The Old West done right: 'Red River'

By Tom Von Malder | Jun 08, 2014
Photo by: MGM Pictures John Wayne, left, and Montgomery Clift star in "Red River."

Owls Head — Red River (1948, Criterion, 2 Blu-ray and 2 standard DVDs, NR, 127/133 min.). "Red River" was director Howard Hawkes' first Western, marked the film debut of Montgomery Clift and introduced John Wayne playing a harder, more stoic character than he had previously. Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, an embittered Texas rancher, who, out of money, decides to move 9,000 to 10,000 head of cattle from Texas, where there is no market, to Missouri, a thousand miles away, where there is a market. During the long, dangerous cattle drive, Dunson becomes even more tyrannical, driving a wedge between he and his independent-minded adopted son (Clift playing Matthew Garth). The setting is in the wake of the collapse of the Southern economy in the Civil War.

Things start to go wrong for Dunson from the start. In 1851, he is part of a wagon train headed for California, but he leaves the others behind to settle in Texas, taking only a couple of cattle and a cook (Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot). His forces his love, Fen (Coleen Gray), to stay with the wagon train; only hours later, they see signs of a large fire, evidence that Indians have attacked the wagon train. The next day, young Matthew catches up with them, along with the other cow that will breed the beginning of their future herd. Dunson is hard from the start, taking a vast amount of land from its current owner, who lives in Mexico, and killing anyone who is sent to question his ownership.

The main part of the film starts 14 years later. Matthew has returned to help on the months-long cattle drive, which ultimately becomes the first great cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. During the drive, Dunson becomes implacable, much like Ahab, and pushes his men beyond endurance. After a couple of brief insurrections are harshly put down, Matthew reluctantly steps in and takes over the drive, leaving Dunson behind and heading for the more reachable destination of Abilene, Kansas, where a new rail line has opened. Of course, Dunson is vengeful and rounds up some men to follow the cattle drive. There is a showdown coming and it is liable to be deadly. The intervention of a late-emerging character, Tess (Joanne Dru), a younger woman Matthew has rescued from another Indian attack, changes the ending (some say in a controversial manner, but certainly a memorable one). Throughout the film is Dimitri Tiomkin's classic score.

The dual-disc edition includes two versions of the film: the theatrical version and the longer pre-release version. In the 17-minute interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich in the extras, he explains that Hawkes preferred the shorter theatrical version, the main difference being it had narration by Brennan between scenes rather than the hard-to-read book pages. However, Hawkes did prefer the fuller ending on the pre-release version, but had to change it due to a lawsuit brought by Howard Hughes that said the ending was too much like his film "The Outlaw," which Hakes had worked on. Other extras include an interview with critic Molly Haskell about Hawkes and the film; an interview with film scholar Lee Clark Mitchell about the Western genre; audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawkes and Bogdanovich; audio excerpts from a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase (a softcover edition of Chase's source novel, "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail," also is included; it had been out of print); a 1949 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of "Red River," featuring Wayne, Dru and Brennan; and a booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1991 interview with frequent Hawkes editor, Christian Nyby. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Rawhide: The Eighth and Final Season (1965, CBS/Paramount, 4 DVDs, NR, 11 hours 10 min.). Another cattle drives comes to an end with the final 13 episodes of the series that made Clint Eastwood a household name. Eastwood plays Rowdy Yates, now the trail boss. During the season, Yates is taken hostage by a family of crooked horse traders and is nearly hanged; a couple of drovers (Quince and Simon) are trapped in an old mine with a bear; the drovers find themselves in the middle of a battle between suffragettes and the men of Broken Bluff, who will stop at nothing to deny women the right to vote; and the whole crew is caught in the middle of a war between a Confederate family and a Union family. Guest stars include Bruce Dern, Rip Torn, Cesar Romero; Charles Bronson and Rory Calhoun. Grade: season 3.5 stars

Cimarron Strip: The Complete Series (1967-68, eONE, 8 DVDs, NR, 27+ hours). This CBS Western series stars Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown, tasked with maintaining justice and enforcing the peace in 1888 in the Cimarron Strip, the border region between Kansas and Indian Territory. Co-stars include Percy Herbert, Randy Boone and Jill Townsend. Guest stars include Richard Boone, Beau Bridges, David Carradine, Joseph Cotten, Broderick Crawford., Robert Duvall, Mariette Hartley, Darren McGavin, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Suzanne Pleshette, Telly Savalas, John Saxon, Tom Skerritt, Jon Voigt and Tuesday Weld. Episodes include an outlaw launching robberies from a Cherokee camp; the emotionally unstable son of a wealthy rancher; an old Army sergeant feels unneeded; a $500 bounty is placed on Marshal Crown; Deputy MacGregor (Herbert)  is sentenced to be hanged for murder; a bank robber vows to kill the marshal after the lawman brings him notoriety as a consummate dunce; and two dance hall girls are murdered a la Jack the Ripper. There are 23 90-minute episodes. There is a bonus exclusive interview with Whitman. Grade: series 3.5 stars

Maverick: The Complete Fifth Season (1961-62, Warner Archives, 3 DVDs, NR, 650 min.). As you can see, there was a lot of haulin' oats on TV in the 1960s, part of the Golden Age of Westerns. For the fifth season of the very fondly remembered "Maverick," the only original episodes featured Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick. These 13 episodes alternated with reruns featuring James Garner as Bret Maverick, as Garner did not return for the fifth and final season. Gambler Bart has to confront crooked senators, sleazy bankers, glamorous grifters, a wish-granting leprechaun and even "Bonanza"-spoofing ranchers. Guest stars include Sig Ruman, Marie Windsor, Reginald Owen, Kathleen Crowley and Jim Backus. Garner eventually did return to his classic role, playing Bret in "The New Maverick" TV movie (1978) and the "Bret Maverick" series (1981-82), both of which guest-starred Kelly as Bart. Warner Archive titles are manufactured on demand and available through warnerarchive.com. Grade: season 3 stars

Also available are:

The Oklahoma Kid (1939, Warner Archive DVD, NR, 80 min.). James Cagney plays the title character, the range-riding rascal of the Cherokee Strip and the territory's most-wanted outlaw. Playing his black-clad enemy, Whip McCord, is Humphrey Bogart. McCord turns Tulsa into a den of corruption, so leading citizen John Kincaid (Hugh Sothern) announces plans to clean up the town.. McCord frames the old man for murder, not knowing the Oklahoma Kid is Kincaid's son. Rosemary Lane co-stars, Lloyd Bacon directs and the music is by the great Max Steiner. Warner Archive titles are manufactured on demand and available through warnerarchive.com.

The Revengers (1972, CBS/Paramount DVD, PG, 108 min.). William Holden plays John Benedict, a Civil War veteran who has become a rancher. While he is out on a hunting trip, a renegade and his gang kill his wife and children. Benedict recruits six condemned men to enact his revenge. They include Hoop (Ernest Borgnine) and Job (Woody Strode). However, Benedict soon realizes his new posse answers to no one and they are unpredictable killers as well.

Test Pilot (1938, Warner Archive DVD, NR, 119 min.). Clark Gable plays test pilot Jim Lane, who says, "The sky looks sweet and wears a pretty blue dress ... and when she gets you up there, she knocks you right down." Myrna Loy plays Lane's wife, Ann, and Spencer Tracy plays his mechanic and best friend, Gunner. Lane compensates for his dangerous profession by living a fast, reckless life. On a coast to coast record attempt speed flight, Jim's plane, the Drake Bullet, has some mechanical problems and Lane is forced to make an emergency landing on a farmer's field in Kansas. The farm belongs to the Barton family, whose straight talking daughter (Loy) falls for Jim, and vice versa. They impulsively decide to get married and live in New York. The film is loaded with realistic flying sequences and is directed by Victor Fleming ("Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz"). Warner Archive titles are manufactured on demand and available through warnerarchive.com.

Flying Tigers (1942, Olive/Paramount Blu-ray, NR, 102 min.). Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a small and daring band of American mercenaries soared into battle against Japan in defense of China's freedom. They were called the Flying Tigers and among America's hottest ace pilots. John Wayne plays Capt. Jim Gordon, their leader. A problem arises when Gordon's good friend and fellow ace pilot, Woody Jason (John Carroll), is suspected of recklessly endangering the lives of his fellow pilots. The film is directed by David Miller ("Lonely Are the Brave") and features a rousing score by Victor Young, which garnered one of its three Academy Award nominations. The other nominations were for sound recording and special effects.

Home of the Brave (1949, Olive/Paramount, Blu-ray, NR, 86 min.). Based on a play by Arthur Laurents (wrote the book for "West Side Story"), the film recounts the story of a young black soldier (James Edwards as Peter Moss) who has suffered a mental breakdown and developed psychosomatic paralysis. Literally crippled by rage and trauma, his condition was induced by his experiences during a reconnaissance mission, combined with a lifetime of racial discrimination. He may be able to walk again, if he can overcome his anger and frustrations. Jeff Corey plays his doctor, while two of his fellow squadron members are Sgt. Mingo (Frank Lovejoy) and Major Robinson (Douglas Dick). Steve Brodie and Lloyd Bridges play the other two soldiers on the mission with Ming and Moss in flashbacks. For its time, this was quite the progressive film.

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