Anybody who thinks John Wayne couldn’t act hasn’t seen Red River, Howard Hawks’ epic western about the first cattle drive along the Chisholm trail from the Rio Grande to Abilene, Kansas. While Wayne is, to some extent, playing himself, a dark, domineering, right-wing asshole, he’s also playing himself very well. Under the guiding hand of a great director, a John Ford or a Howard Hawks, those same qualities that would later turn The Duke into a parody of American masculinity could also be used as part of a critique of American masculinity.
Here he stars as Thomas Dunson, a Texas cattle rancher and professional gun slinger. After his fiancée is killed in an Indian raid, Dunson heads south, taking Nadine Groot, a trusty sidekick played by Walter Brennan, and Matt Garth, his adopted son, along with him to the Rio Grande. 15 years later, the Civil War is over. Matt Garth has grown up to become Montgomery Clift and Thomas Dunson owns the biggest cattle ranch in the Southwest. In August of 1865, with the south flat on its back, there’s no market in Texas for 10,000 heads of beef, but there is a market in the Northeast. If he can get his cattle to the railhead at Abilene, Kansas, Thomas Dunson will become one of the richest men in America.
Driving 10,000 heads of beef over 1000 miles through Texas in 1865 is no easy task. The same Indians are still on the warpath. There are criminal gangs. The trails are bad, and there’s no dependable source of water along the way. Above all, it’s hard to get good help. The United States Army has not yet been moved from Northern Virginia to the West. Cowboys have to double as security guards. It’s not enough for Dunson to be a good cattleman and a good shot. He has to be a leader of men, to maintain discipline for a small force of armed civilians as they cart the equivalent of a sackful of gold through a wild, untamed country to a railhead that may, or may not exist. He fails miserably.
Thomas Dunson is no Robert E. Lee. With every difficulty, a massive stampede that destroys the expedition’s supply train, a shortage of water, the sheer misery of living for months out in the open, he loses men. While Dunson, who’s a clear influence on John Ford and The Searchers, is no racist like Ethan Edwards, he might just be worse. He rules, not through his intelligence or his charisma, but through sheer terror. After he tries to lynch two men who broke their contract, stole supplies, and tried to escape, Matt Garth leads a mutiny. He takes over his adoptive father’s herds, and successfully leads them to Abilene, where he sells them at a great profit.
If Red River has any fault, it’s that Howard Hawks can’t quite finish the story he so brilliantly starts. Thomas Dunson is the prototypical libertarian, tyrant, a Randian superman who not only demands total obedience from his employees, but winds up raising an army of hired killers to go after his own adopted son. The happy ending, and the absurd romance between Garth and a woman he helps save from marauding Indians, seem tacked on, rushed, artificial. Hawks is a genius on the level of John Ford. He’s also a conservative Republican who loves his country, so he pulls his punches. Matt Garth gets his father’s cattle to Abilene, but Howard Hawks can’t take Red River through to its logical conclusion. He could have driven a dagger right through the heart of American capitalism. He declines.
The Indians, needless to say, never become anything more than a faceless part of the landscape.