Review: Red River
Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) is one of the greatest Westerns. Starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Red River is the story of the first cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene, Kansas. In Hawks’ hands, however, a movie about an episode in the history of America’s livestock business becomes mythic, epic, and philosophical. The frontier strips away the trappings of civilization and displays human nature and the origins of society naked in all their glory and squalor. Like such great Westerns as The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , and Once Upon a Time in the West, Red River is an origin story about the transition from savage to civil society.
This transition is particularly problematic for Americans, since our default programming is liberal individualism that prizes equality, personal freedom, contractual obligation, private life, and comfort above things like adventure, conquest, honor, and glory, to say nothing of holiness and truth. Unfortunately, as Red River shows, you can’t carve civilization out of the wilderness by following liberal principles—although it is increasingly evident that liberalism can wreck any society that takes it too seriously. Liberalism forces us either to cover up the illiberal origins of our society or to destroy it in a fit of self-loathing. (But there’s another option as well: to embrace the truth about our origins and stop immolating ourselves before the Moloch of liberal norms.)
Red River begins in 1851. A wagon train is headed to California. Pioneers banded together because there is strength in numbers, and strength was needed to confront the dangers of the frontier, including merciless Indian savages. But practically the first thing we see is a wagon pulling away from the safety of the train. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) has decided to strike south for Texas and found a cattle ranc
The leader of the wagon train doesn’t want Dunson to go. They are all safer sticking together. Dunson understands that, but this appeal to rational self-interest falls on deaf ears. He has a vision, and he is willing to accept the risks to follow it. The leader says Dunson agreed to go to California. Dunson says he signed nothing, and as we will soon see, promises on paper mean nothing to him anyway. The leader says that Dunson is too good with a gun to lose. Dunson replies that he’s also too good with a gun to keep. In the end, it comes down to the threat of force.
Dunson has fallen in love on the trail with Fen (Colleen Gray). He wants to leave her behind as well. Founding a ranch is hard, dangerous work. She’s not strong enough. But what about the nights? she asks. Good question, but in Tom’s mind, starting a cattle ranch requires cows for the bulls but not women for the men. Tom promises to send for her when it is safe and gives her his mother’s bracelet (which he himself was wearing) as a token of his pledge.
This opening scene establishes that Tom Dunson is no
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