Saturday, September 22, 2007

Red River (1948)

I don't think this is one of Howard Hawks's greatest films in the company of The Big Sleep, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Rio Bravo, but it's pretty good and thoroughly entertaining. It's got action, it's got a little romance, it's got suspense, and it has John Wayne and Montgomery Clift giving excellent performances - Wayne is actually convincingly dramatic for perhaps the first time in his career, and Clift is loose and unmannered. There's also a hilarious scene where Clift meets cute and flirts with the female lead (Joanne Dru) in the middle of an Indian raid - she takes an arrow in the shoulder and doesn't bat an eye - only in a Hawks movie. You really get the feeling of the grungy exhiliration of being on your own in the middle of nowhere, on a mission, in this case the first cattle drive after the Civil War, complicated by a range mutiny that ejects John Wayne from command.

What holds the movie back from masterpiece status is the sense that it doesn't always seem to know what it's about. Early on there's a rivalry established between Clift and John Ireland, both seen as young gunslingers out to prove themselves. They get a classically homoerotic scene where they check out each others' guns, it looks like they're going to be rivals, and then...nothing happens. Ireland sides with Clift halfway through the movie when the revolt happens, and that's about it. More egregious is the way the movie insists that a tragic, Shakespearean dramatic conclusion is going to happen once Wayne catches up with Clift at the end of the trail, seeking a grim satisfaction for the deep personal wrong done to him. And instead, the movie ends with an 'I can't stay mad at you' ending with Wayne forgiving Clift and living happily ever after. It's a traditional Hawksian ending, a love story between two men, so it's not really the ending that's flawed but rather the heavy foreshadowing in the middle of the movie that feels wrong.


Chuck said...

Nice job. I watched "Red River" for the first time this year and I see eye to eye with your words here, particularly regarding the anti-climactic ending.

I've been going through Hawks' stuff in general this year, and I have to say that I found "Rio Bravo" to be overrated. It's a big, shambling movie (that's good and bad) with really nothing at stake. It's Western vaudeville, and I guess your reaction to the film depends on your taste for that sort of thing.

The best Hawks that I've seen so far is his superb "Scarface."

Jeff McMahon said...

Ah, there we differ. I think Rio Bravo is one of his two or three best movies with more going on than meets the eye.

frankbooth said...

And what about poor Cherry Valance, left lying in the dust with a bullet in his gut as Wayne and Clift hug and kiss? I found that rather disturbing.

Jeff McMahon said...

Oh, he was fine. I'm pretty sure it was just a flesh wound.