Masterpieces of American Cinema: Red River by Howard Hawks

At the start of “Red River,” Howard Hawks’ brilliant Western, John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson is seen as an ambitious young man, more interested in his cattle than in his woman, Fen. When he leaves to search for grazing land, Dunson refuses to take Fen claiming, “It’s too much for a woman.” “You’ll need me,” she says, trying to sway him from his decision, “You’ll need what a woman can give you to do what you have to do.”

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But Dunson is determined, “I’ve made up my mind.” “I’ll send for you,” he promises, “Will you come” “Of course I’ll come,” Fen says, “But you’re wrong.” Dunson never gets a chance to send for Fen, who’s murdered by the Indians in a nasty raid, after which he buries his mistake deep inside him.

Most of the film, though, concerns a generational conflict between Dunson, the aging and single-minded cattle baron, and Matthew Garth (played by Montgomery Clift), his surrogate son and the only survivor of the Indian raid in which Fen was murdered.

Matt leaves to fight in the Civil War, but he returns to join the cattle drive that Dunson is taking to market in Missouri. Before hiring the men for the drive, Dunson spells out the dangers of the journey and states his conditions, “Every man that signs on for this trip finishes it–no one quits along the way.”

Later on, Dunson shoots down three quitters and, when three others disappear, he sends gunman Cherry Valance to bring them back, dead or alive. Dunson spurs the men, exhausting them to such an extent that they won’t have time to consider quitting. When Vallance brings back two of the quitters, Dunson proposes to hang them up in a public lesson to the others.
It’s at this point that Matt rebels against his dictatorship and, supported by the others, takes over the command. Dunson is determined to kill Matt for his betrayal.

Matt represents a different kind of leader than Dunson; he’s fair, considerate, and more egalitarian. Throughout the film, Dunson criticizes Matt for being too soft; he even pokes fun at Matt for not killing him after taking over the command. At the film’s climax, when the two meet, Valance, afraid that Matt will not defend himself, shoots Dunson. Though wounded, Dunson moves toward Matt who still refuses to draw.

Dunson shoots past Matt’s head and at his feet. When Matt continues to stand still, he humiliates him, “You’re soft! Won’t anything make a man out of you” He hits Matt three times and knocks him to the ground, but suddenly, Matt fights back and they battle until Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), the woman they both love, fires a shot and shouts, “Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other!” In a characteristic Hawksian way, she then encourages them to go on fighting.

Dunson and Matt reconcile, and Dunson fulfills his vow when Matt was a boy, to share with him his brand, the Red River D, when he earned” it. Clearly, Matt has earned by going through a series of ritual ceremonies of manhood. Dunson fully accepts Matt as a son, biologically as well as sociologically, only after he had proved his toughness and virility.

“Red River” has been interpreted in many different ways, attesting to the film’s richness in mood, texture, and meanings. There is no doubt, however, that the contrast between Dunson and Matt, in terms of leadership style and manhood, is at the core of the story. Dunson stands for the real frontiersman, the old-styled heroes, tough and indestructible, who act alone and are responsible only to themselves. Matt, by contrast, represents a different brand of leadership: He is sensitive, more egalitarian, and open-minded.

However, the film makes it quite clear that the ideal leadership is a combination of both styles of manhood. At the end, Matt becomes as tough and competent (fast at the draw) as Dunson, and there is good reason to believe that he would follow in Wayne’s footsteps. Dunson’s capabilities as a role model are emphasized throughout the story, especially the idea that his socialization includes both the instruction of skills and the transmission of an ethics code, one that befits life in the West. Matt would not have become the competent leader that he is had it not been for having to measure up to Dunson’s stature.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Motion Picture Story: Borden Chase

Film Editing: Christian Nyby

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winners of the Motion Picture Story were Richard Schweizer and david Wechsler for “The Search,” also starring Montgomery Clift.  Paul Weatherwax won the Editing Oscar for “The Naked City.”

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