Monday, January 28, 2008

Red River

Red River is a sweeping Western epic from Howard Hawks, a towering yarn spanning 14 years, with a thousand-mile cattle drive at its center. It's a Western on a grand scale, and Hawks can't always balance the story's epic dimensions with the human conflicts behind them. It's thus very uneven, with the pacing especially falling apart in the last half hour, unraveling what was up until then a very solid film. There's still a lot to love, though, in this hard-edged tale of the fearless cattle baron Dunson (John Wayne), who established his own massive ranch from very humble beginnings, through a combination of hard work and necessary violence, and just a little outright theft. He's established early on as a man willing to do virtually anything to get his way, and who always follows through once he's made up his mind. In establishing his ranch, he leaves behind the woman he loves, who is slaughtered in an Indian raid soon after he heads off, and he adopts the sole survivor, a tough young boy named Matt. Dunson and Matt (together with stalwart character actor Walter Brennan as the sidekick Groot) establish the ranch, but 14 years later the Civil War has taken his toll, and Matt (played as a young man by Montgomery Clift) has just returned from fighting in the war. With the Texas economic system shattered like all of the South, the destitute Dunson can only avoid going broke by making a last-ditch cattle drive north to Missouri to sell his herd.

This massive cattle drive, with almost ten thousand animals, is the center of the film, and this is where Hawks is most successful. In its grand-scale set pieces, with an endless sea of cows and the men driving them hard, the film evokes the grandeur and excitement of the drive in every crowded frame. Hawks fills his usual overloaded frame for once not with people but with animals. The chaotic scenes on the trail, with men and beasts working in tandem to accomplish one difficult feat after another, are masterpieces of large-scale design and action. It helps that these scenes have a Fitzcarraldo-like realism, giving the sense that there really are ten thousand cows being herded, barely under control, over treacherous territory. This is especially true of the grand crossing of the Red River, which is just plain exhilarating filmmaking.

Strangely enough, Hawks handles things more unevenly on the human scale. The cattle drive turns Dunson, increasingly desperate and all too aware of the make-or-break stakes involved, into a tyrannical madman, driving the men harder and harder with less and less rest, and brooking absolutely no dissent or grumbling. The escalating tension in the camp, culminating in Dunson's attempt to hang two men who tried to flee, leads Matt to the breaking point where he can't just follow orders anymore, and he takes over control of the cattle from Dunson with the support of all the other men. This slow ratcheting up of tension is beautifully handled, and the great performances from both Clift and Wayne do a good job of developing their complex relationship. Wayne especially is a virulent force of nature, raging and intense but with the vulnerability of a desperate man underneath it all. When Dunson is left behind, he vows to get his revenge and to kill Matt, and the look on his stone face is enough to sell that he really means it.

Unfortunately, a lot of the effort put into establishing this loving but nonetheless fierce rivalry is tremendously wasted in the film's second half, where with Wayne largely offscreen and a new romantic interest (Joanne Dru) abruptly brought in for Clift, the film falters and eventually falls apart, limping towards an unbearably weak climax that allows all the build-up and suspense to simply deflate. Before this, though, there's a fight against an Indian raiding party, which provides one last jolt of genuine thrilling action as Matt and his men protect a wagon train from an attack. Dru is introduced in the midst of this fight, as the tough and determined Tess, who takes an arrow in her shoulder and keeps talking, gently sparring with Matt, without even skipping a beat as she's hit. It's a great and memorable introduction, typically Hawksian in its pattering dialogue and feigned toughness, a scene good enough to forgive even the obligatory appearance of that most unfortunate of Hollywood tropes, the romantic interest. The goodwill generated by this scene is quickly squandered, though, in a series of unbelievable, sappy, and just plain awkward scenes that seem to have been pasted in from a totally different film. It's painfully obvious just how bad an idea this last-minute romance was, and Hawks seems to realize it as well; these scenes are so sloppy and rushed that not even the least effort is put into making them cohere with the film as a whole.

In addition to the romance, the film is also marred by the lazy and uncinematic use of on-screen titles, uncharacteristic for Hawks, who always knew how to get across his characters' inner conflicts and basic essence in dialogue and visuals alone. The texts in this film purport to be from a historical diary describing the cattle drive, and at the beginning of the film Hawks uses these handwritten inserts, superimposed over images from the drive, simply to transition between geographical locations and describe the progress. This is an understandable, though still probably unnecessary, shortcut, but as the film wears on, the texts increasingly describe the characters' internal states and spell out ideas and thoughts that would have been much better conveyed indirectly. With two strong central performances at the film's heart, it's puzzling that Hawks has no faith in the actors' ability to get across the characters' emotions, and instead resorts to telling us outright that Clift is scared, or that Wayne is enraged.

This would be bad enough, but Tess also manages to disrupt what should have been the grand finale, the inevitable showdown between Matt and Dunson. This confrontation had been hinted at since at least the one-hour mark of the film, and the continual emphasis on both men's quick-draw capabilities promised a tense and powerful showdown between them. But the showdown is quickly and almost bloodlessly defused by the domesticating power of a woman, and all the suspenseful build-up is revealed to be for naught. Instead of a taut standoff that unpacks the complex emotional entanglements between these two men, it's all brushed aside with little ceremony after a few teary-eyed words from the woman who entered the picture out of nowhere only twenty minutes earlier. The surprisingly sunny ending, seemingly coming out of nowhere, is totally at odds with everything else in the film, and it's certainly a rather drastic and unearned change in Wayne's character. If Hawks and the screenwriters had invested more effort into developing Tess, or given Dunson any meaningful screentime in the film's second half, the sudden and lighthearted ending might not have been quite so ludicrous or disappointing. As it is, Hawks betrays what could have been a powerful film with a lackluster and uneven second act, and a climax that simply doesn't exist.


outside dog said...

Red River always reminds me of a comment of Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley on the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: Shylock is a tragic character in a comedy; everything about his character demands a tragic resolution which can't be allowed in the genre.

I think the same thing is true of the Dunson character, except instead of the demands of genre, the filmmakers are crossed by the demands of Hollywood convention and American optimism. Which makes the film a fascinating study from a cultural point of view, and which will probably cause me to stick in my Netflix queue, since I haven't seen it in a few years....

Anonymous said...

Gary Cooper was Hawks's first choice. He agreed, only to have doubts after a second read. Cooper felt that, as written, Red River was basically a shaggy dog story. Cooper felt his character should die at the end, as he had in the Borden Chase Saturday Evening Post serial, or in a duel with Clift.

Hawks refused and Cooper walked.