Mania Grade: B
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- Rated: Approved
- Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Harry Carey Jr.
- Written By: Borden Chase & Charles Schnee
- Directed By: Howard Hawks
- Spine#: 709
- Distributor: Criterion Collection
- Original Year of Release: 1948
- Time: 127 minutes, 133 minutes
- Special Features: See Below
Red River Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
The Duke as a Bad Guy?
By Robert T. Trate
June 03, 2014
Red River Criterion Collection Blu-ray
© Criterion Collection
I have often said that a Criterion Collection release is like a bottle of fine wine. So with the release of Howard Hawks’ Red River (Spine #709), I was ready to have a classic John Wayne vintage night. Oddly enough, this is one of the classic John Wayne movies I have never seen. My father, who introduced to me to the great big western collaborations of John Wayne and John Ford, told me he didn’t like Red River. “The Duke plays a bad guy, I don’t like him as bad guy”. So for years, I stayed away from Red River. Now, many people would say the same about Wayne in The Searchers. However, I don’t see him as such. With this release, I figured it was time to see The Duke at his worst. Another reason I stayed away from Red River until recently was Montgomery Clift. It’s strange that when you see an actor for the first time and a particular role sets a precedent for the actor, escaping that role becomes an issue. My first experience Montgomery Clift was in Judgement at Nuremberg, which happened to be one of his last pictures. Red River was only his third! Can he be something other than Rudolph Petersen to me? It was time to find out.
John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a man who loses the one thing he cared about in a blindsided moment at the beginning of the picture. He and his partner and friend, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), discover a young man, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), who they raise as their own. The three set out to build the biggest cattle ranch in all of Texas. With Dunson’s determination, Groot’s cooking, and Garth’s cow, they make it happen. The film jumps to 15 years later and Matt has returned from the Civil War. The cattle business has been good for Dunson, but Texas is drying up. He knows he has to move on. He decides to do what no one has ever done before and move the heard of 3500 heads to Missouri. He’ll get a good price and be able to start over again.
Modern filmgoers will appreciate all the subtle and not so subtle references that Billy Crystal’s City Slickers made to Red River. Before the “Yee Haw” scene ever happened in Red River, I was giddy and waiting for it. Dunson and his men make start the drive, but much like the adventures of Larry McMurty’s novel, “Lonesome Dove”, it won’t be an easy one.
Without ruining the film for those of you who haven’t seen it before, Dunson and Matt are on a collision course. Dunson, who is the man with everything to lose, takes no one’s advice but his own. When the men become discouraged, it is Matt who pushes for an alternative to Missouri. This is seen as a huge betrayal and the cattle drivers are forced to take sides. In some ways, Red River has obvious likenesses to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”. The tale of one man’s obsession plays out and plays out hard, in a role that is far darker than Wayne ever played before. In fact, if it weren’t for Walter Brennan supplying some much needed levity, the film might have been too dark for 1948 audiences.
The hard part in watching the film now is seeing that the two leads almost fight for screen time. Montgomery Clift was up and coming in Hollywood and nowhere near the stature of Wayne. Yet with each entrance, bad guy or not, you immediately take Wayne’s side in any and all situations. Well, maybe not the whipping scene, but just about every other one. It suffers from having two leads and two separate stories going at the same time. The first is Dunson’s obsession with bringing in the heard. Nothing will get this way. The other is Matt standing up to his father figure and doing right by the men. When the love interest, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), enters the picture, everything seems forced. Even her tirade at the end seems out of place. As I said at the beginning, a Criterion release is like a fine bottle of wine. Red River has lost much of its potency, despite those involved in making this vintage.
Criterion Collection, as per usual, has pulled out all the stops on their Red River release. The big deal for film collectors and aficionados is that Criterion has included both cuts of the film. For those that are unfamiliar with the two different versions, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) regales us with how Howard Hawks felt about the two versions of the film. If this is your first time watching Red River, or you have never seen “The Book Version”, Bogdanovich reveals the differences both big and small. He even reveals Hawk’s magic cuts on how he made 1500 cows look like 3500. What I found interesting was how “The Book Version” has Hawks’ original ending, but the theatrical cut was changed because of a lawsuit from Howard Hughes. This is why Criterion is the best at what they do.
New 2K digital restoration of the rarely presented original theatrical release version, the preferred cut of director Howard Hawks, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New 2K digital restoration of the longer, prerelease version of Red River, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich about Red River and the two versions
New interview with critic Molly Haskell about Hawks and Red River
New interview with film scholar Lee Clark Mitchell about the western genre
Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich
Audio excerpts from a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase
Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Red River from 1949, featuring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby (dual-format only); a new paperback edition of Chase’s original novel, previously out of print (dual-format only)
New cover by Eric Skillman