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Film / Red River

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A 1948 movie starring John Wayne, the first Western directed by Howard Hawks. Perhaps the ultimate Cattle Drive movie, it is based on the novel The Blazing Guns of the Chisholm Trail by Borden Chase, which was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.

Remarkable as the first movie in which John Wayne played a character with greater depth, an aging man, and a larger-than-life borderline Übermensch. On first seeing it, John Ford famously commented: "I never knew that big son-of-a-bitch could act!" Ford would go on to use Wayne in a similar way in The Searchers, and it is perhaps significant that critics have likened the Duke's character in both these films to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick. Originally Hawks wanted to cast Gary Cooper in the lead, but Cooper demanded the screenplay be changed in order to make his character more sympathetic, so Hawks offered the part to Wayne instead. Which turned out a good thing, because not only could Wayne teach Hawks a thing or two about filming Westerns, but he also was instrumental in getting the budget doubled to $1.5 million.

In the prologue, Tom Dunson (Wayne) and his sidekick Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) set up a farm on the Red River in Texas. Dunson's lady love Fen is killed in an Indian attack on a wagon trek, but he picks up the sole survivor, Matt Garth, and adopts him, using his cow as the first of germ of what is to become a giant cattle farm.

Many years later, Matt (Montgomery Clift) returns from the The American Civil War at a time when Dunson and the other farmers are in trouble because there is no buyer in Texas for their cattle. So the farmers pool their herds together for a 10,000-head drive to Missouri on what will be known as the Chisholm Trail under Dunson's leadership. Since Dunson in the prologue had not hesitated to shoot off the rightful Mexican owner of part of his land, it comes as no surprise that he runs the drive a bit harshly when times are tough. Although there are plenty of dangers and hairy moments on the drive, including a big stampede, to make this somewhat understandable, Dunson does not exactly behave rationally after a while, for instance in his outright refusal to change the direction to Abilene, which is nearer and where a new railhead has just been opened.

Things come to a head when after fording the titular Red River Dunson wants to hang two of his cowhands. The crew mutinies and the trek heads on for Abilene under Matt's leadership, leaving an injured Dunson behind. On the trail they rescue a trek of settlers from a Comanche attack, where Matt meets Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) and falls in love with her. Tom Dunson meanwhile has set off in hot pursuit with some hired gunmen, swearing to get the herd back and kill Matt. He later comes across Tess as well, who tries to dissuade him from his mad quest in vain.

After the arrival in Abilene, Matt succeeds in selling off the entire herd, but then has to face up with Dunson the following day. As Matt refuses to draw, Dunson can't bring himself to shoot him in cold blood and the showdown devolves into a fistfight, which is finally broken up by Tess. Says Dunson to Matt: "You better marry that girl."

Not to be confused with the time travelling Shoujo Manga of the same name. Film debut of Montgomery Clift, although the long delay after production wrapped meant that Clift's second film, The Search, actually came out first.

This film shows examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: Red River was based on the novel The Blazing Guns of the Chisholm Trail by Borden Chase.
  • Alliterative Title
  • Animal Stampede: The Cattle Drive that forms the main plot is interrupted by a stampede. Many cattle are lost, a man is killed, and Dunson starts growing more erratic under the pressure.
  • Bad Boss: Thomas Dunson was a pretty abusive boss during the drive. He locked his men in a contract bind where none of them could quit, forced them to drive the ten thousand cattle crawling through hot, dry country for countless laborious, frustrating days without allowing any of his men to have food, water or rest. And then he also tried to whip one of his men just for causing some of the cattle to be lost and/or killed, executed three men who tried to abandon the drive (although Matt and Cherry also took part.), attempted to hang two men who started a separate cattle drive, and eventually going after his adopted son.
  • Big Bad: Tom Dunson.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Cherry's morality was always a little shaky until his Heel–Face Turn at the end. And Mr. Dunson kept spiralling downward up until the very end.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: Part of Matt's Improbable Aiming Skills; he does this to a cowboy to prevent a fatal shootout between said cowboy and Dunson.
  • Camp Cook: Groot, though some may disagree.
  • Cattle Baron: Dunson.
  • Cattle Drive: The main focus of the film.
  • Character Tics: Matt has a habit of rubbing his nose with his index finger.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Bunk Keneally has a habit of stealing from the sugar supply. Eventually he knocks over a bunch of pans while stealing sugar, causing the cattle to stampede.
  • Chromosome Casting: There are two female speaking parts in the film - Dunson's ill-fated fiance and Tess Millay.
  • Color Motif: As the title suggests, red appears a lot - the Red River, spilt red blood from death, Dan Latimer planned to buy his wife red shoes, etc.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: When Cherry tries to stop Dunson before the final showdown with Matt, he barely even slows him down.
  • Deadpan Snarker: This being a Howard Hawks film, it's a World of Snark. Everyone from Dunson to Groot to Matt to Cherry to Tess to Quo.
  • Due to the Dead: Dunson has an odd habit of giving a Christian burial and reading a service to the men he murders. The three guys who escape from his cattle drive call him on this as he's about to execute them.
  • False Teeth Tomfoolery: Groot bets his false teeth, which he only uses for eating, in a poker game and loses. He's forced to go to the winner whenever he wants to eat.
  • Fastest Gun in the West: Cherry wants to go toe to toe with Matt, to see who's the best.
  • Fatal Family Photo: There isn't a photo. But otherwise this trope is played straight as Dan the cowboy waxes on about the nice red shoes and all the other things he'd like to buy his pretty bride, only to die in the very next scene during the stampede.
  • The Gunslinger: Cherry Valance is a well known gunman.
  • Heal It with Booze: After Dunson is wounded in the leg during a confrontation with three deserters, Groot treats it by pouring whiskey on it.
  • I'll Kill You!: Dunson tells Matt this after the mutiny. The threat turns out to be nothing but hot air.
    Dunson: Cherry was right. You're soft. You should have let 'em kill me, 'cause I'm gonna kill you. I'll catch up with you. I don't know when, but I'll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, 'cause one time you'll turn around and I'll be there. I'm gonna kill you, Matt.
  • In the Style of: It seems like Howard Hawks was trying to make a John Ford western.
  • Just a Flesh Wound: Tess barely reacts to having an arrow pierce her shoulder. Though it appears to hurt a lot more coming out.
  • MacGuffin: The bracelet that Tom Dunson gives to Fen and later on Matt gives to Tess.
  • MacGuffin Escort Mission: The plot revolves around a Cattle Drive.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Tess is pinned to a wagon by an arrow through the shoulder. She doesn't even stop talking.
  • Meaningful Echo: When Fen pleads for Dunson to take her with him at the beginning, he tells her nothing she does or says will convince him to take her along. Later, when Dunson first meets Tess, she tells him Matt has already left, and used the same line on her, which makes Dunson uncomfortable.
  • The Mutiny: Red River has been described as "Mutiny on the Bounty on the prairie". Dunson's increasingly erratic and tyrannical behavior leads to Matt taking control of the cattle drive and going to Abilene instead of Missouri. The last straw is when Dunson says he's going to hang three men who tried to leave the party.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Bunk Keneally accidentally started the stampede making a clatter while trying to steal sugar from the chuck wagon, which leads to Dan Latimer's death.
  • Narrator: Groot, depending on which cut of the film you're watching. The cut commonly available in latter days has pages from a diary instead of spoken narration.
  • Professional Gambler: Tess and her troupe.
  • Recycled In SPACE: The writers admitted that the film was Mutiny on the Bounty, with cows.
  • Retired Gunfighter
  • Retirony: Dan Latimer talks about what he's going to do with the money he gets when the cattle drive is over. He talks about buying a home and getting his wife a pair of fancy red shoes. He's dead five minutes later.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Borden Chase objected to what he considered the historically inaccurate use of six-shooters. Howard Hawks insisted on using them, however, so he didn't have to stop a scene to reload guns.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Tess and Matt meet up when he's on night watch, they have a heart-to-heart ... and then we fade to them laying back and flirting.
    • Later on, when she shows up in his hotel room to warn him Dunson's coming, it's followed by a Big Damn Kiss ... and then a fade to another scene.
  • Shaped Like Itself: Dunson saying, "I don't like quitters—especially when they're not good enough to finish what they started."
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Tom Dunson died of his wound in the book and Matt takes his body back to Texas to be buried on the ranch.
  • Suck Out the Poison: Well, maybe Matt really did think that Tess had been shot with a poison arrow. Or maybe he just wanted some action.
  • Sweet Tooth: One of Dunson's men, Bunk Kenneally, has a predilection for stealing sugar from the chuck wagon, which has disastrous consequences when his clattering one night rouses the skittish cattle to stampede.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Dunson punishes Bunk Kenneally for causing a stampede and getting a man killed by bullwhipping him.
    You started all this...we're three or four hundred head short and you killed Dan Latimer...stealin' sugar like a kid. Well, they whip kids to teach 'em better.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Cherry Valance till his Heel–Face Turn anyway.
  • Uncertain Doom: Cherry. He gets shot by Dunson, who normally always goes for the kill, but he doesn't immediately fall to the ground and a few people instantly rush over to check on him. Given they're in Abilene it's possible he got medical attention in time, but no clear answer is given.
  • Villain Protagonist: A majority of the story is centered around Thomas Dunson and his tyrannical reign of the cattle industry and pretty bad leadership. He loses the "protagonist" part in the second half when Matt eventually turns against him and they become enemies.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Tom's love interest, Fen gets a single scene before she dies offscreen to the Indians.
  • The Western
  • Worthy Opponent: Matt and Cherry. When they first meet, they admire each other's guns and have a friendly bout of shooting. Everyone around them braces for the inevitable eventual confrontation. Doesn't happen—their mutual respect leads to a kind of friendship.
    Cherry: You're fast with that gun, Matt. Awful fast. But your heart's soft. Too soft. Might get you hurt some day.
    Matt: Could be. I wouldn't count on it.
  • Young Gun: Matt and Cherry.
  • You No Take Candle: Quo the faithful Indian says stuff like "Me bet one silver dollar. Put up, or keep face closed." (Of course, Quo actually wins that poker hand.)