Anna Campbell

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A River that Never Runs Dry

When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of old movies and spent many a Sunday afternoon on the couch in the lounge room watching black and white films. Musicals. Historical epics. Romances. Comedies.

But for some reason, I never really got into westerns. They were rough and violent and basically too ‘boy’ for me. The stories didn’t interest me and nor did the characters.

These days, I’m a huge fan of the genre and I wish Hollywood was still making them (and if not Hollywood, then the late lamented Sergio Leone who did some beauties). This month, I’d like to talk about the movie that converted me to a whole genre that previously I hadn’t enjoyed at all.

MFTMay09-1  Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) with John Wayne (who starred in a lot of those films I hadn’t liked) and a young and very sexy Montgomery Clift.

Why did this film work for me when so many others superficially not that different hadn’t? A couple of reasons, I think (not just that Monty C is very easy on the eye!).

MFTMay09-3The first is that this film is very character-focused and the characters are complex and interesting. Red River recounts the first cattle drive from Texas to Abilene along the Chisholm Trail, but the focus of the story is on the relationship between Tom Dunson, John Wayne’s character, and his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift).

Tom Dunson is a heroic character – he builds a huge ranch out of nothing through sheer toughness and grit, then launches what seems an impossible trek to get his cattle to market after the Civil War – but he has megalomaniacal tendencies that end up threatening disaster. His greatest strengths, his stubbornness and courage and single-minded determination, are also the source of his greatest flaw. That’s always an interesting element in a character!

Matthew Garth is another interesting character type. The quiet and courageous man of honor who rises to the occasion  when circumstances dictate. He’s the self-effacing tower of strength who gets the cattle and the men safely to Abilene. He’s the one who is willing to stand up to the man he loves like father and risk death for the sake of what’s right. And while his romance with Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) isn’t a huge element, it adds a wonderful layer of passion to this story that is basically about two quite different alpha males staking out a workable relationship.

MFTMay09-2Another thing that struck me, watching this movie again a week or so ago, is how compact the storytelling is. There’s no wasted scenes, nothing self-indulgent there. An emotional point is made, then the story moves on immediately. No lingering on inessentials. Every moment forwards the story and convinces you of the epic nature of the struggle between these two men and with the environment that has created them.

It’s to Howard Hawks’s credit that the action never overwhelms that central conflict between Dunson and Garth. And also to the credit of Wayne, who I’ve since grown to admire enormously as an actor (check out The Searchers, which like Red River, is another critique of the stereotypical western hero), and Clift that their characters dominate this powerful story rather than find themselves submerged in the sweep of the story.

This is a really great movie. Even if you don’t like westerns, give it a go. You won’t be sorry.

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