Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 265 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on Howard Hawks’ Red River.

Though not perfect, the film revolves around a cattle drive that begins in Texas and heads out towards Missouri.  Early in the film, the main character envisions himself raising a large cattle ranch and grows to fulfill his vision, eventually finding himself broke and seeing that everything he’s labored for has become virtually worthless.   Amidst today’s economic landscape, where countless people have found their land grossly devalued regardless of their hard pained labor, Red River has become timely, and its tight story and uncomplicated adventure makes it so enjoyable that I’m not surprised to know that the American Film Institute ranks it as the 5th best Western of all time.

The Players

  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Writers: Borden Chase, Charles Schnee
  • Cast: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru


I love this film’s narrative.  Wayne’s Thomas Dunson decides that he must lead 10,000 cattle to Missouri, where he can sell them and change things for himself and the people living off his land.  There is no market in the South, no work, and much of the land has been stolen by carpetbaggers.  The drive will have to endure border gangs, rain, wind, and dry wells.  With a tough and inflexible view about how the drive must be executed, tensions rise and a key resistance takes place against Dunson’s leadership when Kansas seems like a much closer option for delivery.  Matt Garth (played by Montgomery Clift in a star-making turn), who Dunson had adopted and raised as his own son, comes into his own as a man when he decides to drive the cattle to Kansas, a move that threatens to divide the camp.

The mission is simple, the motivations for most of the characters are established early, and the plot is effectively sustained throughout.  If you like having a sense of purpose in your characters, you’ll have it here.  The cattle represent 14 years of Dunson’s labor, and while in most westerns the main characters usually exhibit purely good or bad behavior, Dunson’s stubborn and controlling behavior is not only somewhat justified, it provides his character with an added dimension.  Such is the duality to Dunson’s behavior that, despite being egomaniacal, he lives by a code, as when he determines that a pair of red shoes should be taken to the wife of a fellow cattle driver who loses his life in a stampede.

The situational nature of the plot serves as a nice anchor to delve into the lives of the other characters involved and the ensuing power-struggle between father and (adopted) son.  However, I felt let down by the under-development of the Cherry Valance character, as played by John Ireland.  His screen introduction is strong and you get the feeling that he’ll play an important role by the end of the film (reportedly this is because the actor was a drunk and a cocksman).  Both Cherry and Matt are considered the fastest guns in the camp, perhaps even on par with Dunson.  Their initial display of marksmanship is amusing, but ultimately Cherry’s quick draw plays a minor role – though not altogether insignificant – in a final scene.   As it typical of many westerns, the female characters are mostly relegated to fulfill traditional roles.

The action sequences are staged masterfully; modern action films can learn a thing from this film.  When gunfights happen, Hawks establishes a clear sense of space and the action is easy to follow.  Shot on location, there is great control shown during the cattle stampede, as the camera follows the men and cows through large open spaces and rivers.  The stampede is impressive in its scope, and there are a few nice shots that seem experimental for their time, as when a camera is rigged to the inside of a wagon and you see cattle being driven across a river from that perspective.  It occurred to me that hand-held camera work in Westerns may have served as a beautiful complement to a genre featuring static and panoramic compositions.

Brief Words for Ebert:You impress me with the succinct way in which you shed light on Red River, stating that “the theme of Red River is from classical tragedy: the need of the son to slay the father, literally or symbolically, in order to clear the way for his own ascendancy.”  Very astutely, you also point out that “the Borden Chase screenplay makes much of the older man’s pride and the younger one’s need to prove himself.”  You nailed the story’s core in one fell swoop of a sentence.

At the beginning of the film, Dunson is met by Don Diego’s men as he begins to lay claim to cattle and land. Much to the dismay of Diego’s men, Dunson speaks of being entitled to the land by simply reasoning that Don Diego himself must have taken this land from natives before them.  As there is a sense of manifest destiny in Dunson that doesn’t really get resolved or discussed within the film,  I found the last paragraph in your review to be refreshingly insightful – I like that your review touched on this point.  As I was watching Dunson take all the cattle and brand them as his own, I found myself asking whether I should sympathize with his character.  I appreciated the complexity of this character, even if it doesn’t get resolved.

In light of today’s immigration discussions, I’d be curious to know how a scene like this would be interpreted today.  But this becomes irrelevant, especially when, as you mention, Dunson faces ruin and is left with the choice between driving the cattle north or going bankrupt.  Very quickly, it becomes a story of a man trying to survive and protect the land for which he has long labored, and with this essential struggle, I believe many of us can sympathize.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  Good

Do you like Red River?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  The Last Picture Show