Nov. 3, 2010
Red River (1948)
Grade: 99/100

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru

What it's about. This memorable western stars John Wayne in an uncommon anti-hero role, much like he would be in The Searchers some ten years later. Wayne is a Texas cattle baron who built his empire on gunplay with rivals for his land.

His ranch is imperiled by economic depression in the South following the Civil War, so he decides to take his enormous herd north to Missouri, where it will bring a higher price. But there are hazards that make the trek a long shot, especially well-armed border gangs. Wayne is determined to keep order during the trail, even if it means shooting deserters. This makes him highly unpopular, even with his best friend Walter Brennan, and with his grown adopted son Montgomery Clift.

Clift and his right-hand man, gunman John Ireland, learn that there may be a railroad in Kansas, which would mean a shorter and safer drive. After Wayne orders the hanging of an incompetent cowboy, Clift takes command of the cattle drive, backed up by Ireland and the others. Wayne is wounded, disarmed, and forced to remain behind.

Wayne vows revenge. He rides to town, hires gunmen, and comes after the cattle drive. Meanwhile, the progress of Clift is diverted by a rescue of a gambling community imperiled by an Indian attack. There, Clift is pursued by loquacious brunette hottie Joanne Dru, but he leaves her behind.

Clift and company successfully end the cattle drive in Abilene, Kansas, where they receive top dollar for the herd. Wayne is undeterred, even though he is accompanied by Dru, who pleads Clift's cause. Wayne demands a sunrise showdown with Clift, which provides the film's climax.

How others will see it. Red River was a box office success, making an early profit despite its relatively high cost. The film received only two Oscar nominations, one for its careful editing, the other for Borden Chase's screenplay, adapted from his own serialized work.

Red River has always been regarded highly, yet without a complete endorsement from most critics. For them, the ending is a letdown, the potential of John Ireland's character is unrealized, and Joanne Dru's character is intrusive. I will address these matters shortly.

At, the user ratings are very high only from men over 18. Women of all ages view it with suspicion. For example, women over 45 give it only 5.1 out of 10. This is probably due to disapproval of John Wayne's character, who turns to his gun at morally ambiguous moments, and a dislike of Joanne Dru, who pesters either Clift or Wayne, or both, in each of her scenes. Compare with High Noon, where Gary Cooper targets only killers and acts only in self defense, while Grace Kelly is demure and quiet as a mouse.

How I felt about it. Red River is one of the three best movies ever made, challenged only by Casablanca and The Thin Red Line. As always, quality is determined by one individual scene after another, and not by broad characterizations. This is why one can disapprove of Wayne's Tom Dunson, even though he is always in the end rewarded for his cold-blooded behavior, yet still appreciate the film.

One way to regard Red River is that Clift's character is morally infallible. He always does the right thing. He is also considered soft, which is why he would never participate in a high noon-styled showdown with his adoptive father. This means that Wayne has to choose between murdering Clift in cold blood, which would get him hanged, or merely attempting to humiliate Clift publicly, which would both spare his hide and allow him to cash the check that will make him the richest cattleman in the country.

This leaves the two other purported weaknesses, John Ireland and Joanne Dru. Brennan claims that Ireland and Clift will inevitably tangle. However, this never happens, because Ireland must deal with Wayne first. And, as Clift warned, Wayne proved to be a handful all by himself.

Dru's behavior is reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn in another Howard Hawks movie, Bringing Up Baby. There, the goofy Hepburn relentlessly pursues Cary Grant, getting him into one vexing situation after another until Grant decides that marrying Hepburn is the only way to restore sanity to his life.

Here, Dru ardently pursues Clift. She has three different motives for doing so: he has just saved her life from Indian raiders; he looks like the matinee idol he would soon be (Red River was Clift's first film role); and best of all, he is the adopted son of a wealthy and aging gunfighter with no other heirs. Clearly, Dru would do well to land Clift instead of her prior activity of dodging passes from gamblers.

Audiences dislike Dru, because they expect a woman to be passive. Clift should pursue her instead, and what business does she have breaking up a tussle between Wayne and Clift? But grown shrewd in waitress service to unstable gamblers, she knows that blustering is far more effective than demure posing. In other words, she's right, and the audience is wrong.