Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

Red River

By - Jun 17th, 2009 11:28 am
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For years I thought John Wayne was a bad actor, indicative of that kind of Hollywood movie star who could play only a paper thin character, changing his hat maybe and not much more.  I felt the same way about Marilyn Monroe until I saw Bus Stop, The Misfits, Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch in a two day span on a little black and white television, hole up in my Lower East Side apartment in New York with no money and nothing to do. When you see them all at once you begin to think about what artists call a “body of work.” You can see the subtlety of the changes.  You can actually see the artist work, whereas before you were being fooled, as intended, and seeing just character.

Wayne lived a relatively long life and it was a life of work. He played the leading role in 142 pictures; his first leading role was Stagecoach in 1939 and he died in 1979, so that’s 142 films in forty years. When you work that much you are bound to repeat yourself, and when you become a movie star it is inevitable that you are going to begin to do characterizations of yourself. Cary Grant once said in response to the comment that everyone wanted to be Cary Grant, “Yes, even Cary Grant wants to be Cary Grant.”

When I thought he was a bad actor it was because I didn’t like his politics. I still don’t like his politics, but I keep coming back to The Searchers and Red River, which he made with Howard Hawks, and the Cavalry Trilogy with John Ford, as well as The Quiet Man with Ford.  When you watch them all at once, as I did with the Monroe pictures, it is a bit overwhelming. Wayne doesn’t invite you in the way Monroe does. His is a powerful personality and you pretty much have to keep up as he keeps charging along. But I come back to them the way you might go visit a strong, wise friend when you want to rest and recharge some psychic battery. My friend Jonathan Jackson, the Artistic Director of Milwaukee Film, a man who knows movies as well as anyone I know, gave me a collection of John Wayne and John Ford films. I don’t think I had ever talked with him about the connection so he must have sensed it as part of my nature.

I hope they are not just “men’s movies.” They do come out of an era when the roles of women and of men were more clearly defined than they are today. And men were doing most of the defining.  But both Ford and in particular Hawks liked strong, smart, self defining women, and they relished the struggle between men and women. Sometimes it’s a struggle for dominance, but more often than not it is like arm wrestling with your wits and there is fun and sex as celebration at the other end. Like Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.

What makes Red River one of the best western movies ever made is the fact that Hawks loves men at work.  Ford tends to worship the landscape, but Hawks is about the men and the work they do. The story is of a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. Wayne’s character has come to Texas before anyone else was there with a cow and a steer. He has built a herd of nearly 10,000, but he has no place to sell them. The nearest railhead is in Missouri, so he gathers some cowboys together, and they are real cowboys, men who work cattle for a meager living, and are in love with the land and with the freedom the land in the west promises. There is only one gunslinger amongst them, played beautifully by John Ireland, but he is a kid and on the road for fun. Walter Brennan is Wayne’s oldest friend, but it’s not an equal partnership. In Wayne’s movies no one is on an equal footing with him. He is the master and if you ride with him you ride in a submissive role. Brennan is cook and confidante on the cattle drive. It’s wonderful to watch him tell Wayne he’s wrong, but my favorite Brennan is the poker game where he bets his store-bought teeth and loses to an Indian.

But the great surprise is Montgomery Clift. Clift had been a celebrated Broadway actor for several years and attempts had been made to lure him away from New York to Hollywood, but he had always said no. Fred Zinneman, who also gave Marlon Brando his first film job, hired him to play a soldier in post war Germany, but that film was delayed in it’s release and Red River, which was shot after The Search, was the first time anyone across America had seen Montgomery Clift.  It was also perhaps the first time anyone had seen anyone as sensitive and sensual, and also strong, stand toe to toe with John Wayne.

Clift plays Mathew Garth, a boy that Wayne finds on his way into Texas, whom he raises more as an employee than a son, since there is little of the paternal in Wayne’s character. The cattle drive goes badly because Wayne is relentless; the men mutiny and Clift’s character takes the drive in to Abilene, Kansas, instead of Missouri. When Wayne finally catches up with him we see one of the great film fights, a precursor to the fight that Clift has in From Here To Eternity where he refuses to fight and just takes a beating.

The whole film can be seen as a dialogue between the driven, powerful, conservative Wayne and the softer, sensitive, smart but liberal Clift. And Wayne loses.  His character degenerates into a kind of obsessed madness, which is sympathetic because it is so rich in integrity and dignity, he is so right.

Wayne was only 41 at the time, but he plays a man who is considerably older, aged by the weather and the life, and by the nature of his own independence. They put a little gray in his hair, but the rest is all Wayne, and he is totally convincing. He also makes you root for him to return from his journey into madness, to reconnect with the man who would be his son and heir, with Clift, and that is the real genius of his acting in this picture.

Categories: Movies, VITAL

0 thoughts on “Moving Pictures: Red River”

  1. Anonymous says:

    as a girl… i would not consider john wayne movies to be “men’s movies” (although now that i think of it, i have plenty of girlfriends who would disagree). red river is one of my favorite old movies, actually. i tend to not like a -lot- of john wayne movies (i can only take small doses), but a periodic visit into the wild west can be most refreshing.

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