Since I'm a relatively mainstream movie goer, it's hard for me to imagine epic films without CGI. There was, however, an age of filmmaking where enormous feats were done for real. There were hundred of extras in the desert during Lawrence of Arabia and a bridge was built for a train to go off of in The Bridge on the River Kwai (coincidentally, both were directed by British filmmaker David Lean). Red River is along the same line of thought for me.
The plot is set during the old west in which rancher Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), his adoptive son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), and a plethora of colorful characters all take part in a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. For some of these shots, hundred of cattle can be seen and the sight is breathtaking. There is some beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan (who apparently had not much experience before he made a film of this scale) and I was at first worried that I wouldn't be able to appreciate the colored landscape as I did in westerns ranging from John Ford's The Searchers to Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit. Yet under the guiding vision of Howard Hawks, this film is as visually compelling as it is narratively.
Speaking of Hawks, I continue to consider him to be the quintessential filmmaker when I think of versatility. His work includes films such as Scarface (gangster), Bringing Up Baby (comedy), His Girl Friday (comedy), Sergeant York (war), The Big Sleep (mystery), and The Thing (science-fiction). The trait I love about Hawks is that he would still play with the conventions and expectations (at the time) of a genre. To make an observation (that might not be as informed as I'd like to imagine), a majority of the western films before Red River strike me as more action-oriented. For its time period, Red River seems to be a stronger example of character development mixed with action, humor, romance, and a great sense of constantly foreboding dramatic tension between Dunson and Garth. The film perhaps gives the wild west the most mythic of feelings.
Comparing the western films I've seen of Wayne, I can sense an evolution of him as an actor. Stagecoach-Wayne is more of the action star, Red River-Wayne is more complex, and The Searchers-Wayne is a fully realized actor. Not to say he was ever a bad performer, I just feel that like say A Fistful of Dollars-Clint Eastwood is different from Unforgiven-Clint Eastwood in the sense of there being a great deal of growth. Once again, this is all just my take on the matter, I'm sure that movie buffs and especially Wayne fans might be able to come up with a few arguments. Wayne's co-star, Clift, was also a revelation. He comes off as this fresh-faced youth and at the same time he can shift into a brooding manner or a love-struck one.
Now, despite Wayne and Clift both giving great and driven performances, I took a small issue with how the film ends (SPOILERS AHEAD).
Dunson and Garth have a falling out leading Garth to take charge and finish the cattle herd so he abandons Dunson. Dunson swears revenge and there is a aura of doom surrounding the last third of the film. Yet when they meet... things get resolved in a matter of moments through a speech by another character. The leads then go from just about to kill each other to wanting to share the cattle. It happened so fast compared to the chunk of time in which one character is getting ready to face the other (and that goes for the supporting characters on the sidelines as well). The idea behind the resolution is good, but the pacing and acting just feels forced as if to give the film a happy ending (one that is also different from the novel).
Like with many classics, I can overlook such things in favor of there being a much stronger and bigger picture. For my last retro review for at least a while, I'm happy I got to both see another side of Hawks and Wayne as well as experience another multi-faceted film of years past.