“Never liked seeing strangers. Maybe it’s because no stranger ever good newsed me.”
How many times can you watch John Wayne fight Indians and tame the old west, while also resisting progress as he tries to stick to his ways, surrounded by younger generations intent on change? Well, it turns you can watch that a lot. Because I’ve seen it Rio Grande, I’ve seen it in True Grit, I’ve seen it in The Searchers, I’ve seen it in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’ve seen it in Rio Bravo and now, I‘ve seen it in Red River. And it’s still, pretty entertaining.
On a wagon train trail from St Louis headed for California, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) decides to break off from the group and stay in Texas, where he likes the look of the grasslands for raising cattle. A few hours later, along with trail hand Nadine Groot (Walter Brannan), they see dark smoke in the distance and know that the rest of the wagon train has fallen victim to marauding Indians. They dig in on a river bank and wait to be attacked that night. The attack comes, they win and the next morning a teenage boy wanders into their camp, distraught after seeing the Indian attack while going unnoticed himself. The two men, one boy, one cow and one bull claim some land in Texas, kill a few Mexicans to keep it, and begin building the enormous cattle ranch Dunson always dreamed of.
14 years and one Civil War later, the ranch is a reality and the boy is now a man, Matt Garth, played by Montgomery Clift. The war has sucked all money out of the South and Dunston’s 10,000 head herd is basically worthless. That is, unless he can drive them all the way to Missouri. It’s a treacherous journey that has been attempted by others, but never accomplished. Along with Groot and Garth by his side, they recruit an army of cattlemen, including young, gun toting hot head Cherry Valance (John Ireland), and it’s only a matter of time before the testosterone fuelled rivalry between Valance and Garth leads to something serious. All this, plus an ever growing resentment from everyone on the trail towards Dunston and his dictatorial approach to motivation and leadership.
With everything I’ve seen Wayne in, or stories l’ve read about him, I never expected his ego to let him play anything less than a noble hero. Sure, he had plenty of characters who were gruff, short tempered and set in their ways, but they always had noble intentions and generally learned that they needed to grow and evolve with the rest of the world around them. But here, in Red River, Thomas Dunston is a stone cold villain. His only motivation is greed and there’s no one he won’t ruthlessly steamroll over to get what he has decided is due to him.
So that leaves the hero role open for Clift, and he grabs on with both hands. Matt Garth is the unflinching good guy, the only one with the balls to stand up to Dunston, and Clift brings a steely, clenched jaw attitude to Garth that makes you believe it when this youngster does take on the uber alpha male that is any John Wayne character.
Red River is one of the better John Wayne westerns I’ve seen. While The Searchers deserves its place at the top of that heap, this comes pretty close. Except for the last two or three minutes. If you haven’t seen Red River and you decide to, switch off just that little bit early, it’ll be a much better movie for it.