Red River (1948)

This story begins in 1851 when Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his buddy Groot (Walter Brennan) break away from a wagon caravan to go south to Texas to raise cattle.  The caravan they were with was attacked by Indians later on, and Dunson lost the woman he left behind and had promised to send for.  They come upon a young boy named Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first film).  Garth is adopted by Dunson, and they build a sizable cattle empire over the next 14 years.

During that time Garth had gone off and fought in the Civil War, and the need for cattle in Texas and The South, their primary market, dried up as carpetbaggers took over the area after the war.  He needs to make a large cattle drive up to Missouri, which is not friendly with southerners and there has been news of raiding parties destroying herds and killing the hired hands of others doing cattle drives.

John Wayne’s grit seems fitting for a character like Dunson.  He writes his own rules even at the expense of alienating everyone, especially those who have known him the longest.  I don’t claim to have watched many John Wayne movies, but this seems to be the type of character he seemed most at home with: cold, distant, tyrannical (but with good reason).  This is in significant contrast with Garth’s character, who is softer but more likable and can get the men to work with more loyalty.  This tension adds nice layers and depth to the story.

Tess Millary (with a lovely performance from Joanne Dru), adds another layer to the story as a woman who falls for Garth but acts as a sounding board for both sides.  She brings an interesting outsiders perspective, which culminates in the final fight.  I will probably watch She Wore a Yellow Ribbon soon, which matches Wayne and Dru again.

Garth’s growth shows throughout the film, especially after he takes over the convoy from Dunson.  He still shows his youth though, in negotiating a price for the cattle.  He does, though, develop a need to overcome his surrogate father and become a man.  It also worked out great that in the final fight, they use their fists instead of guns.

Is this the greatest western every? No, but it’s worthy of consideration in this list of movies.

My Rating: 4 stars out of 5


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