Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Screen shot from Red River (1948)

This famous motion picture was directed by Howard Hawks, with a script by Charles Schnee and Bordon Chase (from his Saturday Evening Post serial) and music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Released in 1948, Red River featured John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, and Joanne Dru plus a number of actors who appeared in Westerns from the silent film era through the television era. The film was shot at Rain Valley Ranch at Elgin (near Tucson), Arizona.

Lying at the intersection of history and myth, Red River is the story of the first cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene, Kansas, and, according to Hawks, the story of Texas's famed King Ranch. Beginning with one cow, which belongs to the orphaned youngster Matt Garth (Clift), and his own bull, Tom Dunson (Wayne) builds a herd of 10,000 cattle on the Red River d ranch north of the Rio Grande. But by the end of the Civil War there is no market for beef in impoverished Texas. In desperation Dunson decides to drive his entire herd north to Sedalia, Missouri, in spite of the dangers of weather, rustlers, Indians, and stampedes. As living and working conditions for his cowboys deteriorate, Dunson becomes more and more tyrannical. In spite of reports of bandits in Missouri and the possibility of an alternative market in Abilene, he continues to drive his men ruthlessly toward the original destination. When Dunson threatens to hang two recaptured deserters Matt seizes control of the drive. Incensed, the wounded Dunson vows to catch up and kill him. Later, the drive encounters a wagon train of gamblers and women headed to Nevada, and cardsharper Tess Millay (Dru) falls in love with Matt. When the drive reaches Abilene they find the railroad and buyers waiting for them, and Matt sells the herd for a good price. Dunson arrives the next day. However, instead of the gunfight that all had expected, neither man will shoot the other. A fistfight ensues that Tess halts by firing a pistol. Tess points out that their actions indicate that Dunson and Matt must actually love each other, and in recognition of the successful completion of the cattle drive, Dunson volunteers to add Matt's "M" to the Red River d brand.

While lacking the iconographic images of John Ford's Westerns, Red River has a number of memorable sequences, including the beginning of the cattle drive (a 180-degree pan followed by nineteen insert shots of yahooing cowboys), the crossing of the Red River, the stampede, Wayne reading over the grave of a dead cowboy, cattle herds choking the streets of Abilene, and the climactic fistfight. As in many of Hawks's films, Red River includes themes of male camaraderie and professionalism, and the primary relationship is not the one that includes the actress. The conflict between Tom Dunson and Matt Garth is not only generational but reflects the tension between Dunson's virtue of grim individual determination and Matt's "softer" virtues that build community.

William M. Wehrbein Nebraska Wesleyan University

Bogdanovich, Peter. Who the Devil Made It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Mast, Gerald. Howard Hawks, Storyteller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

McBride, Joseph. Hawks on Hawks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

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