“I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!” said John Ford when he saw John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Western, “Red River.” Ford was right. Wayne is exceptionally masculine and exceptionally vulnerable in this film that tells a dramatized story of the very first cattle drive through the Chisholm Trail. Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a man from Texas who, over the course of 14 years, has grown his cattle herd from one bull and a cow to 9,000.
Things are not working out in Texas economically, and Dunson decides to make his way to Missouri. The journey seems impossible. But he’s not alone. Joining him are his adopted son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), loyal trail hand Groot (Walter Brennan), and many hard working men invested in a safe crossing into Missouri with the entire cattle herd.
Dunson is a man haunted by an uneasy past. The woman he loved and left behind was murdered in an Indian massacre. All that was left from this ill-fated trek was Matt, a boy who somehow survived the raid, and whom Dunson took in. These two men provide a window into two separate masculinities the film explores their respective visions and how they illuminate the decisions they make as men.
Dunson is a stubborn man and completely unlikeable. His determination to bring the cattle into Missouri is noble, but it also causes him to see nothing else but that. He’s full of contradictions and interior conflicts. He considers himself “the law” and has no problem quickly shooting anyone who gets in his way, but then reading the Bible over their bodies. As one trail hand said in the film, “Fill ’em full of lead, stick ’em in the ground, and then read words at ’em.”
As the journey progresses, and as the men deal with many challenges (a stampede, losing some cattle, Indians, and heavy rains among others), Dunson becomes more and more tyrannical and sadistic. Matt has respect for him but knows that Dunson’s madness and obsession is injuring the men. The breaking point comes when Dunson wants to hang the men who chose to desert. Matt asserts his power and stops him. We witness a mutiny of sorts, and Dunson has no choice but to leave. Walking like a wounded and worn out lion, Dunson swears he will follow the men and when he least expects it, he will kill Matt.
“Red River” is one of Hawks’ best films, and like many Westerns, this too elicits extreme emotions. It is an American epic. But unlike John Ford, Hawks is a quicker and understated director. While Ford teases out the poetry in the midst of reality, Hawks lets the raw reality speak for itself. Men die quickly. Love is declared quickly. And yet, there is nothing crude about Hawks’ swiftness. His declarative style informs an aesthetic slowness when it’s needed. Whether it’s love or hate, Hawks’ cinematographic subtleness heightens the power of both.
This is especially seen in a later part of the film when Tom and Matt are separated. Along the way, Matt meets Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), whom he saves from an Indian attack. The encounter between Matt and Tess, and the few scenes they are in together are some of the most erotic scenes to grace the silver screen. Hawks is incredibly subtle, and Montgomery Clift’s talent is unparalleled. His “pretty boy” attractiveness does not get in the way, but rather reveals a different kind of masculinity that enhances the movement in the film from youth to wisdom.
Clift’s Matt is at once indifferent to and brutally rough with Tess (only later does his tenderness come to the fore). But this ravishing is strangely romantic and erotic. It’s part of the Western genre: Women are often accidental additions to the story because the men there are drawn to the land and manly one upmanship that is required to tame it. Both Tom and Matt leave their lovers behind.
Despite the way men relate to each other in “Red River”—competing in honor, prowess, and even obvious phallic competition (“That’s a good looking gun . . . Can I see it?” “Maybe you’d like to see mine.”)—Hawks does not compel the viewer to see this in some homoerotic way. Rather such banter becomes an occasion for comedy. The perennial themes of being human always trump literal social or sexual issues.
At its core, “Red River” is a film about conquest. Only men conquer, while women wait. Even though the women in Tom’s and Matt’s lives want to join them, and Tom and Matt have that wish too, the desire to conquer is stronger than the desire for comfort. In Sexual Personae (1990), Camille Paglia writes that “Man is sexually compartmentalized . . . he is condemned to a perpetual pattern of linearity, focus, aim, directedness.” On the other hand, “woman’s eroticism is diffused throughout her body.” A woman’s eroticism is veiled. (In most of her scenes, Tess has a dark veil or a shawl on her head. She is both sacred and profane because of her encounter with Matt. She wants him and makes no qualms about that.)
Wayne’s familiar and characteristic stability and masculinity is portrayed differently in “Red River.” He is not a good man, yet it’s impossible not to like him because, in the words of Peter Bogdanovich, John Wayne makes us “understand him [Tom Dunson].” He is fighting his vulnerability and choosing tyranny, yet it is in the moments of letting go that Wayne’s Dunson becomes the most powerful man.
Matt also has the need to conquer. Clift’s calm face may indicate wisdom borne out of suffering, but there is still much that he doesn’t understand. As his experience grows, so does his understanding of Tom. But conquering is once and for all put to an end by Tess. Ironically, she becomes imbued with masculine directedness and aim, not interested in seeing manly games and metaphoric pissing contests. Looking both like a mother and a frustrated lover, she calls Tom’s and Matt’s bluffs, and tells them to get their act in order. Turning the entire film upside down, Tess wakes the men up. In this case, it is both erotic power and harsh reality that renders Hawks’ film brilliant in every way.