Red River (1948)
Dir: Howard Hawks
Stars: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Harry Carey AND Harry Carey, Jr. and John Ireland
This post is a personal one, as it was a favorite of one of my dear friends who passed this time last year, Yatz Gundrum. For anyone who knew this big hearted, hilarious, generous and gentle giant, he naturally earned his comparison to The Duke – although maybe not as the famous actor played Thomas Dunson in Red River. Anyhow, it kind of became a tradition for a few years that my parents would get Yatz a calendar to hang in the kitchen dedicated to John Wayne.
I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I love movies so much is the social currency they provide. When you, your buddy and everyone at the table has seen a movie, you can quote it, you can use it for a metaphor, to make a point – or to punch that joke in at the right time. To Yatz’s credit, he would use Red River that way. For many a Holiday Season, my brother and Dad and I would be sitting with Yatz – sometimes just in the quiet of the fire at our house, other times surrounded by more friends and family at The Gundrum Annual New Year Party – and a philosophical discussion would sprout. Invariably, Yatz would interject just when the conversation was veering towards the overly-serious, “Well, y’know, all ya gotta know about life is contained in the first [40 minutes] of Red River.”
Now, why do I place the brackets around “40 minutes?” That’s because I feel like the estimate varied depending upon Yatz’s mood and the evening’s subject and intensity! Sometimes it was 20 minutes, other times an even 30 – but I distinctly remember this variation being part of the fun of the River reference. And, to his credit again, Mr. Gundrum had great taste in movies. This western classic deserves its place in the annals of impressive films in the genre for a variety of reasons, which we’ll spend a few minutes on here.
The film is simple and direct in its storytelling, its themes and direction. The reason I entitled this entry, “You Want It? Earn It!” is that essentially, that’s the log-line, the very central question of the film. In the opening scene, John Wayne as Thomas Dunson leaves a cattle drive he joined in St. Louis. He likes the land they’re on, and he sees plenty more superior grazing land south into Texas he’d like to cultivate towards the grandest cattle ranch in the territory. To that end, half a day after he leaves the drive, he and his partner Nadine Groot – played by the imitable Walter Brennan with his distinctive voice – see that the drive was likely overtaken by Comanches. After their own violent brawl with the Natives that evening, they happen upon a boy named Matthew Grant the next day.
Well, this boy – who inevitably grows up to become Montgomery Clift, you see – doesn’t like the idea that on Dunson’s ranch the brand is only going to have a “D” on the logo. Why not an “M” as well? And Dunson’s response is simple – you wanna have your name on the brand… you gotta earn it. Frankly, much of the film fits my friend’s lifetime philosophy of basically, “are we doing it, or aren’t we?” Are we gambling this evening, or not? You wanna go to the game, or not? “We having another Mr. Gundrum Drink (MGD, Miller Genuine Draft) before the paper hits the driveway… or not?”
Perhaps better demonstrated within the context of River, there is another scene in which the men sign a contract. The movie has shifted to 15 years later – so now Clift joins the tale – and Texas is out of money. So, if Dunson wants to earn what’s fair for his cattle, he’s going to have to get them to market. Now, think about 1865. It’s the year the Civil War ended. The train is still making its way into the Western states. How do you get 9-10,000 cattle from around San Antonio to Missouri – or Abilene, Kansas, as the story eventually goes? Upon a little research, that’s about more than 700 miles. And, as the film unfolds, it takes this little band of drovers over 100 days to arrive, so… that’s pretty slow going. Not to mention all the obstacles along the way, like rain, angry Natives, various waterways, internal gunfights from sheer frustration, rivalry and boredom – and a stampede.
This scene, dear movie lovers, is “the scene” from Red River. You know how you watch an old classic – like Ben-Hur comes to mind – and the scene reminds you of scenes from today’s movies? Well, the stampede from this Western holds up with anything from this modern era as far as I’m concerned. There is incredible photography, suspense and a few jaw dropping stunts in the mix that really happened based on what I saw. Regardless, while Red River might have its share of dated material – particularly under our habit lately of applying today’s norms and politics to older material – this scene certainly sets itself apart, and makes you appreciate all the movies of old that laid the groundwork for a 1917 or Ford v Ferrari or perhaps more appropriately, Costner’s Open Range from a few years back?
At the end of the day, the film is riddled with moments of, “Will ya? Or won’t’cha??” The arch of the younger Garth compared to the aging Dunson is fascinating and keeps you interested. And so, I wish ol’ Yatz were around so I could ask him why just the first Act of the film was so essential to him, as I find the entirety quite worthwhile!
Regardless, on the one year anniversary of his passing, we offer this humble review of Yatz’s favorite, Red River. I am always glad when I see it – just like I was always glad to see my friend the many years I lived across the street from him and later when I visited home having moved to L.A. And it’s with a heavy heart I encourage you to check out Red River for yourself. If you’ve never seen it, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did. If you have, it’s well worth a re-watch, as all classics change and flow with you as you age. And if you were lucky enough to know Yatz, well… it’ll certainly remind you of him.