Friday, March 8, 2013

DVD Review: Red River (1947)

Red River (1947)
(Released: 2008 by MGM Home Entertainment)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

SUMMARY: Can you survive the cattle drive? Ask Producer / Director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne! They’ll either TELL ya… or SHOOT ya!

We fade in on an Opening Scroll:

Among the annals of the great state of Texas may be found the story of the first [cattle] drive on the famous Chisholm Trail.

A story of one of the great cattle herds of the world, of a man and a boyThomas Dunson and Matthew Garth, the story of the ‘Red River D’.”

And, while we’re at it, let’s hear from hard-ass would-be rancher; Mr. Thomas Dunson:

MY LAND! We’re here, and we’re gonna STAY HERE! Give me ten years, and I’ll have [my] brand on the gates of the greatest ranch in Texas.

The big house will be down by the river, and the corrals and the barns behind it. It’ll be a good place to live in. Ten years and I’ll have the ‘Red River D’ [brand] on more cattle than you’ve looked at anywhere!

I’ll have that brand on enough BEEF to feed the whole country! Good beef – for hungry people! Beef to make ‘em STRONG, make ‘em GROWIt takes WORK, and it takes SWEAT, and it takes TIME… lots of time! It takes years!”

Sounds like a “Man with a Plan” to me! Ah, BEEF… It does a body good!

And, with that, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his sidekick “Groot” (Walter Brennan) split off from a California-bound wagon train, and head south toward Texas.

The pair meet an aimlessly wandering boy named “Matthew Garth”, who survived the massacre by Indians of the very wagon train that Dunson and Groot abandoned, and take him under their wing.

Once he locates his “dream plot” of land, he declares it “his” – and kills an emissary of the Mexican land-owner, who claims a grant from the King of Spain. (…Or, are they just intruders? We’ll never know!) Before Dunson is through, there are many more Mexican and white claim jumpers and interlopers buried on Dunson’s “Red River D” ranch.

The time DOES pass, and so does the Civil War. Matt is now a grown man with a fast gun (played by Montgomery Clift in his film debut) and Dunson’s second in command over the vast cattle ranch of over 10 thousand head, they and Groot have built up – after starting out with just one cow and one bull! THAT, my friends, is one lucky and prolific bull! Really… No, er… bull!
Lucky Dog... Er, Bull! 

But, with the war’s aftermath came hard times for the state of Texas. The bottom has fallen out of the market for beef, leaving Dunson “calf-rich and cash-poor”.

He makes the hard decision to drive his herd of 10 thousand north, from Texas to Missouri – where the railroad lies and, beyond that, new and more prosperous markets.
I'll never complain about MY commute to the railroad again!
He is told that the railway now runs through Abilene, Kansas – a far less torturous route to the northern markets – but, having not seen it with his own eyes, he refuses the option, in favor of the hard way.

Dunson addresses his remaining hands and other down-and-out men:

We’re goin’ to Missouri with 10 thousand head! Most o’ you men have come back to Texas from the war. You came back to nothing. You found your homes gone, your cattle scattered, and your land stolen by carpetbaggers.

There’s no money and no work because there’s no market for beef in the South. But, there is in Missouri – so we’re going to Missouri!”

Dunson signs on as many men as he needs, promises they will be paid from the profits if the drive succeeds, and INSISTS they finish the job – no matter what!

No matter WHAT!  ...Ya hear?

About this time, another fast-gunned young man from a less-fortunate neighboring ranch, Cherry Valance (John Ireland), joins Dunson’s drive – setting up tensions between Matt and Cherry which, oddly, never pay off in any significant way.

But, if it’s tension you’re looking for, one of the greatest bits of tension in the film is an unusual and extraordinary scene at about 36:35, as the cattle drive is about to begin. A tense, moody – almost ominous sci-fi type of score plays over a silent pan of riders, cattle, and the expanse ahead. The eerie scene ends by focusing on a silent, grimly determined Dunson at about 37:12.

Dunson breaks the uneasiness by abruptly exclaiming “TAKE ‘EM TO MISSOURI, MATT!” All hands YELL HOOTS in succession and the drive is underway. An unconventional bit in a Golden Age Hollywood western, to be sure!

The drive is indeed torturous, with storms, Indian attacks, short rations, and even a spectacular cattle stampede (at about 50:30 of the film) to make the men reconsider.

Some of them do, and announce their intentions to quit the drive. Dunson guns them down, rather than have them go back on their word to him!
Quitters never WIN... or LIVE!

The drive continues, harder than ever, and Dunson becoming more and more unreasonably driven. He now sleeps with his gun, and the men begin to question his sanity.

A lone survivor of another drive, where the hands were killed and cattle stolen by Missouri border gangs, finds his way to camp, tells of his experiences, and also suggests that Dunson turn his drive toward Abilene and the railroad there. These comments are not lost on the men, who now doubt the wisdom of the entire endeavor.

The ubiquitous "William Self" credit from LOST IN SPACE.

The survivor, incidentally, was played by William Self. And, if that name sounds familiar to ‘60s TV buffs, it’s because he would later become the “Executive in Charge of Production” of the TV series made at 20th Century Fox – such as LOST IN SPACE, BATMAN, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and many others.

Hand Teeler Yacey (Paul Fix) and others defect during the night. An outraged Dunson orders Matthew to bring them back. Upon their return, Dunson declares that they are to be HANGED!
Paul Fix - from "The Sons of Katie Elder"

At this, the men (including Matthew) finally draw the line – and mutiny (does one actually “mutiny” on a cattle drive?). Matthew takes charge of the drive, decides to take the safer route to Abilene – and leaves Dunson behind. Though, he DOES promise to see that Dunson receives the proceeds of the drive. …Ol’ Matt may be a mutineer, but he’s not a cattle thief, it would seem.
Meet the NEW BOSS... Not same as the old boss!

So, does Dunson catch up with the drive? What will he do when that happens? Is there a railroad and a market for Beef in Abilene? …And, “Where’s the Beef”, anyway?

I ain’t tellin’… but the specter of Dunson catching up with the drive seems to bring out the same paranoia that the modern version of BATMAN might induce in a gang of petty crooks.
Who would YOU rather face?  Dunson or him?  Either way...Brrrr!

I was dreamin’I thought he was FOLLOWIN’ us! How can a man sleep with Indians ahead, and HIM behind!” says Paul Fix’s character Yacey. Gotta love that!

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


An Absolute Lack of Extra Features: As with this release of He Walked by Night, also from MGM, “Red River” does not even include a TRAILER, much less the extras a film like this deserves! Even Warner Archives springs for a TRAILER! This is a MAJOR CON, and this film deserves better! It might as well have been an old VHS tape, for all it offers!

Consider ALL the things that COULD be discussed in commentaries and additional features. The uncharacteristic “hardness” and obsessions of John Wayne’s character, the screen debut of Montgomery Clift, and just about anything concerning producer / director Howard Hawks! Let alone the unusual journey of William Self from actor to executive. But, no... And, for a 2008 release, this is inexcusable!

Pacing: I don’t believe I’ve ever listed “Pacing” as a CON before, but Howard Hawks does something repeatedly in this film that I found less than satisfying.

Hawks uses the device of opening a BOOK, titled “Early Tales of Texas”, in which the handwritten account of the great Dunson Drive is chronicled. …BUT, the pages turn – or fade out – TOO FAST to read anything but the smallest of sentence fragments! This occurs throughout the film, and serves as “transitional captioning” to indicate the passage of time. If only “time” would hold long enough to READ the damned things!

I’m certain that WAS what Hawks was trying to accomplish – and far be it from me to criticize Howard Hawks – but, each and every time pages from the book would appear, I found myself hitting PAUSE in order to read what was on the screen before it vanished!

I can’t imagine how this must have gone over on the Big Screen, circa 1947 – but I know I would not have liked it!
Nope, Dunson!  I don't like it a BIT!  Not ONE BIT!  Nope!


The Film: A captivating western adventure of a determined man’s quest. Even with a length of 02:12:38, when less than two hours was still more the norm, the film never lags once!

The Cast:

• John Wayne as “Thomas Dunson”.

• Montgomery Clift as “Matthew Garth”.

• Walter Brennan as “Groot”.

• Joanne Dru as “Tess Millay”.

• John Ireland as “Cherry Valance”.

• Paul Fix as “Teeler Yacey”.

• Noah Berry as “Buster McGee”.

• Harry Carey, Sr. as “Mr. Melville”.

• Harry Carey, Jr. as “Dan Latimer”.

• William Self as “Wounded Survivor”.


Red River” is a riveting and unusual western vehicle for John Wayne, in that his character is (no other way to put it) such a bastard!

In many of his later films, he was unpleasant, crusty, and sometimes less than heroic – but beneath all that, he had a heart of gold and the soul of a western hero. See “True Grit”, Big Jake, and “The Shootist” for examples.

I may have been CRUSTY, but I was nicer!

But here, he is uncharacteristically obsessed and abusive – and even murders men in cold blood. Uncomfortable as it may be for Wayne fans, it makes for a fascinating story!

The lack of Extra Features for this set is, frankly, APPALING! Indeed, can it even BE called a “set”, if nothing is offered beyond the movie itself?

Shame on MGM for this one!

The “Book-You-Need-A-Speed-Reading-Course-To-Follow” is annoying, but the film as a whole more than makes up for that!

These flaws notwithstanding, “Red River” is recommended for fans of John Wayne, the productions of Howard Hawks, the western genre – particularly that of Golden Age Hollywood… and anyone who has ever had a “Boss from Hell”!

I don't hear no Five-O-Clock Whistle... Do YOU?


Chris Barat said...


I'm amazed that no one saw fit to create a documentary feature tracing the tortuous path that this movie took to get to the screen... And, believe me, it was TORTUOUS. You can read more about it in THE GRAY FOX OF HOLLYWOOD (a Hawks biography) and JOHN WAYNE, AMERICAN.


Joe Torcivia said...

All the more reason there should have been a commentary or feature(s) included on this DVD, Chris!

I don’t even know that story; otherwise I would likely have mentioned it here. Some “film historian” I turned out to be! :-) I’ll have to stick to writing about Gold Key Comics!

Funny, with John Wayne DVDs in particular, some have a literal wealth of features (as in reviews you’ll see someday, that are written but awaiting the painful chore of formatting and illustrating, like “The Big Trail”, “Stagecoach”, and perhaps my favorite “The Cowboys”), and others like “Big Jake” and this one are pitifully lacking.

…Oh, and one day I must do the second volume (1933) of the Leon Schlesinger produced Wayne B-Westerns.

Anonymous said...

The story (which may even be true) goes that John Ford saw this movie and said, "I didn't know the big son of a *&@#! could act." Don't know all the details of its tortuous path to the screen, but it was filmed in 1946 and released two years later. One account said that Howard Hughes threatened to sue because the showdown between Wayne and Clift was similar to the confrontation between Walter Huston and Jack Beutel in "The Outlaw." Also, reportedly, John Ireland's drinking problem made him unreliable, so his part was cut down. That may be why the subplot with his character is never fully developed.

Joe Torcivia said...

Very interesting, Anon!

Especially the part about John Ireland! If true, that certainly WOULD account for the disappointing non-resolution of the Matthew Garth / Cherry Valance conflict.

…I guess we’d have to wait until 1962 for someone named “Valance” to get shot in a John Wayne picture! ! And, it would take John Ford to get it done!

Chris Barat said...


My understanding was that Ireland had a dope problem (MJ) rather than a drinking problem. Of course, there's no rule against him having had both...

THE GRAY FOX has lots of details about the making of the movie, the trouble with Howard Hughes, etc.


Joe Torcivia said...

Isn’t this great! My commenters have told me much more about “Red River” than the DVD!

At its best, Blogging is truly a two-way street!

Thank you, both!

Anonymous said...

One of the "quitters" who gets gunned down by Dunson is played by Tom Tyler. He played Captain Marvel and the Phantom in serials, Kharis in "The Mummy's Hand," and was in a lot of Westerns, both big-budget "A" pictures and second feature "B" movies. Sometimes he was a villain (Stagecoach, The Last Outlaw, San Antonio), and often the hero. He played Stony Brooke, leader of the Three Mesquiteers, in the 1940s. Wayne played the same character in the series in the 1930s.

Joe Torcivia said...


Yep, I recall Tyler being one of the Plummers of “Stagecoach”… but Kharis? Forgot all about that, just remembering Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. as mummies. Yeah! Sure enough!


Total aside, particularly notable (in the ironic sense) was that Dick Foran survived (Tyler’s) Kharis in “The Mummy’s Hand”, only to be killed off years later by (Chaney’s) Kharis in “The Mummy’s Tomb”! He was safer hanging out with Abbott and Costello!

Anonymous said...

The whole purpose of "The Mummy's Tomb" seemed to be to kill off everyone left over from the previous movie. BTW, Dick Foran, like Tyler (and Wayne, earlier in his career) , was a star in "B" series Westerns.

Joe Torcivia said...

You’ve got a real point about “The Mummy’s Tomb”, Anon!


Our comments prompted me to watch it last night before bed (it’s only an hour long) and Foran’s partner Babe Jenson/Hanson (Wallace Ford) was also killed by Kharis in the picture. And, from “The Mummy’s Hand”, the great George Zucco character also dies and Foran’s girl (later wife) is dead before the picture begins.

Ironically, only Kharis survives to walk another day – and even Tom Tyler’s version of him appeared in flashback footage to “The Mummy’s Hand”!

Only thing is, aside from “make-up aging” of Foran, Ford, and especially Zucco, nothing else looked as if it were 25 (30?) years later from “The Mummy’s Hand”. There was even a horse and buggy, among the old cars – and we still had the great Universal “trademark” villagers (in American rural-suburbs, no less) carrying TORCHES, instead of the flashlights they should have had by then! Of course, flashlights can’t burn down a mummy-occupied house!

Aw, heck… I shouldda done a Universal Mummy post too! …So many great old films on DVD, so little time to review!

Anonymous said...

The posse with torches may have been stock footage from Frankenstein, which is why the "villagers" looked like stereotypical Eastern Europeans instead of New Englanders. Getting back to Red River, writer Borden Chase disliked the ending. In Chase's original story, Garth shoots Dunson in the showdown, then takes him back to Texas to be buried at home. According to, Hawks and Chase did not get along, anyway. Chase said that Hawks was jealous of John Ireland's romance with Joanne Dru, and that was why Ireland's part was cut. Hawks insisted that the cuts were because of Ireland's drug abuse and/or drinking. Hawks also said that Chase never again wrote a good story for a movie. Not everyone would agree, though. Chase wrote stories and/or screenplays for Winchester '73 and Bend of the River.

Joe Torcivia said...

I have to agree with you on the villagers in “The Mummy’s Tomb”, Anon. Some of the footage didn’t match well with the film, and much of the film’s first half was recycled footage from “The Mummy’s Hand” anyway, so why not.

And, yes, back to “Red River”, it’s a curious thing…

I think I’d like Chase’s ending better for the STORY “Red River”, as such. It seemed fitting, as the kind of end a man like Thomas Dunson might meet.

…BUT, as the ending for a “John Wayne Movie”, I much prefer the ending Hawks went with. I suspect that Hawks, knowing or at least anticipating his audience, must have felt that, no matter how hard a man Dunson was, the picture-going public very likely didn’t want to see John Wayne gunned down.

Certainly not when he had the opportunity to become more paternal as an alternative – and in a time when “happy endings” were still the norm, more often than not. The Hays Office reaction could have been an influence (or a consideration) as well.

Very interesting stuff… I’ve learned lots from this post!