Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns: Red River (1948)

I’ve never been a big fan of John Wayne. He’s my grandma’s favorite actor, but she has never introduced me to many of his films. As I became more interested in the mid-century and began doing a lot of reading about the period, I discovered that he was a supporter of HUAC. I also learned that he had called Native Americans “selfish” for not wanting to be forced off of their land, among other problematic declarations.

My purpose in sharing this is not to start a debate about whether or not John Wayne was a bigot, but to provide explanation for why I’ve seen so few of his films. I’m usually pretty good at separating the artist from the person. I try not to let scandals or a person’s beliefs get in the way of my appreciation of their talent. But I’ve always found it hard to do that with Wayne. (To be fair, the man himself did not attempt to separate the two, either. He often made films that reflected his specific beliefs.) As a result, I tend to avoid his films.

(Image via IMDb)
(Image via IMDb)

When I began the Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns series, I wanted to push myself out of my movie-watching comfort zone by exposing myself to the genre I was least familiar with. Now that I’m nearly a year into the project and have gained an appreciation for the genre, it’s time for me to bite the bullet and watch/try to appreciate a John Wayne western.

Red River (1948) was recommended to me by Todd, my partner in crime on many a two-person blogathon. This was one of the films he suggested to me waaaaay back in October 2013, when I first announced the LTTAW project.

Red River follows Thomas Dunson (Wayne), a frontiersman who decides to abandon the wagon train and become a Texas rancher along with Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan). He leaves his fiance (Colleen Gray) behind, and she’s soon killed in a raid by Native Americans. The sole survivor of that raid is a young boy named Matthew (portrayed by Mickey Kuhn as an adolescent, Montgomery Clift as an adult). Dunson decides to “adopt” Matthew, bringing him along to start the ranch.

Years later, after the Civil War has ended, Texas is in a dire economic situation. Matthew has just returned from fighting in the war and finds that Dunson has decided to move his herd to Missouri, where there’s a larger market for beef. They’ve got 1,000 miles to travel through dangerous territory, and the journey will bring them plenty of trouble.

Red River was directed by frequent Wayne collaborator Howard Hawks. The screenplay was written by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from a story by Chase, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.

Red River is a film driven not by action alone, but by its characters – both their internal and interpersonal struggles. This makes for a much more interesting watch than I had anticipated. They dynamic between Dunson and Matthew in particular is complex and quite tense. I adore Montgomery Clift and he’s a great asset to this film as Matthew. He and Wayne are opposites in so many ways. It was a genius bit of casting to pair them together in these roles, where they contrast each other and in some ways are pitted against each other.

(Image via OCD Viewer)
(Image via OCD Viewer)

And speaking of characters, we have Joanne Dru as Tess Millay. I was surprised to find that this was only her second film, as her performance is quite good and she doesn’t seem inexperienced at all. I like what her character adds to the story, mediating the sometimes-tumultuous relationship between Matthew and Dunson.

Though the film is largely character-driven, there are still plenty of great action sequences to be had here (the stampede, for example). I was glad to find that they weren’t the film’s focus. There are enough of ’em to add a jolt of energy to the film without distracting the viewer from the heart of the story.

The cinematography is wonderful as well. The west photographs so nicely in black and white, like an Ansel Adams photo come to life.

I can appreciate the fact that Red River is a classic of the Western genre, and I did enjoy it quite a bit — much more than I ever expected to. It hasn’t turned me into a John Wayne fan, but I would watch it again.

Did it boost my appreciation of the Western genre? YES – The character-focused nature of the story made this a very enjoyable watch for me. I appreciated the balance between action and substance.

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7 thoughts on “Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns: Red River (1948)

  1. Who’s this guy Todd you’re talking about? Glad you enjoyed the movie…I liked how it went against the grain by making Wayne a somewhat unlikeable character, and I loved the moment with Joanne Dru and the arrow. So this makes me…2 for 3 with my Western recommendations?

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  2. What a great project! I’ve been trying out Westerns for the last few years too despite much reluctance (mainly because I thought it would be an easier way to persuade my husband to watch classic movies) and am enjoying them. I’ll have to check out this one next- Leah

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  3. You know what you should do? The same thing I did – read the new John Wayne bio by Scott Eyman. I was never a big fan of the Duke’s either until I started watching his films earlier this year and reading more about him. The book was excellent and the author presented Wayne’s life in a very unbiased and plain way, letting his readers decide for themselves whether they sympathized with Wayne or not.

    Two of my favourite Wayne films are STAGECOACH and THE SEARCHERS. I’ve seen RED RIVER once before but I didn’t like it as much as the previous two films I mentioned.

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