In 1946, when he was cast opposite John Wayne in Red River (the film’s release would be delayed until 1948), Montgomery Clift was 26 years old. As was common in those days, Clift spent years making a name for himself onstage, appearing on Broadway from the age of 15. Red River was his first movie role, playing in a Western opposite the biggest star of that genre—and not just as a second banana, either. At one point, Wayne’s character, Tom Dunson, disappears from the film for a long stretch, leaving the unknown Clift as its primary attraction. What’s more, Clift’s character, Matt Garth, serves as the audience’s moral compass throughout, behaving decently as Dunson turns more and more single-mindedly cruel. To top it off, this star-is-born role is at the center of what would become one of the most revered Westerns of all time. Not a bad first gig.
Given the impending revolution in Hollywood—Marlon Brando was just two years away from his big-screen debut—it can be tempting to read Dunson and Garth’s clash as a showdown between the old-school and method styles of acting. That isn’t really accurate, though. Clift is no less iconically charismatic than Wayne in this picture (he’d start getting into method acting with 1951’s A Place In The Sun), and the screenplay’s explicit filial conflict, with Dunson as Garth’s surrogate dad, works just fine. As in most Westerns, the story is simple: 14 years after Dunson rescued Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn) from an attack on his wagon train, both men head the first cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail, intending to sell their steers in Missouri. The journey proves arduous, and rumors of a new railroad in Abilene, Kansas—which would be much easier to reach than Missouri—lead to Garth’s discontent with Dunson’s bullheaded insistence on his original plan. When Dunson decides to hang a couple of captured deserters, Garth rebels, taking the herd away and heading for Abilene, knowing full well that Dunson, who Garth can’t bring himself to kill, will surely follow, with the intention of killing him.
True to his nature—and true to the serialized Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase that inspired the script—director Howard Hawks allows this macho conflict to emerge gradually from bonds of deep affection. (Whether he intended what seems like goofy gay subtext, as Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance keep admiring each other’s guns—“Would you like to see mine?”—is another matter.) It’s even implied, though this doesn’t make much sense, that Dunson has been deliberately testing Garth all along, awaiting the moment when he’d finally stand up for himself with decisive action rather than just tough talk. As usual, even the women in Hawks’ movie skew masculine: Joanne Dru turns up late in the film as a romantic interest for Garth (also reminding Dunson of the woman he’d lost many years earlier), and when her character, Tess, gets an arrow in the shoulder mid-sentence, she barely pauses before continuing.
Over the years, Red River has been shown in two different versions, with a longer 133-minute cut seen more frequently than Hawks’ preferred 127-minute cut (the one originally released). Criterion’s combination DVD/Blu-ray release includes both, but clearly endorses the shorter version, which features narration by Dunson’s sidekick, Groot (Walter Brennan), rather than diary pages conveying the same information, plus some other minor alterations. Both cuts of the film dramatically change Chase’s original ending, however, in which one of the characters had a significantly grimmer fate than the one depicted on-screen. The abrupt, happily-ever-after conclusion of the film admittedly feels a bit false, but it also provides an unexpected surge of emotion, which is more cathartic than your standard restoration of order allows for. It’s a thoroughly Hawksian ending, in other words, which is arguably much more valuable than mere plausibility.