#226 Red River
(1948, Howard Hawks)
“Give me ten years, and I’ll have that brand on the gates of the greatest ranch in Texas”
Oh boy, another John Wayne Western. This’ll be fun!
Red River is about John Wayne being a manly man in the Old West, like all his films, in fact. This one he plays a man who wants to open up a hugely successful cattle ranch in Texas. After fighting some injuns and opening up his ranch, he realises that it isn’t too profitable and decides to move it to Missouri instead. Then there’s stuff about a mutiny in his group and some other things happen and…yeah…
See, I can go straight into my major gripe with this movie. I have absolutely no idea what this movie was trying to achieve. The plot has no anchor, no central plot point or theme to hold the thing together. I have a low opinion of Westerns as it is (no really, I know it’s never come up before), but this disappointed me even with the bar set so low, simply because I spent most of my time saying “WHAT ARE YOU ABOUT?!”
Ultimately, the only conclusion I could draw was that this was John Wayne Does Stuff: The Movie, except then John Wayne disappears at some point and it becomes about his adopted son instead, so even that theory was flawed.
You see, the problem is, the movie opens on Wayne leaving a wagon trail to pursue his own fortune, leaving with his buddy towards Texas. During this trip, the wagon trail gets attacked by injuns and they soon catch up to our duo, who heroically fight them off. Sadly, there’s a chance that everyone’s dead, including Wayne’s girlfriend. So this is a revenge story, right? Wayne goes off and fights them evil injuns to avenge his girlfriend’s death?
Oh, no, Wayne carries onto Texas to set up his ranch, where he’s confronted by some Mexicans, who inform him the land is already owned by a Mexican man. Ah, I see, this is going to be about Wayne claiming the land for himself and it’s all going to be very exciting and…
Ten years later, the ranch is doing pretty well it seems, and Wayne and the Mexicans are actually little more than amicable business rivals. Except, oh no, the beef business isn’t good in Texas, it’s much better in Missouri, so let’s go off on a journey across America to move the ranch!
That’s the first twenty minutes of the movie, by the way. Now, I know what you’re thinking. With that much going on, there’s no time for any of this to really sink in, there’s no time for character development, there’s no real focus, and it all sounds a bit messy. Well, you are correct, for these twenty minutes set the standard for the rest of the movie, which is a horribly tangled mess with too much going on, too many characters to keep up with and too little space to breathe.
There’s a funeral scene following a stampede later in the movie. It’s impossible to feel any emotion towards the person they’ve lost since the viewer has no idea who they are. We’re informed that the men become bitter and angry at a loss of rations, but this is never really adequately explained, so there goes the main conflict of the movie (until it shifts direction again later).
There is no pacing and no structure. John Wayne does things, his adopted son does things and everyone speaks funny because YEEHAW it’s a Western. And I am suffering for my wish to see a Western that didn’t bore me, because here’s a Western that simply confused me. I wrote down a note saying that the director needs to learn structure and pacing, and then felt sad that this is from the same guy who brought us His Girl Friday and the original 1930s Scarface, both excellent films that I highly enjoyed, and wondered what the hell happened.
Perhaps the problem lies with Wayne himself. Like in all his movies, he shows no emotion, talks in the same drawl and the same personality as every other character he’s ever played, making everything around him seem as flat as his acting.
I cannot think of a single good thing to say about Red River. It’s a John Wayne movie that tries to do too much in too little time and ends up being even worse than usual in my book.
Starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift & Walter Brennan
Written by Borden Chase & Charles Schnee
Produced by Howard Hawks
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography by Russell Harlan
Edited by Christian Nyby
Favourite Scene: NOPE
Scene That Bugged Me: The first 20 minutes, which set the tone for the entire movie
Watch it if: You absolutely need to watch every John Wayne movie
Avoid it if: You think Howard Hawks should stick to gangsters and reporters