Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Six

26 river

#26 — Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

At the midpoint of this particular countdown, this is the fourth Howard Hawks film included. It says something significant about the director that each has belonged to a distinctly different genre. Sure, there’s a little bit of film noir blood running through both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but the former is a wartime drama and the latter a detective story, the shared pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall making them seem more similar than they really are. The other film covered thus far, His Girl Friday, can make a claim on being the quintessential screwball comedy (though Hawks’s own Bringing Up Baby probably can’t be surpassed in that mythical competition). And now we come to Red River, which is such a wise, wily western that it’s incredible to consider that it was the filmmaker’s first pass at the venerable Hollywood genre, though surely not his last.

The film follows a cattle rancher named Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), first in his aspiration to find a place in Texas where he can settle in and start building a homestead and then years later, when his significant success is being tamped down by a post-Civil War South that can no longer afford the meat his ranch produces. Dunson decides he needs to drive his large herd northward, in the hope that better prices can be fetched there. This begins a grueling journey, with Dunson’s desperation and dwindling resources causing him to engaged in increasingly unkind treatment to the men he’s enlisted to aid in the drive. Wayne is remarkable and resourceful in the role, adhering to his already well-established screen persona as a paragon of frontier masculinity while also offering suggestions that such an approach to life, done relentlessly and without empathy, inevitably triggers a rotting of the soul. Wayne doesn’t relinquish the role of hero, and yet shows how easily defeat can ruthlessly creep in.

Borden Chase co-wrote the screenplay, adapting it from his serialized story “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail” (Charles Schnee is the other credited writer), and Hawks fearlessly emphasizes all that’s bleak within the tale. The film is visually striking, indulging effectively in the rhapsodic beauty of the landscapes of the on-location shoot. That makes the sense of danger even more effective. There’s a sense that these beautiful, welcoming vistas are also heartless and uncompromising. Dunson is a hard man. The film argues that maybe he needs to be, doing so without absolving his brutality. The moral ambiguity is somewhat surprising for a film of the time, when the Hays Code was still very insistent of clear outcomes of properly aligned justice. It’s less surprising considering Hawks was the man behind the camera. Besides his expertise with the mechanics of narrative, he knew how to let uncertainty and shadow infuse the spirit of his works. Red River showed that he could truly bring that approach to any genre of film, even the one that was notorious for reducing complicated human struggle to easily discernible conflicts where the good guys and bad guys were identifiable by their hats of opposing colors.

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