“Funny how different you feel,” cattleman Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) relates near the end of “Red River,” “when you know you’re going somewheres.” He’s right, but his is a sojourner’s satisfaction, marking the conclusion of a long expedition. For viewers of Howard Hawks’ mythic 1948 Western, the foremost pleasure is in the odyssey itself.
Adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from Chase’s novel “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,” first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and included in The Criterion Collection’s new dual-format boxed set, the film opens on a westbound wagon train passing through North Texas in August, 1851. Ambitious, stubborn rancher Tom Dunson (John Wayne) — “a mighty set man,” Groot explains — possesses an unshakeable conviction that land further south is the keystone of his imagined empire, and even the love of a good woman (Coleen Gray) cannot slow his pursuit. He leaves her with his mother’s bracelet, but Hawks and cinematographer Russell Harlan compose the separation as though a fateful crossroads. While the endless train of pioneers shuffles past behind them, Dunson and Groot’s wagon carves through the foreground to reveal the lone woman in the center, dwarfed by looming, distant peaks. Dunson will never see her again.
This geography of the places in between, mirrored by the perpendicular lines of Dunson’s departure or the parallel double-S of his cattle brand — “like the banks of a river,” he says — emerges as the film’s primary terrain. The eponymous waterway, after all, is neither origin nor destination, but turning point: the hinge on which the action swings. It’s near the Red River that Dunson and Groot meet orphaned tough Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), whom Dunson straightens out with a few sharp smacks to the face, fleecing Garth of his pistol in the process. “Don’t ever trust anybody ’til you know ’em,” Dunson warns.
Garth joins up on the promise that Dunson’s brand will one day bear an “M,” and the trio strikes out for unclaimed territory, finally settling on a spot near the Rio Grande. The most remarkable sequence in the film winnows the realization of Dunson’s vision to a dreamlike fourteen-year leap forward, set to the gravelly melody of Wayne’s voice — destiny manifested by the incantatory rhythms of the rancher’s poetic blueprint. Once again, though, Hawks concerns himself with the transitory, the in-between, the impermanent: as soon as we learn that Dunson has achieved his grand plan, the camera zooms out from Wayne’s face to reveal him huddled with Groot and Garth (played in the adult years by Montgomery Clift), discussing the dream’s deconstruction. The poverty plaguing the South after the Civil War leaves Dunson without buyers, flat broke and ready to drive his livestock from whence he came.
The final two thirds of the film wrestle a tangle of loose ends. Dunson offers only a vague notion of his terminus (“Missouri”), and from the montage of yelling faces at the outset all the way to the banks of the Red River, it’s the progress of the drive itself that propels the narrative. As Groot’s narration counts the elapsing days and Dunson’s tyrannical leadership leaves the men, like the cattle, “spooky and restless,” Hawks constructs a world of relentless movement: stampeding hooves, swaths of steer tumbling over hillocks, a wagon fording a river as seen from behind the rider’s seat. The effect is an increasingly feckless urgency. Dunson pushes his men to eke out three or four more miles before sundown, but the cattle drive’s conclusion shimmers as though heat on the horizon, a disorienting trick of the eye.
Even the film’s undercurrent of homoeroticism is the result, you might say, of misdirection. As Geoffrey O’Brien explains in his excellent liner notes, the promised rivalry between Garth and Cherry Valance (John Ireland) evaporated after Hawks wrote Ireland out of the second half, leaving only rumors of Clift and Ireland’s off-screen affair and the characters’ flirtatious, foreboding early exchanges. Though the phallic thrust of Cherry’s comment about guns and Swiss watches (video below) receives much of the attention, their first meeting establishes the tension that gives what Groot calls their “peculiar kind of fun” its frisson of illicitness. The way Cherry locks eyes on Garth is almost predatory, like a wolf sizing up a fresh-faced lamb: aching for a taste.
By the time the film returns to Red River, where Garth overthrows his imperious adoptive father in a betrayal worthy of the Greeks, it’s clear that Hawks has forged a true frontier classic — a “Western” in which most of the action occurs in the liminal space between “East” and “West,” between convention and invention, at crossroads and river crossings rather than ranches and towns. That the narrative comes to its speedy and surprising end not in Missouri but in Abilene, Kansas, where the railroad is always just passing through, seems to me a perfect emblem of Hawks’ humane understanding that nothing is inevitable, no matter the blueprint in our dreams. In “Red River,” the destination of life’s long cattle drive is never more specific than “somewheres.” The lines marked on the map are just stops along the way.