Anybody who has felt sweated levis bind around his thighs, smelled newly-branded cow hide and chewed on coffee grounds in a pouring rain knows the West contains more than sights and sounds. Yet by using those two elements and much imagination, Howard Hawks has produced a realistic interpretation of the outdoors. Red River is not a horse-opera; it is a great saga of the West, made without contrivance and make-believe.
The outdoors presented here is one of cloud-filled skies and dust-covered prairie. It is a world handled by a small hand of cow-punchers. They cope with their world not be shooting pistols in the air against a tastefully setting sun; they are more genuine than that. They stand guard in the rain; they gripe about their food; they get tried and try to quit. Not once do they leer at some dance-hall floozy in a clap-board Honky-tonk. "Red River" avoids this sort of bunkum and gives a convincing picture of a cowboy's existence, laced as it is with dust-clogged nostrils and empty stomachs.
The major part of the picture concerns the first cattle drive up from Texas after the Civil War. John Wayne has built up his herd only to lose his market to the carpet-baggers. He decides to move his stock of 10,000 head to Missouri and staris his expedition shortly after the film begins. Serving as his foreman is Montgomery Clift, the screen's latest contribution to the deadpan circle. Before the drive is over the two protagonists fall out and Clift leads the herd to the railhead.
Epie because of the tremendous distances and number of cattle involved, the drive determines the large-as-life stature of the picture. The herd scenes are shot full of sincere feeling for the outdoors and their realism is undeniable. The stampede is an awesome spectacle of surging horns and unnumbered cattle, rolling over the land with the inevitability of nightfall. The river-crossing sequence shown steer after steer skidding down a bank, fording the water and crawling up the other side, always threatened with the possibility of quicksand--a threat that contrasts ominously with the cheery sunlight and the random whooping of the out-riders.
The conflict between Clift and Wayne complements the inevitable quality of the drive. Just as the trek up the Chisolm Trail must keep going, so the tension between Clift and Wayne cannot stagnate. As they wind their way across the Panhandle the two men become more and more distraught and their enmity breaks the surface when Wayne threatens to hang two deserters. Clift protects the men, turns against Wayne and takes over the herd, leaving his former partner behind.
Hawkes impressing portrayal of the outdoors breaks down in the final ten minutes. Up to the last scene, Wayne and Clift are motivated by concerns for cattle, self-preservation and pride--understandable feelings. Wayne is out to get Clift, also understandable. But the outdoors doesn't lend itself to a convenient ending. Only the tragically abortive assistance of convention can reconcile the two men. In the last few minutes, "Red River" degenerates as a document of the West and winds up in a burst of horse-operatic fervor. Better see the main part again, partner, to get the bad taste out of your mouth.