The year is 1851 and Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is part of a wagon train heading across the South to set up a colony there, but there comes a time when his dream of running his own cattle ranch must take precedence and he makes up his mind to break away from them and head to Texas. He cannot be persuaded otherwise, not by the head of the excursion and not by his romantic partner Fen (Coleen Gray) who begs him to at least take her with him, but he refuses, believing she is safer with the wagons. He does take his right hand man Groot (Walter Brennan) however, and they head off on their way, but hours later as they reach the Red River they notice the smoke rising in the far distance and know that they are now on their own out there in Indian country...
Westerns were part and parcel of the American moviegoing experience for decades, ever since the cinema was invented in fact, but the vast majority of them had been family programmers with the select few making a name for themselves as genuine classics. They weren't necessarily relegated to kids' stuff, but it would take something special for them to be considered as one of the major American artforms of the movies, there was just something about them that rejected the pretensions of the high-falutin' and rarefied. At the time this was released, John Ford was the man who courting that respectability in the style, not that he would have readily admitted it, but he was satisfied he was king of the castle when it came to crafting classy and lauded Westerns.
Then along came director Howard Hawks who saw what he was doing and fancied trying it himself, and Red River was the result, an epic-length trek across some of the bleakest desert on the continent with a classical allusion to the Oedipus legend into the bargain, albeit without a mother figure to complicate matters and potentially turn the audience off from the concept. Wayne would play the father role, and to take the rebellious son part was a new method actor, Montgomery Clift, playing Matthew Garth, the orphan Dunson picks up on the trail after he has lost his hopes for starting a family with the now-deceased Fen. This arrangement works out very well, and soon they have started that ranch, though not before Dunson uses violence to establish it, a strong hint of his darker side.
That would be brought out as the story moved forward fourteen years and what had been a successful business is now failing, necessitating a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri where Dunson is guaranteed a good price for nine thousand of his livestock. He gathers up his cowboys and off they go, knowing this journey will be tough, but the financial rewards will be worth it, though what they don't count on is the cost to their souls as Dunson grows to be first the harsh but fair taskmaster, then by and by the harsh but borderline murderous should any of his employees fall out of line. The men are looking for a way out of this increasingly dire situation, and as we can predict there is one person who can stand up to him, that's Garth who is faster on the draw than his mentor and enjoys a considerably more reasonable, even compassionate, demeanour.
This made Red River extremely interesting politically, not least because Hawks and Wayne (him especially) were conservatives and Clift was an outspoken liberal. They agreed not to discuss anything that might lead to arguments (and Brennan, the comic relief here, was if anything more right wing than the Duke), and managed to get along pretty well, but curiously the tension emerged in the plot when the sensitive, newly humanistic Garth clashes with the old guard represented by Dunson, youthful ideology against ingrained and reactionary maturity. This could go either way had it been any other John Wayne Western, but for once we were forced to conclude his character was in the wrong, and using threats and violence to get your way allied you with a savagery the new nation was trying to leave behind, even as it acknowledged its bloody past. It was fascinating to watch Wayne and Clift's differing approaches complement one another so well, so much so that when the film drew up to a perversely anticlimactic denouement it leaves you baffled as to what you are supposed to feel. Do you agree with Tess (Joanne Dru, a forthright Hawksian heroine introduced a little late) that the two antagonists were a couple of silly billies, or do you find yourself yearning after death and destruction? It's one of the most off-kilter conclusions in Westerns: but still a great film. Rousing music by Dimitri Tiomkin.