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Red River (Blu-ray Review)

9 Jun, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan.

Howard Hawks’ all-timer, with a screenplay mostly by Borden Chase (father of dancer Barrie, by the way), is less about a passing of the guard than a sharing of it. So is the movie, in that so much of its greatness stems from its then old-school/new-school teaming of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, though let’s remember that Wayne was only about 40 when he was asked to play an older man, a major reason why it’s the first movie in which he was taken seriously as an actor. The only time Wayne seems young here is in the earliest scenes, including the one where Coleen Gray makes one of the most memorable single-scene impressions an actress ever made on screen as the wagon-train force of nature Wayne won’t take along with him to the next stage of his life, to bitter regret that colors the rest of the picture.

Clift predated Marlon Brando and obviously James Dean to the screen for what was technically his screen debut, though Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (filmed second) beat Red River to the screen by about six months. This did not in any way diminish the thrill of audience discovery because the actor was so good as an American G.I. in postwar Berlin that he ended up getting an Oscar nomination. And, in fact, anyone who saw The Search probably couldn’t wait for Clift to show up on screen in the Hawks epic, though youngster Mickey Kuhn is very good — and generally unheralded — as the younger version of Clift’s character, Matthew Garth (who thinks his name should be represented along with that of Wayne’s Thomas Dunson in the brand that appears on all their cows). According to one of the disc extras, Hawks had about 1,500 at his disposal (though they’re made to look like more) for his central duo to transport from Texas to a detour from Missouri amid lots of Dunson-Garth conflict that partly emanates from the latter’s surrogate-son status. 

Though I hadn’t seen it in at least 20 years, River was always in my all-time top 10 throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, dating from the time I first saw it on TV in 1959 at either age 11 or 12. And it is still my favorite Hawks movie, with Only Angels Have Wings the runner-up. There are two versions, and both are here: a longer pre-release one that doesn’t utilize Walter Brennan’s fine narration (as these things go) and a shorter Brennan-employed one that slightly truncates the final showdown sequence, though not by as much as I figured. What drives me batty here is that every print I’ve seen since the early 1960s fails to contain a bit that I swear I remember from my earliest viewings: an off-camera Indian getting killed by Wayne/Dunson (probably by knife) as the former makes rudely Duke-interrupted creature sounds, to magnificent black-comic effect. As it stands now, the scene ends before this confrontation and cuts to some vultures — such an abrupt and non-dramatic transition that I think my memory must be right.

This is a thick, box-like Criterion release, even containing a soft-cover copy of Chase’s source novel Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, which I used to have in paperback as a kid under the Red River title. In sundry supplements, there is all kinds of discussion of the film’s ending — which (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) seems to be leading to tragedy but takes, to the minds of many or most, an abrupt turn. I’ve always been in the minority (of critics, at least) who prefers the choice Hawks made, so I am naturally delighted here when interviewed Molly Haskell says she feels the same way. Peter Bogdanovich talks about some litigation by Howard Hughes over another aspect of the ending, which explains in part why the pre-release cut is longer. There’s also a Geoffrey O’Brien essay plus an interview with editor (and credited director on the Hawks-produced The Thing) Christian Nyby; a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1949; and a new interview with academic Lee Clark Mitchell that makes so much sense that I’m anxious to dig further into his career.

Both versions of the film get 2K spiff-ups here, though I’ve never seen a print of the film that didn’t at least minimally reflect how many prints must have been run off the negative over decades of constant exhibition. The soundtrack has always sounded a little muffled even for its day, though as ever, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score takes an already great movie and shoots it into the stratosphere. There’s quite a bit of grain here, so try to sit back from your screen — though what I noticed on a 57-inch screen was invisible on a 40-incher. In any event, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the movie look this good (and I ran it in 35mm a few times back in my programming days). You really get a sense of the “glisten” on Clift’s hair tonic here, which is something you don’t have to worry about when it comes to Wayne and especially Walter Brennan, whose character’s false teeth set up what is probably the movie’s funniest gag.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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