Saturday, March 5, 2011

Howard Hawks | Red River

by Douglas Messerli

Borden Chase and Charles Schnee (screenplay, based on a story by Borden Chase), Howard Hawks and Arthur Rosson (directors) Red River / 1948

Howard Hawks' 1948 film, Red River, is certainly one of the greatest of Hollywood westerns. If its plot and even cinematography is a bit old-fashioned, the inter-relationships between characters and the films presentation of a stampede, Indian attacks, and the plain dust and dirt of a cattle drive is incomparable.

I've never truly been a John Wayne fan, although I've enjoyed several of the movies in which he acted. But here, as the autocratic rancher Thomas Dunson, Wayne comes alive in the role, playing it at both ends, from the hard-hearted, stubbornly overbearing settler to the sometimes surprisingly tender and sympathetic man, worn out by the loss of his sweetheart to Indians and the years of hard work he has put into creating his ranch. As director John Ford is rumored to have said: "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act."

Part of Wayne's power comes about because of those with whom he is cast. Walter Brennan, playing Wayne's right-hand man, Nadine Groot, not only serves as chorus of Dunson's acts, but puts much of the serious goings-on into a humorous perspective. Without him, the entire film would be much darker, and clearly less enjoyable. Groot does his own serious mumbling—throughout the film Dunson demands he speak up and talk more clearly, but he has lost his teeth to Chief Yowiachie (Quo)—commenting on his employer's often brutal behavior. But his homespun observations pepper the action with a hardheaded wit, as when two strangers appear in the distance:

Never liked seeing strangers. Maybe it's because no stranger ever good-newsed me.

At the other side of Dunson (Wayne) sits his adopted son, Matt Garth (broodingly and beautifully played by Montgomery Clift). Although tough in his own way—after having seen the Indians destroy his family and, later, having served in the Civil War—he is a far gentler and ruminative version of Dunson. Dunson has certainly plotted out his path in life, but Garth time again describes himself as having "figured it out." Unlike Dunson, he has done serious thinking about the choices before him, and ultimately, despite his loyalty to Dunson and his love for him, it will be at the center of their parting ways.

Both writers and director cleverly underline Garth's differences with Dunson by suggesting opposing sexualities. In fact, the film books report Wayne and Brennan did not at all get along with the homosexual Clift, keeping their distance throughout the shooting. Others involved in the film were worried that John Ireland (playing the cowboy Cherry Valance) and Clift might not get along because of different and outspoken political views. But it is Valance and Garth in this nearly all-male epic, who invoke any possibility of sexuality. From their very first meeting, the two obviously discover in each other a deep sensuality, which is played out in the nearly over-the-top exchange of guns and the shooting competition which follows, recently satirized in the Coen brother's True Grit.

Cherry: That's a good looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? (Matt turns, strokes his nose with his thumb and looks a bit amused, then hands his gun over. Cherry takes the gun.) And you'd like to see mine. (Cherry draws his own, and reciprocates by handing it to Matt. Cherry examines Matt's gun.) Nice! Awful nice! (Looking somewhat sideways at Matt) You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?

Matt: (pointing toward a tin can in the distance) Go ahead! Try it! (Cherry fires a shot and knocks a can into the air. Matt also hits the can in the air with a shot of his own)

Cherry: Hey! That's very good! (Matt shoots at another can, knocking it into the air. Cherry hits it in the air with a shot of his own.)

Matt: Hey! Hey! That's good too! Go on! Keep it going!

It's clear their shooting serves them as a kind of orgasm that they hope may never end.

One can only presume, given nearly everyone's revelation of this scene, that the people in the Hayes office were so literal-minded and stone deaf that they could not comprehend the laden sexuality of the lines. In any event, from that first meeting on, despite Groot's prediction that the two will end up fighting, there is a deep relationship between them, including Matt's obvious jealousy when Cherry hooks up with a girl in a passing wagon train. Whether it's true or not, as the trivia people claim, that Ireland and Clift actually were having an affair during the shooting of this film (Ireland was married to Elaine Sheldon at the time), they hint at a simmering love on camera, or, at least, an almost uncontrollable fascination with one another.

This, in turn, further underscores the impending alienation between father and son. Dunson is a strong-headed conservative, determined to try no new routes to the Midwest, despite the near-starvation and exhaustion of his crew. Rules are rules and, as his cowboys sneak away, they are rounded up to be shot or even hung, after which Dunson, as he puts it, "reads over them," as if the burial and service redeemed his acts.

The more sensitive and thoughtful Matt, a softhearted soul, as both Dunson and Valance have described him, cannot tolerate the hanging of two defectors. Grabbing the reins of the cattle run and sending his own father off into the wilderness alone, Matt is determined to move in a new direction along the Chisholm Trail, leading to Abilene where, it is rumored, a railroad now runs.
The question remains, of course, whether they'll get there before Dunson rounds up other men and returns to kill his "softhearted" son.

One of the most spectacular scenes of the film is the Texans' arrival in the city of Abilene, where they are heartily greeted as they drive thousands of long-horn cattle through the streets, accompanied as always, by Dimitri Tiomkin's powerful score. The terms they're offered create a financial windfall for the cowboys. But vengeance, we know, is certain to rear its ugly head.
Dunson returns with new men intent upon accomplishing his blind, cold-hearted vision, despite the wise observations of Groot. Demanding that Matt draw, Dunson is ready for the showdown, which Matt refuses him, throwing away his gun. Inevitability seems to have won the day, until Matt's new girl, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), interrupts the fight by drawing a gun on both men, insisting that they face their love for one another.

It's an irony that strangely could never be played out in real life. It's also worth noting that Ireland divorced his first wife a year later, marrying Dru, as if she were a trophy won way from the Matt Garth character Clift portrays—a marriage which lasted until 1956, the year in which Clift's automobile accident basically destroyed his career, described as "the longest suicide in Hollywood history." Two years after his accident, Clift turned down the role offered him in Hawkes' Rio Bravo, a role reassigned to Dean Martin, a drunk with a clearly heterosexual history.

But let us forget all that: this film says everything that needs to be said.

Los Angeles, March 4, 2011
Copyright (c)2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

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