Change your mind. For once in your life, change your mind.

Those are the words Fen hurls at Thomas Dunson, a hardheaded man with money on his mind. Fourteen years later, another woman will say something similar to Dunson, only this time with a lot more messy emotion. Enough to break Dunson out of himself and see how ridiculous he’s become.

Film in 1946, released in 1948, Red River is about tension. About the tensions that develop during 14 years of hard work and waiting. Tensions that develop between fathers and sons, between this way and that, between proud men and frustrated women. Could anyone other than John Wayne have played Dunson? Probably not to this effect. Wayne’s turn as the domineering and relentlessly obsessed Dunson is one of his best performances in a long and illustrious career. Modern audiences tend to dismiss Wayne these days—more for off-screen behavior and sentiments—but the work is undeniable. John Ford reportedly remarked to director Howard Hawks after seeing the movie, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act.” Eight years later, Ford harnessed Wayne’s Dunson into Ethan Edwards for The Searcher: Probably Wayne and Ford’s best work together or apart.

But before Wayne could get to Ethan, he had to contend with Dunson and Matthew Garth, Dunson’s adopted son played by Montgomery Clift in his first film role. Clift is a breath of fresh air on screen. The opening scene of Red River feels stuffy and staid—maybe intentionally—with titles followed by a book opening and then the image of a long wagon train making its way across the American West. The year is 1850, and the wagons are headed to California for gold. Dunson isn’t: He’s fixing to go south with old friend Groot (Walter Brennan) to Texas, where he plans to raise beef. Fen (Coleen Gray) tries to convince him to stay but is unsuccessful. He leaves, Comanches attacks the convoy, and Fen is killed. What Dunson loses in love, he gains in the orphaned boy, Matthew (Mickey Kuhn), who survived the attack with his cow. Fourteen years pass in voice-over. Matthew grows up, goes to war, and returns to Texas quick on the draw. In the interim, Dunson has built one of the biggest ranches in Texas, 9,000 heads of cattle, and is dead broke.

Images courtesy The Criterion Collection.

How did Dunson gain all of this land? He stole it from the Mexican don on the other side of the Rio Grande. As an emissary tells Dunson, all this land is a gift from the king of Spain to Don Diego. “You mean he took it away from whoever was here before—Indians, maybe,” Dunson says, going for his gun. “Well, I’m taking it away from him.”

And with one shot from his six-shooter, Dunson becomes the largest landowner in Texas.

There were challengers to Dunson’s land in those 14 years, a half-dozen or so, all dispatched capably by Dunson—he’s got the graves to show it—and explained away in a tossed-off bit of voice-over catching the audience up. Hawks visually illustrates this change of character simply through Dunson’s hats. In the first sequence, where Dunson leaves the wagon train, meets Matthew, and guns down Don Diego’s enforcer, Wayne wears a dusty white 10-gallon. Following that 14 years later dissolve, Dunson now sports a snappier flat-brimmed black hat. His hair is gray. His eyebrows thinned. His face is etched with lines. This is not the picture of a benevolent Wayne cowboy.

Fourteen years have also aged Groot, taken his teeth and his hair, but turned the lost little Matthew into the impossibly handsome and cool-as-could-be gunslinger. Clift’s performance in Red River almost breaks the movie in two. If the best scenes in the film don’t belong to him, then his presence seems to conjure them. In one, Dunson argues with Matthew about the best way to drive the herd up to Missouri to sell them. Matthew wants to take the safer, longer route with water; Dunson intends to take the shortcut through hostile territory. All the while, Groot mutters to himself about not being able to go. The more Groot talks to no one, the more Dunson can’t help but hear him. “What are you mumbling about?” Dunson asks, exasperated. The actors vanish into the performance, and an argument between a father and his son is interrupted by the surrogate mother bickering with the husband.

Montgomery Clift and Joanne Dru in Red River.

Red River is an odd assembly of characters, and they all work together beautifully. Wayne brings intensity to Dunson that is matched blow for blow by Clift’s casual cool. Brennan is comedic, while John Ireland’s Cherry Valance is as laconic as Joanne Dru’s Tess Millay is verbose. Millay is perfect as a sultry, sassy, sharp-talking pioneer who takes an arrow in the shoulder during an Apache raid like she’s in a schlocky B-serial. She has that one-of-the-guys quality Lauren Bacall made famous in Hawks’ previous films, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946).

Hawks was a true master of cinema. His camera, almost always at eye level and in the right place, is practically invisible. And when it isn’t—as in the shot when Groot’s Conestoga wagon crosses the Red River, the camera jostling in the wagon with him—it doesn’t feel ostentatious or self-reflexive. It just feels like a good place to capture the moment. Russell Harlan is the cinematographer here, and Christian Nyby is the editor. Nyby edited both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep and replaced two editors on Red River at the request of Hawks because no one could get the movie right. Nyby was working for Raoul Walsh on Fighter Squadron at the time, but so loved what Hawks had with Red River that he spent his days editing Fighter Squadron at Warner Bros. in the San Fernando Valley, then drove over the hills to Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood to work on Red River at night. As critic Ric Gentry points out in his 1991 interview, Nyby deserves “much of the credit for the enduring classic Red River has become.”

If Nyby deserves credit for Red River‘s classic status in film history, then so does writer Borden Chase. Chase adapted his Saturday Evening Post serial, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, into Red River’s script—with additional work from Charles Schnee.

As the title suggests, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail is a vivid and fast-moving story loaded with exclamatory sentences and energetic diversions. Take the scene when Matthew—spelled with one T, Mathew—brings the herd into Abilene:

The talk was beef and the price of beef. Texas cattle! The first herd was already loading at the stockyard. There’d be others along soon. Real estate! Ground was worth money on Main Street. There was lumber coming in; lumber and nails and hammers and saws. Start building! Build now! Today! We’ll need another store—another saloon—another hotel—another bank! Texas beef in Kansas and Northern money to pay for it at the rail head!

Note the inclusion of “Northern money” in the final sentence. Matthew fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and Blazing Guns fixates on those Southern rebels. A lot of Chase’s Hollywood work does. Born Frank Fowler in Brooklyn, Chase was a journeyman whose CV includes driver for gangster Frankie Yale, serving in the Navy in World War I, and working as a sandhog on New York’s Holland Tunnel before writing novels and pulp stories. But his big success came when he relocated to Hollywood and started writing scripts, mostly adventures and westerns, with three of the latter directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. And among those three, Winchester ’73 is arguably one of the best westerns ever made.

In Winchester, Stewart and cohort Millar Mitchell play two returning soldiers trying to recover Stewart’s Winchester rifle. In that movie, the reveal of Stewart and Mitchell’s Confederate allegiances is played for a joke and a wink at the audience that men who settled the West weren’t on the winning side of history.

There’s a lot more of that in Blazing Guns, almost all of it excised from the final movie save for the motivation of the long cattle drive: “The war took the money out of the South.” Dunson may lord over 9,000 heads of beef, but in Texas, they’re not worth the dirt they stand on. Up north, that’s a different story.

So Dunson decides to drive the heard up to sale. The initial destination of Dunson’s drive is Missouri. It’ll take a couple of months of long, hard, dusty riding, but if they can, Dunson might save the whole state of Texas. Only two major obstacles stand in his way: Mutiny and Missouri border bandits. Dunson doesn’t care; he’ll take on all comers. Matthew figures differently. He wants to take the herd away from the Missouri bandits and head toward Abilene, Kansas. It’s a longer ride, but he’s heard from someone who heard from someone else that Abilene has the railroad. If they do, then Matthew will arrive a king. If they don’t, they’ll starve to death, penniless and surrounded by a whole mess of cows.

John Ireland and Montgomery Clift in Red River.

Red River is a thrill. With prose as exciting as Chase’s passage above, it’s hard to mess up. Hawks doesn’t. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes involves a stampede spooked by a howling wolf and the clatter of falling pots and pans. As Chase puts it on the page:

A steer snorted. Then another. Sudden movement. And the herd crashed into action. Lunging, bellowing, fear-crazed beasts! Long horns rattling and the rumble of hooves. Instant action. … Each man was on his feet and running. The slow were whipped erect by the tug of the riata fastened to the saddle horn. No time to look about. No time to think. Mathew leaped to the back of his stud. The reins hung free. He bent forward, knees pressing to keep his seat. Horse and rider became one. They breathed alike, moved in rhythm. One mad leap and then another. Stampede!

On the screen, Hawks teases the nighttime scene with the off-screen cry of a wolf and twitchy men tenderly moving around the campfire. When the cowhand (Ivan Parry) sends the pots and pans crashing to the ground, Hawks and editor Nyby cut to a long shot of the cattle getting up and then six rapid-fire close-ups of the men leaping into action. Pure exhilaration.

Hawks manages to keep that energy up for the majority of Red River’s 127-minute running time. A good deal is thanks to the tension provided by two impending showdowns: One between Matthew and Cherry, the other between Matthew and Dunson. And though Red River cops out on both, the emotion of the ending is so wackadoodle you almost don’t care. If for no other reason than the incredulous look on Wayne’s face when he gets his ass knocked into the dust. It might be one of the actor’s finest expressions in a career defined by iconic moments.

Red River is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection. Special features include 2K digital restorations of both the theatrical release and prerelease versions of the movie; interviews with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, critic Molly Haskell, and film scholar Lee Clark Mitchell; a 1972 audio conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich; a 1970 audio interview with Chase; a 1949 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation featuring Wayne, Dru, and Brennan; a print essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien; a 1991 print interview with Christian Nyby; and a new printing of Chase’s Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail.

Red River (1948)
Produced and directed by Howard Hawks
Screenplay by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee
Based on Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail by Borden Chase
Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Coleen Gray, John Ireland, Harry Carey, Harry Carey Jr., Noah Beery Jr., Chief Yowlachie, Ivan Parr
United Artist, Not rated, Running time 127 minutes, Premiered Aug. 25, 1948.