One of my favorite types of movies when I was growing up was the Western. At the time, there were quite a few TV series based on Westerns. In fact, the show Star Trek was pitched by its creator, Gene Roddenberry, as “Wagon Train to the stars”. A description that would no doubt earn me a blank look from most young people today.
However, much as I loved the genre, I didn’t really dig into it until I reached college, where I took courses that gave me a great appreciation for classics like Stagecoach, Fort Apache, The Searchers, High Noon, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. All great movies that I can talk about later.
After years of hearing about how great Red River is, I finally broke down and watched it. I’m happy to say it lived up to its hype.
The story is about Thomas Dunson (played by John Wayne) who’s striking out West to start a cattle ranch with his trusty sidekick Nadine Groot (played in characteristic mumble-mouthed manner by Walter Brennan). Dunson decides to depart from the wagon train he’s been following, leaving behind the woman he loves, but taking Groot with him.
Both of them wanted to go, but Dunson insisted the woman stay with the wagon train. A decision he comes to regret after the wagon train is attacked by Indians and everyone in it slaughtered.
Everyone except for one boy—an orphaned child named Matthew Garth. Garth is played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn and as an adult by Montgomery Clift at his most handsome. The boy wanders into their camp, dazed and disoriented, but quickly comes around after being slapped in the face a bit. The best treatment for shock, as we all know from these movies.
The setup for future tension between Dunson and Garth is handled economically in the early scenes between Wayne and Kuhn, with Brennan serving as part comic relief, part Greek chorus. But most of the action takes place between the older versions of these two characters. This is after Dunson and Company have crossed the Red River into Texas and Dunson decides to essentially make a land grab.
So, years later, after Dunson, Groot, and Garth (Dunson’s “adopted son”) raise a bunch of cattle (along with catching and branding a few strays belonging to others, now and then), Dunson’s plans to make a fortune must be adjusted to account for the widespread poverty in the South after it’s loss in the Civil War. Dunson hires several men who, along with Groot and Garth, will drive his cattle to the railhead in Sedalia, Missouri.
What the hired men don’t count on is that Dunson will run his crew like an army platoon. Those who screw up will be punished severely. Those who choose to drop out will be considered deserters, whose should be shot. After the introduction to Garth early in the movie, it isn’t hard to imagine how he responds to this—he resists Dunson’s tyrannical ways. In fact, Garth pulls off what would be in military terms a mutiny.
What I loved about this movie was that it wasn’t just another cowboys and Indians flick. It’s a story of fathers and sons and the love-hate relationship that can exist between them. I was singularly impressed by the writing, and how the story maintained the requisite level of tension throughout the middle (the cattle drive). And if the ending is a bit … well … expected, it takes nothing away from the film as a whole, which resonated deeply with me on many levels.
This is an awesome Western/psychological drama that I’m awarding two thumbs up!