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.
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.