Red River (1948)

17 03 2020

In 1884, a journalist named Charles Fletcher Lummis traveled from his then home of Chillicothe, Ohio to Los Angeles, California. Absurdly, he accomplished this by foot. Upon his arrival, he was immediately appointed as City Editor for The Los Angeles Times. During those times, LA was yet to be the global city it is recognized as today. The boom would begin roughly twenty years later, as if almost triggered by Lummis’ arrival. (It wasn’t.) Howard Hawks’ beloved Red River opens similarly. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), along with Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), defect from their cattle drive headed to California. They reverse course to Texas, to pursue Dunson’s dream of opening a cattle ranch.

Along the way, they run into Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift). Upon seeing the wide expanse of Texas land, Dunson is stunned, “Water and grass….and plenty of it.” To which Garth replies, “who does it belong to?” Not missing a beat, Dunson claims it for himself. Seconds later, he disposes of a Mexican ranch hand and tells another to inform his boss that the land now belongs to him. 14 years passed, and Dunson’s dream has come true, to an extent. He has established a cattle ranch in Texas, but the end of the Civil War has left the South deeply impoverished. Dunson decides to move his entire cattle empire to Abilene, Kansas.

The main tension at the core of Red River is the relationship between Thomas Dunson and his adopted son, Matthew Garth. Because this is a western, there is much talk of “rugged individuality” and the dueling masculine forces at play appear to be participating in a staring contest to determine who is more stubbornly committed to their principles. In the film’s opening, Dunson leaves behind a cattle drive to California. The driver’s leader protests, “you signed a paper” to which Dunson replies in Wayne’s iconic and stoic voice, “I signed nothing.” The Dunson-Garth drive to Abilene, Kansas has similar deserters, but their fate is far worse. Dunson himself uses the same line, “you signed a paper” but when he’s challenged on this, he doesn’t let the deserts go. Instead, he kills them.

While the main tension in the film is the dichotomy present in Dunson and Garth’s relationship, their twinned masculinities seem to be developed independently. There’s a lot of writing about the film that seems to flatten the relationship to a father-son relationship, but that simplifies and maps over the complications they each individually face in coming to terms with their principles. They are both stubborn, perversely so, something that Hawks makes a mockery of in the film’s hyped-up final showdown. Leading up to this, we are taught to buy into their individualism. It is seen as admirable, perhaps even sage and noble. This nobility slowly dissipates, even so that Dunson resembles a would-be villain in a more conventional film.

Dunson’s inconsistent politics regarding defection from cattle drives also relates to a Western (that’s Western world, not the genre) individualism. He leaves behind a cattle drive for his own dreams. He is fueled by love, and also by a desire that greatly resembles manifest destiny. The land, the profits, the cattle, the women – they all belong to Dunson, if only because he has a deeper drive than anyone else. That’s how he can justify deserting a cattle drive, and then later shooting the potential deserters of his own cattle drive. This principle is chipped away at, as it is constantly challenged not by Garth alone, but by everyone else around Dunson. His principles which once seemed noble, become absurd and tyrannical so quietly that the eventual mutiny is endorsed by the audience themselves. The noble, individualistic hero falls because of his hubris.

Hawks doesn’t end the film on this note, though. Garth’s perspective takes over after the drive abandons Dunson. He becomes a hero, by default, and Dunson the villain. Garth picks up a love interest, Tess, but leaves her behind in a bittersweet moment of longing, the same Dunson left behind his lover at the film’s opening. A student of dramatic filmmaking would understand this decision, but it is kind of preposterous in reality. Tess eventually follows Dunson to meet up with Garth in Abilene. She gets there early and throws herself at Garth before the built-up standoff. The standoff comes, no guns are drawn, but instead Garth and Dunson fight with their fists. Tess quickly interrupts, disgusted by the childish confrontation, “What a fool I’ve been, expecting trouble for days when anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other.” The high drama quickly dissipates, and it becomes yet another balloon Hawks has deviously poked with a needle.