. This was the most conflicted character he had performed up to that point, and stretched his acting chops in new ways. He had never played the bad guy in such a large film with such a reputable director. His character, instead of driven by some mythological instinct toward a balance of justice that is so intrinsic in the Western cowboy, is driven by hate, revenge, and ambition. In the character of Thomas Dunson, he was laying the groundwork for his greatest role, that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
Now before I move on to reason number two for why and how this change occurred, I want to clarify an important point. I don’t mean to say that John Wayne’s only good roles are the ones that I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. John Wayne, as I argued sufficiently well in my essays on acting, was one of those “typecast” actors whose being typecast was actually a testament to their greatness. (Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart were other actors I mentioned). This “composite acting exhibit” I referenced earlier that made up his early films bled into his more dramatic later period, in such films as El Dorado, Rio Bravo, and The Sons of Katie Elder. What John Wayne brought into this composite persona was a gravitas that was charming, cool, and intangibly authoritative. Wayne’s charm was the lifeblood of his films, regardless of whether or not he was playing his signature persona or a more complex character.
Now, onto reason number two for why and how this role in 1948 changed John Wayne’s acting and started a new era of his career. This reason is often overlooked, but, I feel, it absolutely must be addressed. Reason number two is Montgomery Clift.
This theory that Clift “rubbed off” on Wayne can’t be found anywhere but here, but I think it is obvious. Clift was part of a new school of Hollywood film actors that had trained in New York under the great Lee Strasberg, whose variation of Stravinsky’s “method” of acting was creating a new, more subtle, and more complex style of acting. (For more info on this, see my aforementioned essay series on character acting). Says a quote on his Wikipedia page, likely from his obituary, Clift was “one of the most tragic, beautiful and gifted figures to touch Hollywood (along Brando and others) with their unique and rebellious presence and changing the masculine role potrayed by Hollywood after World War II. He was the first actor after 1945 to change how audiences see film, from clichés to characters so realistic and relatable, people would report crying and gasping from his ‘most natural presence and beautiful looks.'”
Clift brought a new style of acting to the Western, a genre that was, by its very nature, a genre that focused on caricatures. After Clift did his thing in Red River, the Western would no longer be like a Greek epic poem, where its mythic characters were symbols of nature and man. It would now focus more on the individual and his weaknesses, strengths, battles, and victories.
Montgomery Clift, had he not died so young, and had he not been so picky in his roles, would have, undoubtedly, gone down in history as one of the greatest actors in Hollywood history, along such masters as Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro. The year that Red River was released (it was his first-ever film), he would get nominated for his first Academy Award for a completely different film altogether, The Search, about an Auschwitz survivor looking for his mother. By the time of his passing, Clift had four nominations under his belt, for his roles in Judgment at Nuremberg, A Place in the Sun, and From Here to Eternity.
But, there is always a special place for his performance in Red River. His influence on the film was all-reaching, and can be felt today. He stands step for step alongside what might have been the greatest personality in Hollywood history and doesn’t bow for a second. If anything, he pushed the Duke to more greatness. His influence on the genre was huge. And his filmography tells the story of his talent.
Roger Ebert (and many others) have claimed that Red River, particularly because of John Ford and Montgomery Clift, could have been the finest of all Westerns were it not for the scenes with women in them. This is not a sexist statement, it is merely one of fact. The scenes with women are noticeably weaker. They take away from the intensity of Dunson’s rage, and the passion of Garth’s fear and rush to Missouri. They break up the potential for real violence, and give unneeded comic/romantic relief to a story that is raw and pulsing. To review Red River and not address this point is to ignore the most commonly held problem with the film.
However, I must disagree, at least to an extent, with Roger Ebert. The problem with the evaluation of Ebert is that he views Red River through the “method” lens of later films, having decided to group it in not with the earlier period of the American Western, but, rather, with the latter. Through that lens, I can absolutely understand what Ebert is talking about. There is no place for romance or strong-willed and emotionally-charged girls in this story of two men conquering the unconquered and hunting each other like predator and prey when that is all that one is looking for. But, that is not what one should be looking for when watching Red River. It is not part of the latter period, it is (as I have argued earlier) a bridge between two periods. It is a Western focused on the American mythology, but introducing new post-war elements that would influence the genre into 1950s and 1960s.
This section of my blog has been focused on how the screenplays of the Westerns of the 1930s and ’40s were mythological tales. So, inevitably, I’m going to argue against Mr. Ebert’s point by making an appeal to this mythology. In my review of Stagecoach (another John Wayne masterpiece), I pointed out André Bazin’s observations about the role of women in the Western myth. Bazin held that the woman is the moral centerpiece of the film, that regardless of her past decisions or behaviors, she, not the man, is the one who is not torn between good and evil. She is a virtuous anchor, to whom the man must conform. The man, who is the one doing the conquering of the unconquered land, is the one who must balance his morality and pass the liminal stages required to become worthy, not only of the land, but of the woman he has found upon that land.
In Red River, Clift’s character not only goes through the important rite of passage of the Civil War, but also the continuing rite of the cattle drive. His, and Wayne’s, is the battle to come out on top in a moral, not a monetary, way. Their rivalry forces them towards a path of moral ambiguity that threatens the core of the mythic cowboy’s journey to self-actualization. The women in this movie, like them or not, play the invaluable mythic role of the virtuous award whose influence on the male is like a centripetal anchor, constantly pulling him back to the moral center.
Ultimately, we are left with the second of two Westerns that came out in the year 1948 that had incalculable impact on this signature American genre. No other category of films was so American as that of the American Western, and Red River, along with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, stood as the representation of the new era of the American myth. This new era of mythology was focused on the individual and his personal attempt to come to grips with his role in the new world of the American West. Watching Red River, one can see just how far one has to go to come to such a grip.