A Long Drive: Red River

By Justin Prince

Movie Poster for Red RiverStories of the American West play an important role in America's history and share an equally important role as defining the American culture. In particular, the concept of the heroic cowboy is a classic aspect of American culture. Cowboys have a reputation for living by their own rules and doing what ever necessary to get a job done. Howard Hawks' 1948 western/action film, Red River, excellently demonstrates the cowboy way of life in the 1860s as perceived in the post WWII era.

Howard Hawks broke into and mastered the western genre which was new to him when he directed and produced this 1948 film.   John Wayne & Montgomery Clift Actors such as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift made Red River into a movie which set the bar high for all westerns to follow. The movie was based upon a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase and over the years became an American classic.

In 1949 the western received two Oscar nominations including Best Film Editing and Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. It also received a nomination from the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. It also received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Written American Western. In 1990 the movie won the National Film Registry award from the National Film Preservation Board. This was really a terrific story matched in quality by the actors and the creativity of a director, who made a film that really grabbed the attention of the American public. Red River is a black and white film, which may weaken its appeal for the TV generation, but is thematically beautiful, almost as if Ansell Adams photographs were borrowed by Hawks.

The story opens in Oklahoma John Wayne & Walter Brennan when Tom Dunson, played by John Wayne, and his long time friend, "Groot" Nadine, played by Walter Brennan, leave a wagon train travelling to California. Dunson decided to head south to start a ranch in Texas with a prize bull but he was urged not to leave because the wagon train needed him to protect them. In an effort to make Dunson stay with the group, they attempted to scare him with the possible danger of Indian attack.

Dunson is a really hard headed man and even left his sweetheart behind promising to join her when he has settled. Bedding down at the Red River, he and Groot see smoke from the wagon train which has been attacked. They set up defenses against the Indians because they know the Indians will be coming after them too. This establishes a theme of imminent danger from Indian attacks that continued throughout the rest of the movie. Just before setting out the next morning, the only survivor from the wagon train, a young boy, Matt Garth, played by Montgomery Clift, and his cow wander up and join Dunson's move south. This is the basic premise of how a man and his bull and a young boy and a cow create the largest cattle ranch in Texas. They travel all the way to the Rio Grande River and Dunson takes the land from the Mexicans by a show of skill with a gun against their hired gun. Then Dunson and his companions build their ranch called the Red River D.

The movie resumes fourteen years later when Dunson has over 9,000 head of cattle, but needs money badly, and decides to drive the cattle to Missouri for sale. They have to travel a thousand miles at ten miles a day, when others, due to Indians and robbers, have failed. The movie shows that the owner of the herd made the rules and most of his men followed him, even when he told them that they would get paid only when the beef made it to sale. Cattle drovers Dunson points out that if they signed their name on the work sheet, they are under contract until the end of the drive. The very first person to sign Dunson's list could not write and just made an "X," a common thing to do in 1865. On the trail they faced problems from deserters, low morale, and fights about whether to head to Missouri or Kansas.

The film also did a good job depicting the normal everyday dangers associated with a cattle drive. For example, one scene showed them trying to get a stampede under control and losing a few hundred head of cattle with one man killed in the process. They also face the constant fear of Indian attack throughout the drive. Through all of the hardships, Dunson continues to rule like a tyrant with an iron fist. The lack of sufficient food and Dunson's refusal to consider alternatives has everyone on edge until young Matt steps up. As Dunson is about to hang two deserters, Matt stopped him, took the herd, and left him to take care of himself. Dunson vowed to track him down and kill him and told Matt that he had better keep looking behind him because eventually Dunson would be there.

The way that the actors developed these fictional characters into people the viewers care about is what really draws the audience into the movie. The characters' attitudes and personalities make this film unforgettable. The unavoidable shady character that is in every cowboy movie, this time is Cherry Valence, played by John Ireland, who creates a lot of anticipation and concern about what he is going to do and when. Valence creates a sense of tension about what is going to happen and the tension makes the movie very exciting. It more than makes up, even today for the lack of Technicolor.

Everyday life on the trail is depicted by keeping true to the old west in clothes, hats, and even use of the old guns that would have been around in 1865. The director did a fine job of showing how everyone on the drive had a job that they had to do and what could happen if they failed to perform. The only thing that gives a hint to the fact that it is really 1948 is when a shot of five of the men going to help a wagon train being attacked by Indians shows a communication mast on a hill in the background! Yet, audiences are often forgiving in the face of a good story.

After Matt took control of the herd, he and his men took the Chisholm Trail through Oklahoma to Abilene Kansas where a new railhead has just opened to buy cattle and transport them east. While on the trail the men are nervous and jumpy at any sound that might be Dunson or Indians approaching. Matt meets an attractive woman at the end of the film, but like his adopted father, Matt leaves the girl behind. When Dunson meets her later he reveals regrets for leaving his sweetheart fifteen years ago. Through his regret the young woman convinces him to take her along and thus, a bit of a love story is tacked onto the end of the trail. But essentially, this is "a man's got to do what a man's got to do" story!

When the group reaches Abilene the town is just as happy to see them as they are to be there. They parade the cattle through town and just let them stand around in the streets while they work out a pay off in the office. The scene actually adds historical significance to the movie because, after the Civil War, the country badly needed beef and would pay top dollar to get it.   The rail manager even said that he would give them full market price because he thought it fair not to undercut them. The manager is surprised when Matt tells him that they left with over 9,000 head of cattle and still have most of the herd intact, making this drive the largest one in history.

In Abilene, Dunson finally catches up with his men and the tension is high and the scenes are serious and exciting. Matt is the only one willing to confront Dunson. Fortunately Dunson has finally realized errors. Dunson tells Matt to change the brand on the cattle and add an M to the Red River D. This conclusion really helps show that the cowboys were independent, yet dependent on each other.

The film is quite impressive in that the director and actors did such a good job of showing the difficulty of living on the trail. They demonstrated throughout much of the movie that this kind of life was very tough and required extraordinary men to achieve success. They also did a good job of showing the integrity that men needed in those days to trust each other. Because of the quality, this film is a very important piece in film history; it continues to entertain and attract people to stories of the old west, as well as put individual faces into the story, allowing people to identify with it and become interested in this era of history. A story and a movie like this make history fun and attract those who would not perhaps watch a documentary on this era. The film keeps the audience entertained, striking interest in learning more.

For those who do want more after this movie ends, don't worry. Many of the old western movies, from the era of John Wayne to that of Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford demonstrate how life actually was, teach good ethics and morals while entertaining, and such films remain classics. Some examples include, Lonesome Dove, The Cowboys, El Dorado, Big Jake, McLintock, and many more. One of the latest movies about cattle drivers is the 2003 film, Open Range, with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. Some related reading material includes The Trail Drivers of Texas by J. Marvin Hunter, and The Chisholm Trail (Cornerstones of Freedom) by Andrew Santella. Both are solid and enjoyable.

The quality proves that Red River is a classic that is around to stay.