“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”? Nah. “Unforgiven”? Almost. “The Searchers”? Nope, not even close.
“Red River” is the greatest Western that I’ve ever seen.
“Red River” is everything you wouldn’t expect from an old Western. It has first rate acting and big surprises. It is more realistic looking than a modern film. And there are no bad guys to root against.
The story begins in 1851. Tom Dunson (John Wayne) founds a ranch just north of the Rio Grande. He has one bull, one cow, and an unlikely dream.
Tom is single-minded, stubborn, and he has no respect for human life. These are the perfect attributes for a rancher in a lawless frontier territory.
But this is not a movie about rugged individualism. One of the surprising themes of “Red River” is that most of the major events in your life are completely out of your control.
By 1865, Tom has built a massive herd of 10,000 cattle. But the war has obliterated the southern economy and infrastructure and he has nowhere to sell them.
Once again, Tom has an incredibly ambitious and unlikely dream: to drive his cattle 1500 miles northeast to Missouri to sell them.
Director Howard Hawks does a sensational job of showing us what life was really like for a frontier cowboy. Hawks doesn’t emphasize the beauty and the romance of the Old West; he helps us feel the challenge and the stress of keeping a herd of big dumb animals together.
The MVP of “Red River” are the actual thousands of cattle that Hawks rented for the shoot. The movie would not be as great if it were made today and the animals were just cheesy CGI cartoons.
The events of the cattle drive are as realistic as the bulls. The problems that Tom and his team face don’t feel like contrived Hollywood roadblocks; they are real issues that early cattle drivers faced. There is a heated argument about whether they should stay the course to Missouri or take an easier trail north because there’s a rumor that Abilene has a railroad now.
As the journey gets more grueling, Tom slowly gets less likable. And this is where the film goes from great to legendary.
John Wayne doesn’t change at all. He is the exact same man dealing with different circumstances. His rugged independence, stubbornness, and willingness to kill made him a fantastic frontier rancher. But those same attributes make him a lousy cowboy and collaborator.
For the record, I’m not all that fond of John Wayne or most of his movies. But his performance as Tom Dunson is extraordinary.
“Red River” is twisty and surprising in the least contrived way possible. For example, Tom’s adopted son Matt (Montgomery Clift) meets another hotshot gunfighter and invites him to join the cattle drive. A wise character remarks that these two cocky kids are going to have a showdown at some point.
Guess what? They never do. The young men end up working decently well together. Nothing is inevitable in life. And Matt’s flexibility and empathy ultimately makes him a better cowboy than his dad.
“Red River” is more intelligent, insightful, and surprising than I was expecting, from beginning to end. I never thought I’d see a better western than “Unforgiven.” But I just did.