Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Howard Hawks

Red River

Much in life makes for the anonymity of the individual human being and, not surprisingly, most people drift mindlessly with the current carrying them towards the final oblivion of death. But some men hate the very thought of drowning in the flux and flow of impermanence, of simply living and dying without indelibly marking their environment with some unmistakable signature. Whatever form it may take, that signature always translates: “I was here and it mattered.” Such men resist at any cost the drift towards oblivion by defining and delineating a sense of personal identity which can stand firm against all that would blur and obliterate its lineaments. American writers from Melville to Faulkner have been especially preoccupied with the theme of an individual at odds with whatever seeks to ignore or abrogate his assertion of selfhood: the adversaries may be nature itself with its massive indifference to human life, or other men bent on violating the self-defined perimeters of one’s identity, or even socioeconomic systems which, like nature, mostly manifest a profound disinterest in individual human existence.

John Wayne plays Dunson opposite Montgomery Clift's Matthew Garth

A man may also war with his own limitations which prevent him from measuring up to the standards he has set for himself. My guess is that the very configuration of the land in which the early settlers of America found themselves was partially responsible for the appearance of this insistent theme, with all its subsequent permutations, in American literature—and later, in American cinema. This immense sea of land, empty of the communal comfort of town or city, threaded only occasionally by Indian paths, its forests, rivers, and mountains contained both threat and promise for those early settlers. Such a country could swallow a man up without a trace that he had ever lived. Or a man might take possession of some part of that vast untouched expanse and make it subject to the shape and bent of his own mind and will. Howard Hawks’ Red River is the saga of such a man.

Even the credit sequence in Red River, with names that appear to be part of rugged terrain, suggests the strong association of a man’s identity with the land he claims. This graphic reminder gives way to the pages of Early Tales of Texas, the written record which commemorates what was actually achieved by Thomas Dunson, Nadine Groot, and Matthew Garth in the years between 1851 and 1865. The historical narrative fades into the actuality: characteristically, in these very first scenes, Thomas Dunson shows that he is bound by nothing he has not put his name on and that his mind, once set upon a course of action, cannot be swayed. Dunson lays his life on the line with his signature; the strength of that ethic will build and then nearly lose an empire for him. He stands square behind his decisions as well, for, right or wrong, if he vacillates he cannot hope to bring men or land under his sway. An early casualty of this inflexibility, Fen stands small beneath the powerful curve of a mountain, her tiny figure already vulnerable, nearly lost in the immensity of the land Dunson believes he must claim before he can possess her. This composition—a human being dwarfed by mountains, isolated in a wide expanse of land—recurs throughout Red River, usually signaling moments of promise fulfilled, as when Dunson, Groot, and Garth face the empty landscape that will eventually become the greatest ranch in Texas. Though Dunson loses the woman he loves, he, like other Hawks heroes, draws strength from an absolutely dependable friendship. Groot’s ‘”Me and Dunson … well, it’s me and Dunson”—in response to the leader of the wagon train—foreshadows the nearly supernatural cooperation displayed by the two men in their subsequent battle with the Indians, particularly when Dunson rises out of the stream, catches a knife he knows instinctively will be there because he needs it—all in one beautiful and impossible motion. In a sense, Groot is an extension of Dunson’s personality (as Matthew is until he becomes his own man) and he functions as Dunson’s conscience and comforter throughout the film. Groot’s “You was wrong” charts Dunson’s ethical deterioration and finally culminates in Groot’s re-alliance with Dunson’s heir-apparent. However, even at the height of their disaffection when Dunson has shot down the three “quitters,” Groot matter-of-factly registers Dunson’s wound which Matt misses completely.

In this uncivilized territory no man as yet carries credentials to identify himself; like the land, each individual is an unknown quantity, not to be trusted until proved, shown to be good enough. Dunson and Groot are stronger for their implicit knowledge of each other’s worth, something that is dependable, stable in an environment which is not—the familiar Hawksian definition of friendship. Dunson’s first lesson to his son (whose appearance  coincides with the death of the woman who would have been his wife) is exactly this: “Don’t ever trust anybody ’til you know ’em.” The bond between the man and the boy is immediate, for Dunson returns Matthew’s gun and turns his back on the boy in a gesture of trust more powerful than any verbal commitment could achieve, though Dunson’s “He’ll do” succinctly concretizes it. When Groot sights the Mexican outriders, his addendum to this lesson is characteristically more humorous: “Never liked seein’ strangers. Guess it’s because no stranger ever good-newsed me.”

You show me yours and I'll show you mine: John Ireland as Cherry Valance, with Clift

Dunson’s immediate recognition of Matthew’s worth (inextricable from who he is) is echoed fourteen years later when Matt and Cherry Valance from “Valverde way” trade guns, then match shots at tin cans. Matt’s expertise is as good as a signature and Cherry sees it as such: “Now I know who you’d be!” Later Hawks inserts a scene in which Tess Millay will appeal to Groot for information about Matthew—a little after the fact, since like most Hawks lovers and friends they have recognized each other instantly and shown it by their mutual antagonism, just as Cherry and Matthew did at first meeting. Even later Dunson will want to know how Tess knows so much about him as they test each other’s character across that little table on which they finally put their cards—or rather, their guns. Dunson asks Millay why she didn’t use her gun, and we are meant to remember that he asked nearly the same question of the boy Matthew after his gun had been returned: “Are you going to use it?” Appropriately the woman his son loves answers with instinctive knowledge of Hawksian ethics: “Would there be any use going [to Matthew] if I did?” Tess fools him not at all when she toughs out his question about how she came by the snake bracelet with “I stole it!”; for the bracelet is a signature too, the unmistakable mark of a man’s affection: Dunson gave it to Fen, then, after recovering it from the Indian, to his son, from whom it passes to Tess.

Dunson traced the Red River brand, another permutation of his name, in the very soil of his land, as well as burning it into the hides of his bull and Matthew’s cow, the beginning of the great herd which would some day fill that empty landscape. Later, during the cattle drive, Groot cracks that if he eats any more dust he’ll become “the state o’ Groot,” another reference to the inseparability of man and land. The Red River ranch is essentially a “state of Dunson.” Though Matthew’s cow is indispensable, the boy must still earn the right to make his name part of the Red River brand. Almost as soon as Dunson lays claim to the land he must defend it against an absentee owner’s hired guns. The Spanish don has not earned the right to call the land his own, for a man cannot really possess that which he does not stand upon; this man sends hirelings to defend his land, and by extension his name.

Dunson’s incipient cattle barony already marks the land in the superbly composed scene in which he reads over the gunfighter’s grave. As usual, the mountains loom over the three men, but visual tension is created between their strong horizontal drift (and that of the land) and the vertical resistance of the human figures, the wagon at left of frame, the cross that marks the grave and, in the foreground, the Red River branding-iron which stands upright beside the fire. As Dunson intones every man’s epitaph—”We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we take nothing from it”—the smoke from the fire blows across the grave and the man who will spend his life making sure that something will memorialize the fact that he lived. Fourteen years later, seven more graves attest to the cost of Dunson’s personal manifest destiny.

Those fourteen years have strengthened the love between Groot, Garth, and Dunson—no one can mistake the Hawskian rhythms of friendship as Matt shows hers one jump ahead of Dunson in figuring out the route for the cattle drive, Groot interrupts and one-ups Dunson in a perfect cataract of verbosity, a cigarette is lit and passed from Garth to Dunson, and finally guns are drawn to see whether the father’s skill has been surpassed by the son’s (seems as if you can always tell whether people like each other in this movie by whether they’re pulling guns on each other!).

But despite the fact that his “family” is reunited, Dunson is frightened. His ranch is threatened by something he doesn’t know how to fight: he has cattle but no market. The Civil War has bankrupted the South, and so economic necessity forces him to turn back the way he came to make the cattle drive which will alter history by opening the Chisholm Trail. It is important to note how Red River begins to turn full circle at this point. This movement represents a return to the past out of which is born the future of a nation as well as Matthew Garth’s manhood. Those strengths which served Dunson so well in the creation of his own future are exactly that which nearly causes him to fail in this last great gamble.

The drive, like the Red River claim, takes a death early, and Dan Latimer’s funeral has much the same look as the gunfighter’s. But here dead cattle bulk in the foreground and instead of smoke the dark shadow of a cloud passes slowly across a mountain in the background—calling to mind the terrible fragility of human life. Dunson’s epitaph is sadly appropriate for a man whose identity is verified only by what he wore and the horse he rode, a man who has no legacy but the promise of a pair of red shoes.

Short of food and driven by Dunson to the point of exhaustion, three of the men announce they’re quitting (the Mexican wants to die in his own land so that people he knows can visit his grave). Dunson holds short shrift for men who have put their names to a contract and then renege; in a sequence similar in its collaboration to the Indian battle, Dunson in one smooth motion catches and fires the rifle Groot has ready for him, while Matthew covers him from the right. Dunson’s necessary ethic has hardened into ruthlessness, and although Matthew and Groot back him in this confrontation, they both know he is wrong.

The crossing of the Red River is visually and thematically magnificent: Dunson’s cattle stream across the river which bears the name of his brand, and Dunson passes a spiritual as welt as physical landmark, going ever deeper into the country of his past (before the crossing, as before the Indian fight years ago, he remarks, “This looks like as good a place as any”). His refusal to change his mind and head for Abilene obstructs the inexorable drift of history, and his inflexibility steadily forces his son to cast free of him and find his own way. When his father in all but name threatens to hang Teeler and Laredo for desertion, Matthew stands against him, although even then he nearly kills Teeler when the latter pulls a gun on Dunson. Dunson at the start of the drive half-jokingly threatened to put his brand on his adopted son, and it is clear by the boy’s dress (his buckskin shirt is like the youthful Dunson’s) and mannerisms (the considering rub of the side of the nose, the back braced by downward-spread hands) that Matthew is very much his father’s son. It is because he is so much a man of Dunson’s stamp that he must earn his manhood by taking the herd away from Dunson and on to Abilene.

As Matthew leaves his father, the camera seems to pivot on the fulcrum of Dunson leaning massively against his horse; the movement dizzies and destroys equilibrium as it swings around and away from that lonely and vengeful figure. Both Dunson and Garth are morally disoriented by the apparent loss of mutual loyalty; Garth especially is affected by the vertigo of sudden independence and responsibility—but he remains tenuously connected in that camera movement to the stronger man, for his freedom will not be complete until the circle is closed at Abilene. It’s not enough to know that his father is wrong—Matt must be right.

In subsequent scenes, Matthew reenacts with important variations some of the events in his father’s life. Dunson’s Fen died unprotected in an Indian raid because he would not let her handicap him in his drive towards land of his own. Matthew allows his herd to scatter, losing precious time, while he and his men fight off an Indian attack which would have lost him Tess Millay. Even in the midst of their lovemaking, Matthew’s playful response to Tess’ query as to whether he likes her kisses, “I’ve always been slow making up my mind,” evokes memories of Dunson’s unmoved answer to Fen’s kiss just before he leaves her: “I’ve made up my mind and nothing you can do or say will change it.” Later Tess uses those same words to describe Matthew’s decision to leave her behind, and Dunson will even prompt her from his memory of Fen’s parting speech. Indeed, Tess so resembles Fen that Dunson tries momentarily to turn back time by offering her half of everything he owns if she will give him a son; Tess’ sarcastic “By Dunson, out of Millay” shows that she has registered his evaluation of her as a blooded brood mare. She assents, however, if he will spare Matthew. Neither expects the other to agree to these terms (or to use those concealed guns): but they, like all good Hawksian folks, must test each other’s mettle before settling into friendship and mutual respect.

The discovery of the railroad and the subsequent drive through the very streets of Abilene is marked by terrific exhilaration, for Matthew’s decision is justified and Abilene’s future as a cattle market is assured by the arrival of the first herd to come up the Chisholm Trail from Texas. But Dunson is still to be faced.

Nothing can stand before the force of Dunson’s coming. He bears down through his herd like some avenging angel, hardly pausing to attend Cherry’s challenge, and losing no momentum when he is wounded. The man whose character is most like that of a rock finally faces the son he as well as Cherry previously gauged as “too soft,” and failing to goad him into drawing, shoots close enough to nick Matt’s cheek. Matthew smiles with great certainty as Dunson again names him as “too soft” and wonders “Won’t anything make a man out of you?” For Matthew Garth knows he is a man and knows the man before him so well that he will not raise a gun against him—though he does finally raise his hand against his father and the latter’s expression of poleaxed surprise indexes his long-in-coming recognition of his son’s separate and strong manhood. Because Tess understands the peculiar logic of Hawksian friendship, she knows the two men are fighting because they love each other, and her furious intervention with a gun, threatening to shoot both of them, is the measure of her affection for them both. The tension which has been building for fourteen years ever since that adolescent boy called Dunson on taking his gun and warned him never to do it again is finally released in typically joyous Hawksian style, and it is impossible not to share in the renewed sense of love and respect between these two men.

Red River began with the loss of a woman and a boy’s promise to earn a man’s share of the Red River brand and all that carried that brand. The film comes full circle with the entry of Tess Millay into a reunited Hawks “family” and Dunson’s acceptance of his son as an equal when he adds the M to the Red River D, the signature of two men who indelibly marked and shaped the land in which they lived and died.

Hawks’ Red River differs from his other Westerns (and his films in general) in its powerfully photographed outdoors setting. Most of the films take place indoors, in communal centers of some kind. However, it resembles several of his films in its use of certain actors to further emphasize Hawksian themes. In Only Angels Have Wings Richard Barthelmess, considered a has-been in the industry, made a successful comeback both as an actor and as the character he portrayed in the film. In Rio Bravo, Hawks plays an established singer, Dean Martin, off against a young comer, Ricky Nelson, in their respective roles as a gunfighter who must regain his reputation and one who must prove his expertise. In Red River John Wayne, an actor of the old school, must hold his own against Montgomery Clift’s new brand of acting. Similarly Clift must meet the challenge of an old master. Melville, the cattle buyer, is played by Harry Carey, whose seamed face recalls the many Westerns in which he starred back into the Teens, among them John Ford’s Straight Shooting (1917). His son Harry Carey Jr. is Dan Latimer, the stuttering cowhand killed in the stampede. Noah Beery Jr. (Buster) is the son of another film veteran, and former (if minor) stars Lane Chandler, Torn Tyler, and Hal Taliaferro take smaller roles. The theme of fathers and sons is not restricted to the storyline of the film.

Appropriately it is the senior Carey who observes there are three times a man has a right to howl at the moon: when he marries, when his children come, “and when he finishes a job he had to be crazy to start.” Matt’s more tolerant decency and less obsessive sense of purpose are necessary to complete an epic task—but that task was begun, that vision conceived, by his spiritual father. The final “You’ve earned it” includes both men.

Copyright 1972 by Kathleen Murphy

Monterey Productions, 1947-48. Directed by Howard Hawks.  Screenplay: Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, after a story by Chase.  Cinematography: Russell Harlan.  Associate director: Arthur Rosson.  Editing: Christian Nyby.  Music: Dimitri Tiomkin.
The Players:
Thomas Dunson: John Wayne;  Matthew Garth: Montgomery Clift;  Groot: Walter Brennan;  Cherry Valance: John Ireland;  Buster: Noah Beery Jr.;  Tess Millay: Joanne Dru;  Melville: Harry Carey Sr.;  Sims: Hank Worden;  Teeler: Paul Fix;  Dan Latimer: Harry Carey Jr.;  Laredo: Dan White;  Leather: Hal Taliaferro;  Quo: Chief Yowlatchie;  Bunk Kenneally:Ivan Parry;  Walt, the guy with The Hat: Ray Hyke;  Mailer: Glenn Strange;  His friend: Tom Tyler;  Fernandez: Paul Fierro;  Fen, Dunson’s fiancée: Coleen Gray;  The colonel, leading the wagon train: Lane Chandler;  Matthew, as a boy: Mickey Kuhn.