Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

“I don’t like quitters — especially when they’re not good enough to finish what they start.”

After his fiancee (Coleen Gray) is killed in a wagon raid, an ambitious rancher (John Wayne) raises an orphan from the raid (Mickey Kuhn) like his own son. Years later, Wayne — accompanied by his cook (Walter Brennan), his now-grown “son” (Montgomery Clift), a loyal gunfighter (John Ireland), and many other hired hands — begins a lengthy cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, but quickly finds his tolerance lagging after one of his men (Ivan Parry) accidentally sets off a stampede that kills another (Harry Carey, Jr.). Soon Wayne becomes so unreasonable about “deserters” that Clift must take over the drive — but Wayne vows revenge; and when he encounters a beautiful young woman (Joanne Dru) Clift has fallen for, she becomes embroiled in their feud as well.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Coleen Gray Films
  • Cowboys
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • Joanne Dru Films
  • John Ireland Films
  • John Wayne Films
  • Mentors
  • Montgomery Clift Films
  • Mutiny
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Walter Brennan Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “monumental first western” by Howard Hawks — “scripted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from Chase’s [story] “The Chisholm Trail” — is a “westernized Mutiny on the Bounty that advanced the possibility that the Bligh-Christian conflict was Oedipal in nature” (I wouldn’t go that far). Peary points out that this “unromanticized western has remarkable authenticity” and “beautiful black-and-white photography by Russell Harlan, with [an] emphasis on cloudy skies, barren terrain, [and] darkness that makes night oppressive”, thus giving a “harsh feel to the West”.

He notes that “Hawks deals with emotions rarely explored in westerns, including Wayne’s uncharacteristic interrelated senses of fear (of failure) and paranoia” — indeed, “this is Wayne’s only character whose sense of morality becomes clouded, who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong.” Peary adds that “Clift, who makes a passable cowboy in his debut, displays sensitivity and tenderness that were almost nonexistent among western heroes” — but he complains (I agree) that miscast Dru’s role — given she comes “in so late in the film and [has] such an important part” to play — changes the picture’s tone, making the ending “momentarily satisfying” but “more suitable for a comedy.”

Peary’s review covers many of the essentials of this classic western, which has stood the test of time quite nicely and remains an enjoyable, exciting tale. As Peary points out, “Wayne and Clift are both excellent”, and “their different acting styles work to emphasize their characters’ different attitudes.” Wayne’s willingness to play a Bligh-like character (albeit one we feel some sympathy for) is impressive, and speaks to the acting range he was allowed to display after this point. Clift — in his almost-screen debut, after The Search (1948) — couldn’t be more gorgeous:

… and is entirely credible in his role, bringing nuance to an undeniably challenging situation: needing to take over the reins from one’s beloved but now-unstable “parent”.

Harlan’s cinematography is indeed gorgeous, and the many sequences involving thousands of cattle are truly impressive.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Wayne as Dunson (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Montgomery Clift as Matt Garth
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Russell Harlan’s cinematography

  • Many impressive sequences

Must See?
Yes. Named by Peary as one of the Best Movies of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, and named as one of the Top 10 Westerns by the AFI.


  • Genuine Classic

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Red River (1948)

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    This film benefits greatly from its establishing sequence in which we’re shown how Wayne and Clift meet (when his character is a boy). Setting up their bond in that way gives the two a sort-of short-hand for the rest of the episodic story.

    This isn’t a particular fave of mine – though I can’t find fault with anything in it, particularly. It’s very smooth, solid storytelling and, at times, arresting in impact.

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